Training: Fast Fixes

Take a close look at your training: the chances are, you're making some common mistakes, but a few simple tweaks can help fill in the blanks and transform your running


Posted: 3 January 2006
by Greg McMillan

Running is simple: just put one foot in front of the other, and keep repeating. It’s a shame, then, that training for peak fitness and performance isn’t as easy. No matter how much or how little experience runners have – elite, beginner or anywhere in between – they almost all make the same training mistakes that hinder their performance and increase their injury risk. Whether you’ve been running for 20 days or 20 years, you’re likely to be tripping yourself up with at least one of these most common training errors. Here’s how to identify your problem areas, and the fast fixes you need to put yourself back on the road to reaching your full potential.

Mistake: You think "easy" is a four-letter word
Well, "easy" is a four-letter word, it just isn't a bad one. Some runners are afraid ever to slow down and allow their bodies to recover from a hard session, long run or race. They push the pace on every run. Many coaches list this as the most common training mistake they see. Why? Because runners assume that the harder they train, the faster they'll run. Of course, that's not exactly how it works. Distance running is not like some explosive sports where a consistent programme of very-short-duration, high-intensity training is the key to success. Endurance runners must provide stress to the body in a controlled way – not all-out, all the time. After subjecting the body to the stress of a hard run, you need to let your body recover, for it is during this recovery time that the body rebuilds itself and becomes stronger. If you stress the body again with another hard run before you have fully recovered, you dramatically increase your risk of injury and burnout. Going out hard on every run also short-changes your ability to perform at your peak during the key workouts that will ultimately make you a stronger runner and faster racer. As a general rule, you need at least one easy recovery run after every hard session you do.

Fast Fixes

  • To rein yourself in on easy runs, wear a heart-rate monitor on all recovery days. Keep your heart rate 10 to 15 beats per minute lower than your normal training heart rate.
  • On recovery days, make plans to run with someone who is generally slower than you. Hold back and let them take the lead during the entire run.
  • If all else fails, stop once every 15 minutes and tighten your shoe laces. It may sound silly, but forcing yourself to stop at regular intervals keeps the pace from becoming faster and faster. Use the stops to remind yourself to run easy. As an added bonus, you'll improve your lace-tying technique, just in case they come undone in the middle of a race.
Mistake: You train harder than you race
You know you have a problem when you consistently dominate during training, only to fall short of your goals during races. Many runners make this mistake. To increase your running fitness, each quality run you schedule needs to be done at the optimal level for that session, not at an all-out pace. Tempo runs, for example, which help you increase your lactate threshold (the speed you are able to run at before lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood), should be completed at a pace about 20 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace or 30 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace. By regularly running at this pace, you teach your body to run faster before lactic acid begins to slow you down. When you run faster than tempo pace, however, your body isn't able to make the same adaptations and you won't see improvements in your lactate threshold. The idea is not to thrash yourself on every run, but to complete every session at the appropriate pace.

Fast Fixes

  • Always know the goal pace for each quality run and record it in your log. Then stick to it.
  • Don't allow training partners to suck you into racing a session. If you train with others, decide each person's pace before the start of the run. Base your pace on your goals and abilities and disregard what others are doing around you.
  • Learn what an optimal pace feels like so you don't have to become overly dependent on your watch. To make this happen, take notice of things including your breathing patterns, stride rate, and overall comfort level when you sustain a controlled effort. Once you know how you typically feel when running at the right pace, you'll be able to recreate that effort level without staring at your watch.
Mistake: It's Tuesday (or Monday or Friday). You will run for 40 minutes
You love your running routine and never stray from it, religiously running the same route, at the same pace, with the same social group, every day. Lots of runners stay semi-fit this way, and it certainly beats doing nothing at all. But over time that routine run will burn fewer calories and you'll reap fewer cardiovascular benefits.
If you don't periodically challenge your body with a new training stress, it adapts to its current activity level. The result: performance improvements cease and the same session produces less fitness. Remember when you started to run? At first, your body rebelled from the new stress, and those initial runs were tough. But now your warm-up distance is probably longer than those first sessions were, and you can run faster with less effort. Your body has adapted to the stress and needs to be pushed again to break through its fitness ceiling.

