Four Steps to Optimize Every Run
Optimal training requires adapting to how well you've recovered, your life schedule, how you feel on the run, and your runner type.
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A big key to running success is the ability to optimize every run. In order to optimize your runs, you need three things: First, you must have the ability to adjust your training based on how you’re feeling. Next, you must have the knowledge of how to make the proper adjustments. And finally, you must feel empowered and encouraged to adjust your training “on the fly.”
Let’s discuss the four simple steps of how this works in the McMillan Run Team:
Step 1: Check your “Road Map”
First, start by looking at the idea for the upcoming training week. Note that I said “idea.” All coaches will tell you that the training plan is not written in stone. It’s an idea, a “road map” that may need to be tweaked.
Many athletes “turn the page” to the new week as if they are starting new. But I like athletes to consider how they feel heading into a new training week. After all, the body doesn’t know that it’s a new week. It just feels the effects from the previous day(s) of training.
As you look ahead at your training week, do you feel mentally and physically prepared for what is planned? And secondly, are there any adjustments you would/should make based on what you’ve learned in the previous week(s) of training?
Dustin, a member of Run Team and an experienced runner, used this step recently to make a smart adjustment to his half-marathon plan. Originally, he had a fartlek run scheduled for Tuesday and a cruise interval workout scheduled for Thursday in his upcoming week. But he was still tired and a bit low on motivation/energy after the previous week’s training—which was at his full mileage and included a strenuous long trail run.
So, the decision was easy. His body/mind were telling him he needed a bit more recovery, so we skipped the fartlek run on Tuesday and did an easy run instead. It worked like a charm as the extra rest helped him feel refreshed and motivated. The result: He performed really well in the cruise interval workout.
I’m confident that if he had tried both workouts, the quality of each would have been low. By adjusting the training week, the quality of the cruise interval workouts was really high, and his confidence is now soaring as well.
I should note that this doesn’t mean that you avoid fatigue at all costs. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t be tired sometimes and need to just keep getting out the door. It just means that you reduce the risk of failure or for escalating fatigue/injury. You make smart decisions, so the stress/rest cycle is optimized.
Luckily, Dustin is a long-time Run Team member, so he’s comfortable with this idea of switching/skipping/adjusting workouts. At first, it really bugged him because he’s a goal-driven athlete and wanted to complete every workout to a “T”. But he soon learned that by listening to his body and using common sense, he can avoid the stumbling blocks from his past.
Step 2: Account for Your Life Schedule
In Step 2, you preview your life schedule for the upcoming week. Are there any issues that could compromise your planned training schedule?
Run Team member Linda recently had a tempo run scheduled for Thursday, but she had a board meeting at work scheduled for that day as well—definitely an issue.
I believe you should pre-adjust your planned week based on what you see in your life schedule. No need to try to force your training against a compromised life schedule. It’s much better to adjust your schedule so that it flows with your life.
And do it proactively. Use common sense: if you see that the training has a low likelihood of success, adjust it to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Trust me. This type of proactive adjustment leads to more successful training weeks, even if the new training is different than what was originally planned.
That’s exactly what Linda did. She moved the tempo run to Wednesday because she knows she’s mentally exhausted after board meetings. With a simple drag and drop in her Run Team calendar, she could easily move the runs around. This worked well for Linda because there were no other conflicts when she moved the tempo run to Wednesday (in other words she didn’t also have a big workout scheduled for Tuesday, which would put too many hard days too close together—a big “no no”).
By looking ahead at her life schedule and making a smart adjustment, she had a great tempo run on Wednesday and then could focus on the Thursday board meeting.
Step 3: Watch for Bumps in the Road
Step 3 is all about paying attention. You’ve made smart changes to your planned training and you’ve considered your life schedule, but as you have probably experienced more times than not, what you plan changes. So, just like you did in Step 1 and Step 2, you stay ever vigilant and be proactive if you see some life event that will cause issues.
Again, this does not mean you won’t have to be disciplined and endure the usual fatigue of training. It simply means that you set yourself up for success instead of what I see far too often and that is that runners don’t make adjustments when they have an ache or pain that is progressing toward injury. Or, they don’t make adjustments when an unexpected change in their life schedule compromises their preparedness for a key workout.
Jimmy, another Run Team athlete, just had this happen. A stomach bug made the rounds through his family, so he had to adjust most for the prior week of training. For the upcoming week, he was feeling better but didn’t want to admit that his energy levels were clearly not quite back to 100% as he marched toward his speed workout on Thursday.
Instead of adjusting his schedule, he tried to force the workout (because he has already missed some training the week before). As you might suspect, it did not go well. He learned a valuable lesson that a big key to training is to make smart adjustments. I know this will serve him well going forward.
Step 4: Make the Game Day Decision
Next, after all the pre-planning and proactive adjustments as the week progresses, you focus on how you feel for each run during the week. This is the essence of my “Which Runner Showed Up?” Video.
As the video describes, you are not the same runner on each and every run. You know this from your own experience. Some days, you feel really good (wish we could bottle those!) and some days, you don’t.
Sometimes, feeling less than great is related to your previous training. (You will naturally feel tired the day or two after a hard workout.) And, sometimes feeling bad is related to other factors like poor rest, nutrition, hydration, or life stress. But sometimes you simply feel bad for no good reason at all. And the same goes with those magical days where you feel amazing. Often, it’s hard to pinpoint why.
