I didn’t want to make any decisions too far out from my training cycle, but I started thinking about what to do for marathon training pretty early this year.
All I knew is that after feeling burned out and hitting a plateau in the wake of my last marathon, I needed to try something different. I had self-coached (created my own training plan) my last two marathons, and while it worked out well – PRs both times and injury-free – I really don’t know what I’m doing, and by the end of my last training cycle, it started to show. I was training harder than ever, but no longer seeing any fitness gains. I constantly felt stale and sluggish in my running. Since I hadn’t changed up my training in over a year, my body was too used to the workouts I was doing, so the hard work was no longer triggering fitness improvements and I was headed toward a rut of overtraining and boredom.
Clearly, if I ever wanted to improve in running again, I needed to shake things up and make some changes to my training. I started shopping around for new training plans, paying particular attention to things like Run Less Run Faster that are very different than the way I typically train. But, while there are a lot of great plans out there – RLRF, Hansons, Pfitzinger, Higdon – none of them felt quite right for me. I didn’t want to follow a cookie-cutter training plan. I thrive better on plans that are more flexible and individualized. Of course, when that’s the case, the best thing a runner can do is to hire a coach. But that’s not in my budget – you can probably guess why.
That meant the only option was to go back to self-coaching. But how could I find the guidance to self-coach in a smarter way without following a pre-made plan?
At that point I remembered what I’d heard about Brad Hudson’s book Run Faster From the 5K to the Marathon. Laura has applied a lot of Hudson’s philosophy to her own self-training with great success, and since Laura and I have similar preferences and approaches to training, if it worked for her maybe it could work for me too. I decided to pick up the book from the library and give self-coaching another shot.
Run Faster is a book about how to self-coach based on a philosophy called adaptive running. In the first chapter, Hudson sums up adaptive running as his belief that:
“A responsive, evolving, creative approach to training is better than an approach that is too structured and formulaic. Simply put, there is no single training formula that works perfectly for every runner…adaptive running becomes the natural way to train when you recognize that training must be customized to you individually and adapted every day based on your response to recent training.”
In sum, not only should self-coaching athletes adapt their training plan as a whole to suit their strengths, weaknesses, experience, and goals, they should also be paying close attention to how their body is responding to training on a weekly and daily basis and adjust accordingly.
This doesn’t suggest anyone should just wing it in training. On the contrary: Hudson specifically says that you should have a training plan, and you should follow that plan. But he emphatically notes that a training plan “should be written in pencil, not ink”; your training plan should be flexible and responsive instead of rigid, and it should be crafted with you as an individual in mind.
That said, Hudson also believes in certain elements of training that are universal to success and, while they should be customized, should be included in some form in any successful training plan. These elements include things like 3-period training cycles (an introductory, fundamental, and sharpening phase), hill running to build strength, a consistent and moderately high running volume, multi-pace workouts, and several more. But the two elements in particular that really seem to guide his training philosophy are progression from general to specific training and nonlinear periodization.
Nonlinear periodization refers to Hudson’s belief that instead of working on strength, speed, and specific endurance in separate blocks, you should always be working on each of them. You may not devote equal time to each of them each week, but they should each be present in your training in some form or another at all times, with the exception of the late sharpening period when your focus turns almost exclusively to goal pace practice. They all support the specific endurance needed for your goal race, so you should never let any of them lag. But, in progressing from general to specific fitness, both your aerobic capacity work and your neuromuscular fitness work should become more race-specific as your progress through training until they eventually mesh in the final race pace-focused sharpening weeks.
For a better and much more thorough explanation, I highly suggest you read the book. It’s kind of a lot to unpack here, but reading Hudson’s philosophy has helped me understand the nuances of building upon your fitness week after week to appropriately progress toward and peak for a specific goal. It sheds a lot of light on what I’ve done incorrectly in my past self-coaching and how I can train smarter going forward.
Hudson includes pre-made training plans for each distance, and recommends that those new to adaptive running who aren’t ready to make a plan from scratch can use one of his plans as a foundation and individualize them to their liking. That is what I’m doing. I’m using Hudson’s Level 1 Marathon Plan included in Run Faster as my Chicago Marathon training plan and modifying parts of it to suit my fitness level and training strengths.