Fast Fixes

  • Don't run the same distance two days in a row. Whatever the length of your run yesterday, add or subtract 10 minutes to that when you head out today. This long/short rhythm for back-to-back runs keeps your body challenged.
  • Vary your pace within runs. Even if you find yourself on your old standby route, insert eight to 10 surges that last 15 to 30 seconds in the middle of the run. Don't run the surges all-out. Just pick up the pace to 5K race pace or slightly faster.
  • Slowly add in some segments of running at all key race paces (5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon) at least once every two to three weeks. Each pace offers a unique challenge to the body.

Mistake: You run the same spring marathon and autumn half-marathon – every year
To prepare for those familiar races, you follow the same training plan you've always used. While you're better off than runners who have little weekly variation in their routine, you're still likely to reach a fitness plateau. Distance runners need to vary their training programmes in the short term (weekly) and in the long term (yearly) in order to continue to see gains. Once again, it stems from the fact that your body needs new challenges to stimulate improvement. What's more, your mind needs new challenges to keep you motivated to run month after month and year after year. Runners who only peak for a few spring races find it very difficult to run consistently during other seasons.

Fast Fixes

  • Enter one new race every year that offers a training challenge you haven't tried before – such as a new race distance, or a trail race instead of your usual summer road event.
  • Vary your training goals, and spend a couple of months focusing on each. For example, build your endurance for a few months. Then concentrate on gaining strength on hills. Finally, focus on running faster.
  • Experiment with one new training technique, such as running-form drills, bounding exercises or strides, at least once every six months.
Mistake: You run, and run, then run some more
You devote all your exercise time to running – no yoga, no strength training, no cycling. This mistake is no surprise: most runners are very busy people. So it's easy to understand why they want to spend every minute of spare time on the road. But all runners have weaknesses that require supplemental training to stay healthy and strong. Do you have chronically tight calves or hips? Just a few stretches will keep you running more efficiently. Weak core muscles? Some simple strengthening exercises will help your body stand up to the demands of high mileage.

Fast Fixes

  • Determine your biggest weakness, then once a week incorporate 15 minutes of supplemental training directed at correcting the imbalance. After a couple of weeks, bump it up to twice a week.
  • Regularly schedule cross-training sessions into your training the same way you schedule your running days, and then record these results in your running log. This practice helps give equal importance to all your sessions.
  • For a few weeks every year, let your running take a back seat and try some new activities or a completely different sport that will help you with your running weaknesses. For instance, try an intensive yoga course if you know you need to increase your flexibility, or join a spin class to boost quad strength.
Mistake: You're race-phobic
You'd love to race more, but it hurts. Racing a marathon or even a 10K shouldn't feel like a walk in the park, but it doesn't have to be a painful experience. The problem is that most runners don't train their bodies and minds for the rigours of racing. At the start of a race, everything feels good; you have tapered and are running on race-day adrenaline. After the first mile or so, the pace becomes harder and you start slowing down – unless you've prepared properly with race-specific sessions. These should recreate the demands of your goal event, but on a smaller scale. To prepare for a 5K, for example, you need six to eight weeks of weekly sessions of shorter interval work (400- to 800-metre repetitions) at slightly faster than 5K pace to acquire the speed to race comfortably. Knowing you've completed a number of race-specific sessions also gives you the confidence to perform well on race day.

