6 mistakes runners make (and how to fix them)

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It’s not a lack of the latest running shoes, technical T-shirt, gels or does-it-all-and-more GPS that holds us back as runners – it’s something much simpler. Whether we care to accept it or not, basic mistakes – the kind nearly every runner makes – are what stop us from reaching peak condition and racing as well as we can.

‘The thinking must be done first, before the training begins,’ said the late Peter Coe, father and coach of two-time Olympic 1500m gold medallist Sebastian Coe. So, before your turn to your next training programme, here are six big errors – culled from runners and coaches – to avoid if you want to run your best.

1/ Making all runs ‘medium’

Some runners complete all workouts at a medium level, failing to garner the benefits of longer, easy distance runs or short, tough speedwork. Every workout has a purpose and achieving it requires an optimal intensity and duration. Long runs provide some of the same benefits (strengthening slow-twitch fibres, etc) at an easy pace as at a medium pace, but at the easy pace you’re able to run longer and recover more quickly. Speedwork demands shorter, more intense efforts, alternating with intervals of near-total rest. Decreasing the intensity of the hard parts alters the workout’s effect.

The fix: Ditch the default

Recalibrate your ‘daily’ run pace to a conversational pace. If it isn’t a quality-workout day (eg intervals, fartlek), don’t test your fitness. Back off every time you feel yourself pushing your legs and/or lungs. Drop behind your training partner or group if they’re pushing it, or run alone if you have to. Set a goal (easy) pace and make the challenge to stick to it – no faster.

2/ Neglecting speed

Runners cannot live on mileage alone. We can always benefit from some faster training. Here’s what happens when you skip strength and speedwork entirely:

• Atrophy of fast-twitch fibres

• Decrease in neuromuscular recruitment and efficiency

• Increase in lactate accumulation during high-intensity exercise

• Decreased muscle-buffering capacity (ability to neutralise lactic acid buildup)

The fix: Pick up the pace

Adding some faster training allows you to maintain strong fibres, retain neuromuscular efficiency and stop your buffering capacity from dwindling to the point of no return. Adding regular sessions of short hill repeats, fast strides or form drills reinforces muscle-fibre and nervous system development. Moderate tempo, fartlek or hill runs preserve lactate removal and buffering capacity.

3/ Refusing to adjust workouts

Many runners believe that once a certain workout is started, it must be completed exactly as planned. Any deviation is tantamount to quitting. ‘The biggest mistake athletes make, especially good athletes, is their inability to adjust workouts on the fly,’ says distance coach Christian Cushing-Murray, a former US masters cross-country champion. Wise coaches and runners understand that unpredictable variables – weather, fatigue, allergies, stress – can affect workouts. A refusal to adjust to these variables changes the workout.

The fix: Go with the flow

Remember that workouts are tools to achieve running goals; they are not the goals themselves. In a workout, you create a specific stimulus to trigger a specific adaptation. Adjusting on the fly lets you keep your eye on the target and apply the correct stimulus. Adjusting the workout does not mean failing the workout – it isn’t a test, it’s a tool. Remember, the adaptation is the goal.

4/ Being resistant to change

Some people just don’t know how to let go: these running fundamentalists have zero interest in trying new or untested workouts. They cling to training routines that have served them since they were first fitted for running shoes. The training worked then, it’ll work now, goes the reasoning. And injuries or poor performances are just temporary setbacks. The truth is that any type of training – any running at all – will make an untrained runner a better runner. The first time you pulled on running shoes and headed out the door, you kickstarted a physiological process that led to improved fitness. That’s a hard first impression to shake. But as your running body changes, your training must change, too. What worked during your first year won’t work for your fifth. Or tenth. Or twentieth.

The fix: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

All runners require new conclusions to meet the new information they should be getting from their bodies. Some masters runners, for example, will change their training every few years – to combat fast-twitch fibre loss, declining VO2 max, decreased flexibility and other age-related issues. But by making these adjustments, their performances will slow less dramatically than many of their peers. If your body never changed, then your training could remain forever the same. But every workout creates a slightly different running body. Every age, every setback, every success alters you a little. Ignoring the physiological reality to maintain faith in a ‘one and only’ training approach isn’t just misguided; it’s unbelievable.

5/ Pick-and-mix workouts

The term ‘cafeteria runner’ describes that subset of runners who treat training like a smorgasbord – they choose the elements they find most appealing from a variety of sources and then, with great enthusiasm, they cram them all into a week. Cafeteria runners aren’t trying to build a training plan, they’re looking for a workout-based multivitamin pill, a workout that by itself transforms fitness, instills confidence and ensures race success. They just aren’t sure which workout it is, and therefore feel obliged to try all of them.

The fix: It takes a programme

Workouts are links in the chain of a good training programme. They create fitness adaptations that will be exploited in future workouts or reinforce gains from past sessions. You wouldn’t mix ingredients from chocolate, carrot and strawberry shortcake recipes. And you shouldn’t create a training plan by picking from lots of training sources and shoehorning what you like into one workout.

6/ Delaying injury prevention plans

In the introduction to his 2010 article 10 Laws of Injury Prevention, RW US Editor at Large Amby Burfoot noted that ‘running injuries can be caused by being female, being male, being old, being young, pronating too much, pronating too little, training too much and training too little’. In other words, running injuries are going to happen. Studies confirm that 50-80 per cent of runners will suffer an injury during any given year. So the ideal time to deal with them is before they occur. Yet most runners don’t; instead, they wait until the first pinch in their glutes, pain on the outside of their knee or twinge in their arch to start researching terms such as piriformis, IT-band syndrome or plantar fasciitis.

The fix: A stitch in time

Five key injury prevention principles to embrace:

• Don’t push to breaking point in your workouts

• Do exercises to prevent or correct muscle imbalances

• Allow proper recovery

• Begin glycogen (carbohydrate) and liquid replenishment within 30 minutes post-run

• Do strength exercises to ward off common injuries