New Year’s resolutions often bring a renewed commitment to training plans, but not all training plans are created equal. Organized training plans can be a great way to establish race goals and improve running performance, but there are also a few common “pitfalls” to be aware of when amping up your training routine.
In this article, I share my top five “training pitfalls” to avoid so you can stay injury free and become the best runner you can be.
Copying Elite Runner Workouts
Workouts from the world’s top runners are often featured in popular running magazines and videos and portrayed as secrets to these athletes’ successes. Although it might seem logical to follow in the footsteps of the best athletes and “do as they do,” simply copying their workouts doesn’t work. This approach does not take into account the extensive running background, expert coaching and recovery tools that elite athletes have access to in order to perform these workouts properly. Performing elite workouts, without actually being a professional athlete, might lead to injuries and most importantly won’t give you the training adaptations you’re looking for.
However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn from the pros and attempt to understand some of the training principles that have led to their success. For example, elite Catalonian mountain runner, Kilian Jornet, has popularized the use of 30/30 intervals in his training. These Intervals consist of 30 seconds at high intensity pace, followed by 30 seconds recovery. Effectively integrating this concept into your training plan may help you build speed. But, simply copying one of Jornet’s workouts where he repeats 30/30 intervals for hours and hours on end, is not a good idea! For Jornet, such a workout is possible because several hours of high-intensity 30/30s, relative to his massive overall weekly training volume, is not placing too large of a stress on his body. Jornet has spent decades conditioning his body to 30-plus hour training weeks which allows him to handle and adapt to his workouts. If you’re interested in learning more about 30/30s and how to integrate them into your training, read this well written article by coach Sam Naney.
Increasing Speed, Duration and “Vert” Simultaneously
Keep in mind this golden rule of training: never increase the speed, duration and vertical gain of your runs all in the same week. Improvement comes from training consistently, with small moments where you push your body then allow it time to recover. Placing too much stress on the body all at once leads to overtraining, body breakdown and a state of constant fatigue. Speed training, such as short sprints or track workouts, places extreme stress on the body because of the more intense impact forces and greater stride length involved by running quickly. Similarly, going for longer runs or increasing your weekly running mileage places heavy stress on the body because of the additional pounding on the muscles, tendons, and bones. Going for runs on steeper terrain (or increasing incline on treadmills) also elevates stress by generating higher-energy/caloric demands and recruiting more muscles in order to propel the body upwards. Taking into consideration the high stresses involved from fast, long and uphill runs, it is not a good idea to increase all three at the same time. The result too often leads to injury.
This does not mean that you should avoid fast, long or uphill runs. Instead, focus on organizing your training blocks in ways that allow you to work on improving each of these three aspects at different times. Fast, long and uphill runs all have a place in training cycles. Teaching the body to adapt to increased levels of these different types of training stimuli will make you a better runner. Use the following example for a better explanation of this concept. In your next training block, gradually increase the duration of your weekly long run. Once you feel comfortable with this higher volume, start incorporating hills into your long run. Finally, once your body adapts to hills (and your calves aren’t burning too much from the uphills), add short sprints or one track workout on a different day during the week. When your training block is complete, you will have effectively increased the speed, duration and vertical gain of your runs, yet will do so in a way that your body can safely adapt to.
Setting Rigid Race Goals
Sometimes race goals lock athletes into participating in distances or at intensities that they are not properly trained for. Many trail runners are energetic type-A personalities who enjoy dedicating themselves to tough goals or placing themselves in challenging situations to test their limits. Although this mentality is honorable, there are also risks when rigidly committing to goals and not allowing yourself the flexibility to see beyond them. This attitude often leads to poor race experiences, lack of confidence in your ability, a reduced love of the sport and in some cases even injury.
