Why You Need to Experiment with Your Training Recipe
The ideas you hold most strongly may be holding you back. Top runners and coaches share changes that led to success.
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A distance runner’s training plan is like an old family recipe—something to be recreated as closely as possible with little room for substitutions or experimentation. Whether it’s a tradition born out of past racing success or just habit, asking a distance runner to revamp what they’ve been doing can seem as blasphemous as adding wasabi to Grandma’s mashed potatoes.
But Jeff Stiles, the head cross country and track coach at Washington University in St. Louis, says that taking risks with your training—even if it leads to failure—is important for long-term success. “If we stay in our box all the time and are unwilling to try new things, then we miss out on becoming a better coach or a better athlete,” Stiles says.
Pete Rea, the coach of the professional team at ZAP Fitness in North Carolina agrees that change is a necessary part of a long running career. He says over time every runner will hit plateaus and will need to change their approach to continue to see improvement.
Stiles says it’s also important to remember that the training you do changes you as a runner. Because you continue to evolve and adapt over the course of your career, even a solid training plan can’t simply be repeated year after year with the expectation of similar results. “The recipe doesn’t stay the same every year. The recipe will get stale and you’ve got to try some new ingredients,” he says.
And although changing your training plan may be hard, adding a little spice may be just what you need to create an all-new favorite recipe.
Here are some examples of runners and coaches who changed their thinking on a “tried and true” approach and have seen better results for it:
The Change: Backing Off on Easy Days
Coach: Tim Broe, US 5k Olympian and Head Coach of Saucony Freedom Track Club
Tim Broe won multiple US titles in the steeplechase and 5k during his competitive career, and there was rarely such a thing as an “easy” day.
“I had a really strong opinion that easy days needed to be 6:00 pace,” he says. “No matter how good or bad you felt, how hard the week was, or how hard the workout was the day prior.” Broe says this approach came from a belief that it was good to always be a bit uncomfortable in his training.
Once he began coaching other elite runners, Broe’s view began to change. Over time he realized few athletes can handle constant intensity without getting injured or breaking down. More than that, though, Broe says he now believes that going hard all the time won’t make you fitter or faster. “There isn’t much training benefit to grinding yourself into the ground every single day,” he says.
Broe still doesn’t believe in running really slow—he says the vertical displacement makes it hard on your body—but he encourages his runners to start easier on their easy days and listen to their bodies. “The guys will start at 6:30–6:45 pace and if they feel trashed they stay in the 6:15–6:20 range,” he says. They have the freedom to get down to 6:00 pace if they’re feeling good, according to Broe, but the focus is on staying in tune with your body rather than pushing through fatigue just to feel “tough.”
Note: Don’t be put off by the paces these athletes run—extrapolate the lesson to your pace. For example, if 8:00/mile is a solid, moderate-effort run for you, start at 8:40–9:00/mile and let it progress as you feel comfortable.
The Change: Using a Moderate Taper
The Coach: Jeff Stiles, Head Cross Country and Track Coach, Washington University in St. Louis
Stiles’ women’s teams have won Division III National Championships in cross country, indoor, and outdoor track. But to have that level of success he’s had to change how he approach the championship season.
When Stiles began coaching he says he was a big believer in drastically reducing mileage at the end of the season—in large part because that worked for him as a runner in college. Implementing that approach his first cross country season at WashU, Stiles says, “The teams ran really, really badly at the Regional Championship.” Stiles was forced to reexamine his approach.
“I tried, I failed, I changed, and now I believe the opposite—that you need to be careful dropping the mileage too much,” says Stiles. He now only does slight adjustments in volume for his runners before the championship season.
Throughout his career, Stiles says that it’s the failures that have been the best learning experiences. “Obviously you want things to work. But the things that I feel most strongly about are the things that did fail. Then you can say, ‘as a general rule, I don’t ever want to do this again,’” he says.
The Change: Accepting Training Detours
The Athlete: Laurie Knowles, Atlanta Track Club Elite Team Member and 4x Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier
Laurie Knowles has had consistent success in the marathon over a long period of time, qualifying for four straight Olympic Trials and running 2:37:50 last year at the age of 41. But in order to sustain that success, Knowles has had to change how she has approached her training over time.
Early in her career, Knowles says that she would set a training plan and follow it diligently, crediting her success to being able to stick with the plan no matter what happens. “Now I’ve totally changed my mind on that,” says Knowles.
Instead, Knowles says she thinks of her plan as “a roadmap to where I’d like to get, but understanding that detours often happen and sometimes where we think we are going isn’t where we end up.”
That approach was highlighted last year when she had to scrap her plans for a December marathon because of a change to her family’s schedule. Knowing that she would be slightly undertrained, she decided to shift to the early-November Indianapolis Monumental Marathon instead of pushing to make the December race happen.
“15 years ago I would’ve still done the December race, as I approached training so differently,” says Knowles. “Now, I look at running as something I love to do, but something that has to fit around the rest of my life, and therefore adjustments can absolutely be made.”
Knowles willingness to be flexible with the training plan paid off with a new course record at Indianapolis. “The race ended up going really well and then I was able to focus on what mattered with my family in December—a win all the way around,” says Knowles.
The Change: Valuing Non-Running Activities
The Coach: Pete Rea, Head Coach of ZAP Fitness
Rea says as a young coach he was a dyed-in-the-wool Lydiard disciple who didn’t see the benefit of including non-running activities in a training plan. He says, “I viewed pool running or the elliptical as a nice, little ancillary exercise, but believed that the only way to really become a better runner was to run more.”
That view began to change when he started coaching Brendan O’Keefe—a talented runner who was also injury-prone. Rea says O’Keefe wasn’t able to reach his potential because the constant injuries were holding him back.
After a year of frequent injuries, Rea says, “O’Keefe sold me on a radical transformation of his training plan.” They decided one long run, one speed workout, and one threshold workout would be the only running in his training week and they would supplement that with six to seven hours a week of non-running activity.
Over the next 3 years, O’Keefe was able to stay healthy, dropped his 1500m time eight seconds, and qualified for the US Olympic Trials.
That experience led Rea to rethink his approach across the board with his athletes. “I still believe nothing replaces running like running, but everybody has their own level of durability,” he says. Now, Rea incorporates non-running activities at different levels for all athletes depending on what they’re able to handle in running volume.