You Need a Method to Your Madness
By Greg McMillan
I love the word "hodgepodge" and take great delight any time it's used in conversation--except when talking about a training plan. Far too often, I hear of runners who take a little from this plan, a bit from that plan, something from the training of a race winner and a workout from the fastest runner in town. They then throw these workouts together and call it a training plan. But "plan" isn't the best way to describe this method of organizing your training.
I'm a firm believer that every workout you do should have a purpose. That purpose can be physiological (usually the case) and/or psychological (just as important as the physiological but sometimes unrelated) but for certain, it must help build you toward your goal fitness. We think this is so important, we've included a summary of each workout's purpose in our RunClub training plans as seen below.
Most workouts can be classified as one of four types: endurance, stamina, speed or sprint. Just ask yourself which of these four descriptors is challenged most during the workout you've selected. Additionally, workouts can have other purposes besides the four types. One instance is a predictor workout like Yasso 800s, which could be one or two of the four types but whose real purpose (to predict your marathon time) goes beyond these categories. In the end, it doesn't really matter what the purpose is. It's just important that you identify one before you plop the workout into your training program.
Once you identify the purpose of the workout you want to add to your training plan, you need to think about its effect. I mean that in two ways. First, how hard is that workout for you to complete? For some of us, running fast 400m repeats is challenging but fun, whereas for others, this workout leaves them trashed and defeated. Some runners find long runs relaxing and invigorating, whereas others find them a large mental and physical challenge. For each runner, the effect of the workout is different so it's important that you think about how you'll respond to it.
The second "effect" has to do with how long it takes you to recover from that workout, regardless of whether it's one of your favorites. In general, the workouts you're good at (ones that challenge your strengths) are ones that you recover from quickly, whereas the ones you aren't good at (ones that challenge your weaknesses) take a lot longer to recover from. Knowing the recovery time from different types of workouts is instructive when you decide where to put them in your program.
Workouts from which you recover quickly can be inserted closer together than a workout that requires extended recovery time. This may seem like a no-brainer but my experience has been that we're so fixated on our weekly rhythm (e.g., two workouts and a long run in every seven-day cycle, no matter what) that we force some workouts to fit.
I find that the length of time it takes you to recover from a workout is one of the most underappreciated parts of training. You must think about this when you're planning workouts. With some workout types, you might do two in a week, whereas the workout that takes you a long time to recover from might be the only workout in that week with several recovery days provided to make sure you absorb the workout. You need to be OK with letting your body, not your calendar, guide your training.
PATH TO GOAL FITNESS
With the purpose and the effect identified for each workout, you then need to make sure the plan builds toward your goal fitness. Some workouts are just a lot of fun to do, and I encourage you to include these throughout your plan. At the same time, you need to consider the demands of your goal race as well as your strengths and weaknesses to make sure that the vast majority of workouts in your plan help you meet the demands of your target event.
For example, if you need a lot of endurance and stamina for your goal race, then your plan better have a hefty dose of those workouts in it. But if those workouts are your weaknesses and/or ones that take you a long time to recover from, then account for that in your plan. You may want to include more "quick recovery" workouts that you're good at in your plan than your training partner, who may respond differently to these same workouts. Again, the key is that you think about how the workouts affect you and use this knowledge in developing your plan.
A smart training plan and a hodgepodge plan both have variety. But a smart plan is also well thought out, and takes into consideration the purpose and effect of every workout so that you progress toward meeting your goals.
About the Author - Greg McMIllan
"Greg McMillan is one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America." – Amby Burfoot, Runner's World
- Masters Degree in Exercise Science
- Inventor of world famous McMillan Calculator
- National Trail Marathon Masters Champion
- One of the world's best coaches for new runners, age groupers and pro runners
- Author You (Only Faster) & Surviving the Marathon Freak Out
Greg McMillan is a runner, exercise scientist and coach with the unique ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. Greg has a masters degree in Exercise Physiology where his research focused on the determining factors of distance running performance. A student of the sport since he began running in high school, he continues to apply advances in sports science to his training programs.
Throughout his coaching career, Greg has been successful at helping a wide range of athletes. He has coached Olympians, Boston Marathon qualifiers as well as new runners through charity marathon groups. The bulk of his athletes are everyday runners balancing work, family and other commitments with their running.