Training plans are easy to come by. You can find them online, in running magazines, in entire books devoted to training. It's easy to follow a plan and do the workout, but it's much better to know the purpose behind the run you're doing.
I got to explore this idea with a friend a couple of weeks ago. I always recommend Krissy Moehl's Running Your First Ultra to anyone who's going big for the first time because I have had consistent success with her 50k plan. He's been using it too (and loving it!), but there are a few workouts where you have to separate the plan from the purpose.
Moehl, like most pros, is so much hecking faster than the crew I run with. Her hill sessions give you a timed warmup, timed hill repeats, and a timed cool down, with a projection of how many miles you may cover during the total time. This is where we’ve had to separate the plan from the purpose: Moehl projects that you might cover 7+ miles during this workout, but our totals are regularly under six. So the question we explored was, “do you keep running until your mileage matches hers, or do you put in the time and call it good?"
The best way I can answer this question is to examine the purpose of today's run. What, in the context of your total training week or plan, are you really supposed to accomplish? Specific mileage? Pace? Intensity? Recovery? Identify that purpose and stick to it.
Hill workouts are supposed to be intense: the purpose is to build power. More specifically, the workout's in Moehl's training cycle are supposed to build a specific duration of power. This does not account for total mileage at all, so the fact that I can only get 6ish miles when she can crush out nine does not change the purpose of the workout. I'm supposed to put in the time, no junk miles, and reap the benefits of the specific purpose. POWER!
When we lose sight of the purpose of our workout, we risk diluting the benefits we're reaching for. Junk miles, running extra miles without specific purpose or benefit, are the perfect example of this. You just tire yourself out with nothing to show for it, except maybe an increased risk of injury, but definitely not a boost in performance.
When else do we need to remember the purpose of our runs? Well, daily, really. You should always be able to explain why you're taking a specific run on a specific day. Training plans are a nice shortcut for this because they account for the purpose of each run.
- Distance. Some days you need to build endurance. You don't need speed or hills, just to put in the distance. In fact, adding those elements to a distance run can put you at injury risk. Find a chit-chat pace along a reasonable course and follow the purpose of your run to endurance success.
- Recovery. We've all done this--we get caught up in the moment and wind up running further or faster that our bodies really should. It's especially easy to forget that recovery is your true purpose when you get swept along with a group. Also, as much as we hate to admit it, there are some days that we just shouldn't run.
- Speed. It's just as easy to run too fast as too slow in a speed workout and fatigue before you can reach your full potential. Make sure you understand the purpose of your speed workout, what your optimal speed is to meet this purpose, and work from there to meet your goals.
- Power. Doing hard things is hard enough. You don't need to add distance to hill repeats, descending intervals, strides or form drills. Just work on what you need to, for as long as is prudent and purposeful, then relax and enjoy the glow after a hard workout.
I like following training plans like Moehl's because the detailed work of planning is already done for me. As I've come to understand more about the sport, I've come to appreciate how purposeful a good training plan is. The schedule pushes me on the right days, in the right ways, and creates space for my body to recover. Identifying the purpose of each day's run (or recovery) pushed me to give the workout the right effort and to be confident that I am prepared for what comes next.
PS-- Get yourself a copy of Krissy Moehl's Running Your First Ultra if you don't have one already, and get it from a local bookstore. If your community doesn't have an independent bookstore, you can use the link to order it from our LBS here in Farmington, Maine. Kenny at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers will ship it directly to you!