Hudson includes a good deal of advice on how to use self-assessment to guide yourself in creating or adapting a training plan. You should consider things like your age, years of running experience, and injury history, but most importantly you should consider your recent training and your strengths and weaknesses as a runner. What shortcomings did you have in previous training cycles – not enough mileage? Not enough balance (too much of one particular type of workout, not enough of another)? Not enough specific-endurance building? What type of training were you doing leading up to your best, breakthrough race performances (even if the distance is different than your goal race) – lots of speed work? Higher mileage? Are you naturally built for speed, or endurance?
Since I’ve only been running for 4 years and have only trained for 3 marathons, I don’t have a ton of experience to draw on, but I have managed to gather that I have much more aptitude for endurance and longer distances than I do for speed and shorter races. I’ve also noticed that I feel my best and run my best when my mileage is higher and I’m running more. Not only have I raced my marathons well, but I’ve also PR’d shorter distances during training for the marathon – I thrive on the higher mileage and longer long runs, and the bigger aerobic base makes me feel stronger and more at ease racing any distance. These things give me a good amount of guidance for how to adapt Hudson’s plan for my own training.
Before I even finished the book I knew that a key adaption I would have to make to the training plan was to cushion the fundamental period with more easy aerobic miles. The weekly mileage in the early weeks of Hudson’s L1 plan is actually pretty low, but the workouts start right away. I’d actually rather up the mileage a bit in the beginning with more easy miles while taking the workouts down a notch. Of course, in the spirit of adaptive running, I may find that I bounce back quicker than I thought during May base-building and I am ready to tackle the workouts after all, but as of now, my gut is telling me to err on the side of more easy running.
The other big adaptation I’m making to the plan is in regards to long runs. Traditional LSD runs don’t start until 8-9 weeks in to Hudson’s L1 plan; there isn’t even a double-digit run scheduled until the end of week 7. There are longer weekend runs every week, but until halfway through training they are all 8-11 mile progression runs (Hudson’s use of progression run refers to a run that is easy with the last 10-30 minutes at a moderate effort). In the past I’ve gotten a little too crazy with trying to pack in really long runs early on in the training cycle, so I don’t mind putting off or toning down long run mileage in the early weeks of training. However, the plan as it stands seems a little too focused on speed-building over aerobic endurance-building in the intro phase, and based on my strengths I’d rather tip the balance in the other direction. I’m just not comfortable waiting until almost halfway through training to add any double-digit LSD training. So I’m compromising by switching out every other long-ish weekend progression run in the introductory phase with a plain vanilla LSD run of 10-14 miles.
Otherwise, aside from the day-to-day and week-to-week adaptations I’ll be making in response to my body’s feedback, I’m pretty much leaving the plan as-is. Where I really need help and guidance with my self-coaching is in the structuring and progression of speed and race-specific workouts. In the past, I have just sprinkled my training with MP and interval and tempo workouts willy-nilly, without much thought to how they are progressing and without really paying attention to how my body is adapting. I strongly suspect this is a big part of the reason why I began to feel burned out and peaked early in Pittsburgh Marathon training. Hudson is an expert in the art of progression and peaking. I am not. So I am doing the smart thing and keeping the workouts he prescribes in the order he prescribes them. Many of these are completely new workouts for me and I have to say I am looking forward to freshening up my repertoire.
One very important thing to note about Hudson’s adaptive running philosophy is that it is much more than just a race training plan – it is a holistic, long-term training methodology. Each training plan you go through is a stepping stone to the next level. You are constantly adapting, building off what worked in each training cycle and learning from what didn’t, to keep growing as a runner and progressing toward your long term goals. The first time or two using adaptive running is about learning, not mastery.
I think this was important for me to read and absorb right now, and it has helped me tremendously in putting my Chicago journey in perspective. I’m trying something new, and it will be a learning experience for me; being free of big goals and the pressure that comes with them will help me appreciate and make the most of it. I may not be in shape to run a PR this year, but I’m going to be learning and absorbing a lot and building a foundation that will help me train better and get faster for future races. By keeping that in mind and appreciating this journey for what it is instead of bemoaning what it’s not, my Chicago training cycle is setting me up for greater success in my future marathons, and all my races down the road.
Up next: how I finally beat a year-long running slump.