Fast Fixes

  • Research any race you plan to run and consider all of the race variables, not just race distance, when planning your race-specific sessions. Are there hills on the course, and if so, are they early or late in the course? What kind of surfaces will you run on? What time of day is the race? Then try to recreate as many of these circumstances as you can during your training runs.
  • Have an appropriate race strategy. All the race-specific training in the world won't do you any good if you don't have a smart race-day plan. Determine your estimated race pace and goal finishing time based on what you've done during your race-specific workouts to ensure they are realistic.
  • Have an alternative plan. Even when you've done all the training, things can still go wrong on race day. Know how you'll adapt your race pace if the weather turns extreme or you don't feel well on race morning.
Mistake: You're a race-a-holic
If there's a five-mile trail run, triathlon, adventure race or marathon within a 100-mile radius, you're on the starting line. There's nothing wrong with that – unless you expect top performance at every event. Thanks to the principle of specificity, which states that in order to improve any one aspect of fitness you need to target your training to that one area, it's unlikely that any runner can consistently record PBs over such a wide range of events. Many runners, however, participate in a variety of events throughout the year and are able to achieve a few breakthrough performances along the way by prioritising their running goals. At the beginning of the running year, these runners designate the handful of goal races at which they plan to reach peak performance. Then they schedule another tier of tune-up races that are intended to help them peak at their goal races. Finally, they throw in races that are run just for the experience. These races are run more like training sessions with no real expectations.

Fast Fixes

  • When selecting your priority races for the year, consider where they fall in relationship to each other. Being able to peak for both a spring and an autumn marathon is a realistic goal, while peaking for two marathons that are one month apart isn't.
  • Schedule tune-up races so you can peak at two different distances within weeks of each other. Try running a hard 5K two weeks before a goal 10K, or a hard half-marathon four weeks before a goal marathon. The training you do for the longer goal distance will have you feeling strong during the shorter tune-up race, while the hard effort of the tune-up race prepares you for the demands of the longer race to come.
  • When running low-priority races, experiment with different racing and refuelling strategies to see which work best for you. You'll come away with valuable racing experience when there's nothing at stake.

Change your mind

Mental hurdle You start off your training program with boundless energy, but within a few weeks just lacing up your shoes feels like a chore.
Clear it Throwing all your energy into the beginning of a training plan is like starting a race at a full sprint. You're not going to have enough juice to finish strongly – or finish at all. "Initial excitement is good," says Robert Udewitz, a sports psychologist and runner, "but you need to harness those feelings and divide them up throughout your training." If you're on a 16-week marathon plan, for instance, four months is a long time to wait for a finish-line reward. Schedule a half-marathon halfway through your training to help you stay focused and motivated. Also, there's no shame in self-bribery. Promise yourself a massage after your long run.

Mental hurdle You feel so stressed out with performance anxiety that you aren't able to relax and enjoy the race experience.
Clear it "Runners who feel this way are usually caught up in time goals," says Kate Hays, a sports psychologist. "Don't lose sight of all the other reasons you run – health, sense of accomplishment, connection to others." To ease race-day pressure, Hays recommends setting three levels of goals: your ideal scenario, results that would make you happy, and an outcome that you could live with. Keep your ideal to yourself, so you don't face additional pressure from well-meaning family and friends.

Mental hurdle You struggle to balance running, work and family.
Clear it You might have been able to devote 15 hours a week to running – when you didn't have three children and a senior management position. Setting goals that don't reflect your current lifestyle, says Hays, sets you up for disappointment. There's no need to give up running, but switching to a three-day-a-week marathon-training plan (such as the one on page 56), or temporarily focusing on shorter-distance races, could make you feel more successful in all areas of your life. Also, consider ways in which running can bring you closer to your family. "Some runners isolate themselves and push others away when they are training," says Udewitz. "Make your training more of a team effort by involving your family." Ask your spouse to ride alongside you during a long run, or your kids to make you signs for race day, and then treat them to dinner at their favourite restaurant or a film of their choice.


Mental hurdle You're locked into a training plan, no matter what.
Clear it Runners are notoriously inflexible – and not just in their hamstrings. "Part of the appeal of running is that it's an element of our lives we can control," says Hays. "If other areas of our lives are chaotic, a regimented routine can be comforting." This is fine, but many runners obey their plans over their bodies, putting them at risk of injury. Hays recommends visualising a more flexible schedule. Imagine what it would be like skipping a run to rest an achy muscle. Picture yourself running stronger the next day. Or create an internal coach. Runners tend to be harder on themselves than a coach would be. A coach doesn't push you when your body needs a break or recommend unrealistic goals. "If you were coaching another runner, what would you advise him or her?" says Udewitz.


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