Chicago Training Prep, Chapter 2: My New Training Plan

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.

 

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14 thoughts on “Chicago Training Prep, Chapter 2: My New Training Plan

  1. I’ve read a handful of different training books (Daniels, Pfitz, Hansons), but I haven’t had a chance to look through Hudson yet. I’m really interested in the long term approach that you mentioned since lately I feel like I have had a lot of time off between races and I never quite know how to structure that time. It was much easier to train/race/rest/repeat than it has been to train/race/rest/rest/rest/start to question if I am even still a runner.

    Earlier this spring you were thinking about using a RLRF approach to your training. What made you change your mind? Are you still planning to incorporate cross training into your program? Also curious what turned you off from Pfitz since I’m planning to use at least two of his programs this year. Sorry I’m so nosy this morning 🙂

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    1. Pfitz is okay, I just found it a little boring and wasn’t in love with it. The 18/55 plan is just too similar to the way I typically train, and as such it didn’t strike me as a plan that could simulate a lot of fitness gains for me. Plus, I don’t have enough of a fitness base to dive into it anyway – weeks 1 and 2 of the 18/55 already prescribe 9-10 mile MID WEEK runs. I have to admit that’s one aspect of the plan that turns me off. I’m not running 12-14 miles during the week. Just…no.

      RLRF is a no-go for a couple reasons: mostly, without having our gym membership anymore, I can’t commit to the cross training. And after some reflection, it just doesn’t suit my strengths as a runner. I do better when I run more, and when I have a good aerobic base of fitness. I just didn’t feel comfortable tackling a full marathon on a plan that has very little aerobic running in it. It might be worth a shot for shorter distances if I could commit to the XT, but going by what’s worked well for me in prior training, I do well with more running.

      Hudson’s book is much more geared toward race training than maintenance running, but he does mention that runners should maintain a decent base between training cycles with moderately high (but not training high) mileage. Oops. LOL.

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      1. All of that makes a lot of sense. The midweek “medium” long runs (because 14 miles is totally just a medium distance run, thanks Pete) were definitely hard to handle, but I can’t deny their benefit since it was during 18/55 that I got my half PR [though it is worth noting that I ended up running the plans distances, but not quality because I bit off more than I could chew for my first marathon, oops].

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        1. Totally. I love me some mid week medium long runs but I draw the line at 10-11. A 12-14 mile run, at my training paces, would take around 2 hours – a little excessive for a Wednesday! I’m sure I’d benefit immensely from them, but it comes down to the balance between wanting to improve and needing to set limits for what’s reasonable for the individual, too.

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  2. I have never even heard of Hudson, but that sounds like a very interesting read! Sounds like you have a good plan going forward–I especially like the idea of thinking about training in the long term. It’s so easy to fully commit to training for some race and then afterwards feel completely lost.

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    1. Thanks! Yeah, I think a lot of runners fall into the trap of setting huge goals and thinking it all needs to happen during this one 18-week period of time. But adaptive running is a continuous process, and the emphasis is really on always learning and evolving – if you miss your goal, you figure out what went wrong and make adaptions for the next cycle, instead of doing the same thing over and over but speeding up the workouts thinking it will make you faster.

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  3. I think every runner should read Hudson’s book, even if they use a coach or a different training plan. I think he does a great job of explaining how the body changes and adapts during training and the purpose behind different phases and runs. There are so many runners out there that don’t even seem to understand the basics of their training cycles (“I slipped in a speed workout even though I wasn’t supposed to.” “I’ve been running my long runs a little too fast, but I just feel so good!” “I just wasn’t feeling my speedwork today so I cut it short.”) and may actually be holding themselves back by self-sabotaging during a workout

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    1. Exactly. I think the internet has made it both easier and harder to train – there is increased access to so many resources, but it’s also all too easy to see other people’s training and copy what they’re doing because it worked for them, instead of taking the time to actually learn about how to do it correctly. To compound this, when we fall short of our goals or don’t perform well, we’re quick to blame nutrition or fueling or pacing or weather or lack of strength training, but no one ever wants to consider the possibility that they may have trained incorrectly (“but I put in the miles!” “I did all my workouts!” “Goal pace felt so good in training and I was often able to exceed it so I know I was ready!”), so we just keep going back to the same mistakes and continuing the cycle of self-sabotage.

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  4. That seems like an interesting read. I will have to check it out. I am giving myself another week or so of easier running until I pick a race. I am thinking a 10k. Your thoughts have me wondering what my strengths are…I have been told hills. I do know a training strength is speed work. I would like to develop my skills in trail running (being more agile). Overly high mileage burns me out. I read Meb’s book, and I have been adapting to a 9 day training cycle; meaning if I need an extra day of rest, I take it. That is the big change in my training that I see as I, eh-hem, get older. I can’t do the volume, and every once in a while (2-3 weeks) I need an extra day off. I am still working on the whole cross training thing. Well, not really ;/ !!

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    1. Age is actually a really important factor in deciding how to train. Hudson talks about how “older” and masters runners need more recovery and thus need to focus on getting the most bang for their buck out of each workout; i.e. cutting out junk miles and focusing more on quality workouts instead of mileage. I look forward to hearing how short distance training goes for you – maybe you will find speed is your strength! You always seem to do well in shorter races.

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  5. This really sounds perfect for you. I love that it’s the first step in an overall journey of discovery and learning as a runner, and also gives you an overall motivation for training for Chicago. I could be misremembering, but I thought originally you were going to do minimal mileage. Was that just when you were considering the RLRF approach? Anyway, I’m looking forward to following along!

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    1. I toyed with the idea of just running less in general – fewer days per week, more XT, RLRF plan – but I always want to run enough miles to feel prepared for the marathon. That’s ultimately one of the big reasons I didn’t go with RLRF. I guess that does mean “minimal mileage” in a way, but it was never really about mileage so much as seeking more balance in general. I would gladly run 60 mpw again if there were an easy way to balance it with the rest of my life and not have to run 6 days a week.

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  6. Hudson’s methodology sounds SO interesting! I’ve got to get my hands on that book. I’ve always “followed” Hal Higdon’s marathon training plans to an extent, but I usually change things up so much that it essentially becomes self-coaching with Hal Higdon long runs. I’ve done that because it’s been really important to me that my training fits my life and training style, but I don’t *really* know what I’m doing, so to get some insight would be really helpful!

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