Over the years I’ve seen many runners fail to progress in their training or live up to the potential that one would expect they should. Others end up being “workout kings”, that is, runners who look great in training or early season races but always seem to fall short when it comes to the races that matter most.
Often these runners get labelled as “head cases” or people who “just aren’t tough enough.”
Usually, what I find is that these folks are making one or more of several common training mistakes that runners can be prone to making. If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions you might want to have a look at these mistakes and see if you’ve fallen into these traps.
1. Training the same way all the time.
We runners tend to be creatures of habit. Tons of recreational runners out there run the same distance at roughly the same pace day after day after day. This is fine for general health purposes and does allow you to maintain a certain base level of fitness, but if you want to break through to a higher level, you’ll need to change things up a bit.
One of Renato Canova‘s training “secrets” (fortunately he’s so willing to share information on his programs that it’s not really a secret) is to have what calls a big “modulation” of workouts. In other words, his runners do some very tough workouts, but they also have many very easy (for them!) days where they give their bodies a chance to fully recover and adapt in preparation for the next big effort.
To reach your best level you need to run hard sometimes, and the harder you train, the more you have to allow for proper recovery in order to get optimal adaptation and avoid over-training or injury.
2. Doing too much, too soon.
If I had to pick one mental trait that’s most important to success in running, it would be patience. You can’t reach your best level overnight or even in a year or two. So many times I see runners looking for advice on how to run a fast time in a race that’s only a couple of weeks or a month away. If that’s the case, there’s not much I or anyone else can do for them.
It takes 5, 10 or even 15 years to reach your top level, whatever that may be. Runners who are impatient tend to try to progress to quickly or ramp up their training before they are really ready for it. Then they succumb to injury, illness or burnout which hampers the consistency of their training and thus their progress. Often they get discouraged, further impairing their training and it leads to a vicious cycle of struggle.
3. Training based on the shape they wish they were in, not their current level.
Often runners want to know what kind of workouts they need to do to run a certain race performance. They ask questions like, “How fast do I have to be able to run 10x400m to be able to run a 4:30 mile.” I could give them a time that I’d expect for someone at that fitness level, say 66 to 68 seconds, but it’s irrelevant. This is a backwards way of approaching training.
For one thing, different runners of equal ability often run varying times for the same workout. One runner might have better endurance and might run longer reps or tempo faster than others, while another type of runner might run better short reps, yet both runners might run very similar race times at a range of distances.
For another thing, depending on your current fitness, 66 or 68 second 400m reps might be more like 800m, 1,000m or, if you’re in great shape, 3,000m pace. In either case, even if you can suck it up and run those 66 second quarters(or if you take long enough rest breaks to run them at that pace), you won’t be training your energy systems in quite the same way that you need for the 1,500m. It might be a great 800m workout, but it’s not going to help you progress optimally in the 1,500m.
Instead, a better approach is to get on the start line and run a race to see exactly where you’re at in terms of fitness and design workouts for a runner of your current ability. You’ll make better progress that way and reduce the chance of injury and over-training.
4. Failure to pace yourself properly.
This is another symptom of impatience. If you watch a high school mile race run in 4:32, you might see 400m split times of 64, 66, 72 and 70. The lap times might average 68 seconds, but the runners in that race could have run considerably faster with proper pacing. They run too fast early on, build up too much oxygen debt and struggle the final two laps as a result.
Recreational marathoners are often just as bad. Look at the 1st and 2nd half splits of most runners in any given race and you’ll see times of 1:35/1:50, or 1:45/2:00 or even 1:28/2:34 as I did in my first completed attempt at a marathon!
Instead, look at how the top runners divide their energy over the course of a race. In a 4:00 minute mile, averaging 60 seconds per 400m, you’ll rarely see any given lap faster than 58 seconds or slower than 62. The top marathoners generally run their best times with halfway splits that are within one to two minutes of each other.
Evenly paced races are the key to getting the most out of your fitness on a given day.
5. Racing in Training.
For some runners, a hard workout means running at the same effort they would in a race. While you can benefit from doing very hard workouts on occasion, running your workouts flat out on a regular basis is too exhausting and stressful to repeat on a regular basis. Arthur Lydiard famously advised his runners to “Train, not strain”, and that advice is just as valid as when it was uttered 50 years ago.
I found that when I raced my workouts, I often didn’t have sufficient physical or mental energy on hand for the actual races. I’d exhibit a lot of “toughness” (read: stupidity) during workouts, but would often quit too easily when the going got tough in a race. As I matured as a runner and learned to stay relaxed and in control of my workouts, I found I had a lot more fight left for the races, when it counted the most.
How about you? Do you see some of these mistakes in your own training? Do you have other mistakes you’d like to add to this list? If so, send me a comment and I’ll address them in a future article.