Let goals inspire your training, but when a training block is finished and you’re ready to race, remember this: race where your fitness is, not where you set your goal. To demonstrate this principle, imagine a runner who makes it their goal to complete a mountainous 50-kilometer race. They choose a race and train extensively, but when they preview the course, they are completely surprised by the rugged nature of the terrain and the challenge of the hills. They have not done any terrain remotely like this in their entire training block. For this runner, sticking to their goal of trying to complete this particular race will lead to frustration and likely a poor experience. Instead, the runner should recognize the extensive training they have already completed and find a race better suited to their training. This way the runner would see the progress they’ve made in their training and respect what their body is currently conditioned to handle. Although it’s not always possible to switch race plans at the last minute, you can use this concept to guide your training. Be open and flexible with your goals to make the most of them, instead of letting them control you.
Falling into Fad Diets
Every New Year, ‘tis the season to watch out for fad diets! Fad diets, or short-lived crazes for particular eating patterns (usually extremely unhealthy eating patterns), constantly flow across mainstream media and often work their way into running circle discussions about nutrition and workout fueling. Runners can become convinced by a fad diet’s large marketing campaign telling them that their diet can improve their running performance. Fad diets will often claim that their way is the only way to be healthy and every other approach to nutrition is wrong. For example, ketogenic diets may claim that eating high-fat diets is the best way to stay healthy and increase energy in workouts. To someone who has gone “keto,” introducing high-carbohydrate foods will lead to health problems and reliance on less-efficient fueling practices that will make you “bonk.” In general, fad diets neglect certain food groups or particular macronutrients, which (even if it may lead to temporary weight loss) is certainly not healthy for runners whose bodies need to properly adapt to the stresses of their training. Not to mention weight-loss should not be a priority for runners unless specifically advised by a nutritionist.
Proper nutrition for runners can be quite simple and it doesn’t require following complex rules of a “fad diet.” In general, runners should remember these two easy nutrition considerations: keep your energy stores well stocked and carbohydrates are not your enemy. Standing by these two tips can help runners feel energized during workouts, recover and most importantly adapt to their training. A syndrome from as RED-S or (Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome) has been shown by nutrition experts across the world to negatively affect the performance and recovery of elite athletes (explore more about RED-S in my article from December 2018). Not getting enough energy, or enough of the body’s most efficient fuel source, carbohydrates, can hurt your training. Some might remember the media craze over Olympic Champion swimmer Michael Phelps’ 12,000 calorie per day diet? Phelps later admitted that the media had exaggerated his eating habits, but he was still consuming eight to ten thousand calories per day during peak training for the Olympics.
There are times when more specific nutrition advice may be beneficial, such as learning how to supplement with iron when training at high-altitudes or timing protein-intake after intense workouts, but these detailed concepts may require working with an expert nutritionist. I recommend Kylee Van Horn and Maria Dalzot.
BONUS: Although I’m a proponent of carbohydrate consumption for ultrarunners, there is increasing debate on the effectiveness of “high-fat” diets for ultrarunners. Listen to a great debate between coach Jason Koop, a proponent of more conventional athlete nutrition advice, and the unique high-fat approach of famed ultrarunner Jeff Browning. This is the only discussion I’ve heard where both sides of the argument are respected and given equal opportunity to speak!
Not Dreaming Big Enough
Don’t be afraid of “over-dreaming.” When setting goals for upcoming training blocks, runners tend to prioritize chasing smaller over larger goals. Incremental goals, such as achieving a new PR (personal record) in a given distance or reaching higher levels of weekly mileage, are easy to manage and can be great stepping-stones towards bigger goals. However, without first setting your “bigger-picture” goals, these small goals will lack direction and purpose. Setting large goals allows you to further explore your passions and motivations for training in the first place.
Setting big goals can be frightening. It may require exploring deeper concepts, such as your “why” for running and figuring out the goals that will lead to your best running experiences. Reflect on what brought you to trail running in the first place, as well as things that you’ve always wanted to accomplish in the sport. Perhaps it’s exploring all of the trails in your hometown, visiting every city park, linking up peaks in a mountain range that you’ve always wanted to see, joining a running club, owning a dog and teaching it to be your running buddy, or signing up for a race that no one ever believed you could finish. Whatever your big goals are, they need to mean something to you and give you a sense of fulfillment as you chase and realize them.