No matter what, the key is to pay attention to how you feel on today’s run. If you feel great, then take advantage of it. If you feel bad, adjust so you get the most from the workout without digging yourself into a hole with excess fatigue.
In my training plans, you have three ways to adjust based on how you feel each day.
First, you have a range for total volume for the day. I have never liked plans that force a set mileage or duration for day. You know the ones that say things like run 6 miles today. I think a range is much better given how different we can feel from day to day.
For example, an easy run for an intermediate runner may say 45–55 minutes or run 5–7 miles for certain runners. If you are feeling great, have no aches/pains/tightness, then run 55 minutes. If you aren’t feeling good, run 45 minutes. Feeling normal? Run something in between.
This makes sense, right? When you are feeling tired, the body is clearly telling you that you need a bit more rest. Why dig yourself into a hole of fatigue? Instead, listen to your body and run the shorter end of the range.
Will it really make that big a difference running 5–10 minutes less on a run every now and then? Of course not! In fact, I find most runners never “wimp out” on training. Instead, they mostly overdo it, which is why teaching them to adjust often results in a reduction in injuries and a big boost in performance.
Your next opportunity for adjustment is with pace. In the McMillan Running Calculator, I provide a pace range for each run. This is critically important because how you feel can vary greatly from run to run. Running the same pace on a run where you feel terrible as well as on a run where you feel amazing is not optimal training.
On the run where you feel terrible, you will be overtraining and, on the run, where you feel amazing, you’ll be undertraining. So, on the day you feel great, run the fast end of the pace range. On the day you feel really tired, run the slow end. What most runners find is that their effort level (easy on an easy day for example) will lead them toward the correct end of the pace range. The problem is when athletes force a pace even when their effort level is saying otherwise.
Sean, a new Run Team member, struggles with this. He’s very “watch-focused” and has the mentality that the faster end of the pace range means better training. I’ve had to patiently explain that is not the right way of thinking. Instead, he should first focus on how he feels on each run. Then, it’s how he feels that determines where on the pace range he should focus (though honestly, I wish he’d forget his watch for some runs!).
His tendency is that he forces the fast end for the pace range on easy runs even when he’s tired and/or has a big workout the next day. You can probably guess what happens. He’s tired from previous training, feels bad on an easy run, pushes the pace to run near the fast end of the pace range and then is not recovered for his next big workout. That workout then does not go as well as it would have if he was recovered and he begins to beat himself up mentally and doubt his abilities. It can become a snowball of negative experiences when all that was needed was to adjust the pace based on how he was feeling.
Over time, Sean will learn that the proper pace for each run varies and once he “gets it.” I’m confident his training results will then be more positive and beneficial.
The final opportunity for optimizing each run is to remember your runner type and to adjust your expectations for each run based on that. In a nutshell, runners often fall into three types: speed-oriented (called Speedsters), combo runners, and endurance-oriented (called Endurance Monsters). See my article on runner type for more detail on this classification.
Speedsters excel in short races and do better in short/fast workouts (speed workouts, leg speed training, etc.). Endurance Monsters excel in longer races and do better with the long, continuous type workouts (long runs, tempo runs, etc.). Combo runners are pretty good at both but may have tendencies toward the Speedster or Endurance Monster. What this means is that the same workout may feel different for you than your training partner if you are different runner types.
I had this a few years back with one of my training partners. I’m more Speedster and he’s more Endurance Monster. Our race times were similar but the type of training we excel in was different. For example, if we did a speed workout, I would always perform better than he would and would feel better doing it. On steady state runs and tempo runs, the roles would be reversed. This wholly came down to our different runner types.
You can see how knowing your tendencies would be vital in optimizing your training. For a speed workout, I would expect to start near the middle of the pace range and by the end of the workout, run near the fast end. And because I enjoy and excel in speed workouts, I often do the maximum number of repetitions (total volume).
My training partner, however, knew that because he was an Endurance Monster, he would start near the slow end of the pace range and finish toward the middle. And because his body rebelled against speed training, he would often do the lower end of the volume for the workout. (And if we did a tempo run, the roles were reversed, and he’d go faster and for longer than I would.)
The result? We both got personalized, optimal results from the same workouts. By understanding your runner type, you can have appropriate expectations for each of your runs too.
The bottom line is that by making these subtle “on the fly” adjustments, you can really dial in the best training for you on each run. You accept what is and not just what you hope and you go with it. Feel great? Take advantage of it. Feeling lousy, adjust to avoid overtraining to be ready for your next run. The result? Optimal training every single run!
Pretty easy, huh? Unfortunately, I find that too many athletes either don’t know how to or aren’t comfortable with adjusting their plans. But it is precisely why these daily and weekly adjustments to optimize each and every day that leads more consistency and more positive training results.
Your training flows with your life and how you feel. By optimizing every run, you have fewer “bad” runs so your confidence soars.
The bottom line is that the optimizing every run concept is a lot of fun. You reduce your injuries. (Run Team has 80% fewer injuries than the normal running population.) You have more positive workouts. And you stack more successful weeks together. You don’t to be a rocket scientist to know that that is a great path to success.
These steps will work for you whatever program you’re following, but if you want an individualized, flexible training system with access to the author, sign up for a free 14-day trial of the McMillan Run Team.
Coach Greg McMillan blends his experience as a national champion runner with his background in exercise science to create scientifically-based, proven training plans that are individualized to your unique traits.