The benefits of unpredictable training
Over the years, I’ve become more convinced that predictable, formula-based training can cause runners to not cope very well with the uncertainty and changes in plan that race day often brings. Runners can become comfortable with routine, and our training can often be regimented – we count the miles, measure the pace, regulate our effort. It gives us a comforting sense of control. The problem comes when our tight grip starts to slip. Tough weather, a route change, a missed water station, a mile split a little slower than expected, or a competitor surging can be enough to see your best plans fall apart. Training in a different way can help you feel more comfortable with discomfort.
The risks of predictable formation
One of the main things we need to do to build fitness is to stress ourselves beyond our current comfort zone. It gets harder when we step into the next session of repeating familiar miles or a long run on our favorite route with a clear conception of what a “good” session looks like. Riders and trainers often have their favorite sessions, races, and routes repeating themselves, and predictability can quickly lead to a plateau. When we know exactly what to expect at the start of a session, we can often either predetermine the outcome or stress ourselves out by applying too much performance pressure. Our response to this is often to self-regulate and err on the side of caution, or panic if a pace seems harder than expected. So how can we add unpredictability while still feeling like we’re moving forward?
Some of the athletes I coach don’t have a training plan. We agree on a set of guiding principles and results that we are trying to achieve over the next three to six weeks. Then, day after day, the runners themselves decide what they want to do, but always ask whether it will bring them closer or further from these general goals. This allows for more flexibility, adaptability and unpredictability. After all, we don’t always know how our body will feel until we walk out the door, and it doesn’t always fit into a predetermined workout plan.
How to train unpredictably
If you are a coach, you can introduce uncertainty by not telling athletes the full session before they start, revealing it as you go. It can help an athlete focus on the work they are doing now, not strategize for the work ahead. I’ve also seen coaches present a series of relevant sessions and ask their athletes to spin a “wheel of fortune” to determine what they will do that day.
If you’re training alone, try having someone write down different parts of a workout in envelopes that you open as the workout progresses. Or if you’re training in a group, consider adding a “prick in the tail” – wait until runners think they’ve finished the whole session before adding one more quick effort when they expect it the most. less.
Be sure to explain why you’re doing a particular session, but provided the options are specific and appropriate, it can be a fun way to mix things up.
Fartlek sessions are on mixed surfaces and rolling terrain with no set pattern can be great. Warm up well and make efforts of varying durations and intensities. Depending on where you are running, it could be passing cars, cyclists, traffic lights, dogs, etc. If there are a lot of pedestrians on your route, speed up until you pass 10, then run until you pass five more, and repeat.
Shuffle an upbeat playlist and let song order dictate your workout. For example, run at a 10k pace during songs with a female singer, then jog during songs with a male singer and continue until you’ve racked up at least 20 minutes of brisk running. You can achieve the same result by varying the genre or the artists. Designate one or two tracks that mean you need to speed up to the pace of running a mile for one minute and then jogging for the rest of the song.
Run 8-10 x 400m, with rest times determined by the 100th of a second digit on your watch after timing each previous repetition, multiplied by 20. For example, if the first 400 takes 1:18.36, take 6 x 20 = 120 seconds of rest. Perform each interval as if you had 90 seconds off (but slow down as needed if hitting a series of short rests).
Run odd distances
One kilometer or one mile reps on the road or 400m or 800m efforts on the track are common rep distances. Why? There are few good reasons. Turning your efforts from 800m to 850m or 900m may seem simple, but it can be a very powerful change because you probably won’t have a benchmark for what to expect.
Disrupt your rhythm
Even if you plan to perform standard speed work sets (e.g. 10 x 400m at a 5k pace), try adding “hot reps” – e.g. running reps four and eight faster, or add pushes such as a “faster” 50m. section in a rep. Even small changes to disrupt your rhythm and routine can be effective. You can try jogging during your recovery instead of standing still, or even doing exercises or bodyweight exercises instead of full rest to create a different physical and mental challenge.
Race over unusual distances or terrains – off-road, cross-country, hilly races. Challenge yourself to feel comfortable with uncertainty. It’s liberating and can often lead to improved performance.
Removing comments from a session can be an interesting process. As a coach, always being there yelling gaps and paces can rob an athlete of ownership. If you’re training alone, try recording on your watch or alternating reps using pace or heart rate with those based on feel.
As I put on my running shoes for an easy or steady run, my partner often asks me where I’m going. Invariably, I will say, “Where my legs take me.” Exploratory races on different routes to new destinations can be uncomfortable, but sometimes try to break free.
Don’t repeat yourself
I have never knowingly forced an athlete to do the same workout twice. This is partly because variety is an important part of building fitness, but also because direct comparison is often unnecessary, as outside variables are always different. It’s fine to have favorite sessions, but be careful of just rehearsing a plan in bulk. Being good at a plan is not always the same as preparing to perform.
Tom Craggs is head of road running for England Athletics
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