Whether we care to accept it or not, basic mistakes - the kind nearly every runner makes - are what stop us from reaching peak condition and performing as well as we can.
All too often, the thinking must be done first, before the training begins. So, before your next training program; here are 10 big errors - culled from runners and coached - to avoid if you want to run your best.
MATTY ABEL (DBA Runners) - One of the best coaches in the business
1 - Starting too fast
For a distance run, 'going out too fast' means hitting goal pace (or faster) in the first few strides. For harder sessions (intervals/tempo, etc), it means starting the hard part of the workout at an effort level that you cannot maintain. Going out too fast can lead to shortened or aborted workouts and means you also risk missing out on the workout's intended benefits.
THE FIX: Emphasis the negative
"Every workout should be a negative split," says Sean Wade, coach and 1996 Olympic marathoner for New Zealand. "The first couple of kilometres should be super easy and as you warm up you should get quicker."
His words hold true for tougher sessions too; feel your way into intervals and tempo sessions. And his advice that you need to warm up should be written in stone: It increases respiration and circulation, improves flexibility and reduces the chance of injury.
2 - Making All Runs "Medium"
Some runners complete all workouts at a medium level, failing to garner the benefits of longer, easy distance runs or short, tough speed work. Every workout has a purpose and achieving it requires an optimal intensity and duration. Long runs provide some of the same benefits (strengthening slow-twitch fibres, etc.) at an easy pace as at a medium pace, but at the easy pace you're able to run longer and recover more quickly. Speed work demands shorter, more intense efforts, alternating with intervals of near-total rest. Decreasing the intensity of the hard parts alters the workouts effect.
THE FIX: Ditch the default
Recalibrate your 'daily' run pace to a conversational pace. If it isn't a quality-workout day (e.g. intervals/fartlek etc) don't test your fitness. Back off every time you feel yourself pushing your legs and/or lungs. Drop behind your training partner or group if they're pushing it, or run alone if you have to. Set a goal (easy) pace and make the challenge to stick to it - no faster.
3 - Neglecting Speed
Runners cannot live on distance alone. We can always benefit from some faster training. Here's what happens when you skip strength and speed work entirely:
- Atrophy ("waste-away") of fast-twitch fibres
- Decrease in neuromuscular recruitment and efficiency
- Increase in lactate accumulation during high-intensity excercise
- Decreased muscle buffering capacity (ability to neutralise lactic acid build-up)
THE FIX: Pick up the pace
Adding some faster training allows you to maintain strong fibres, retain neuromuscular efficiency and stop your buffering capacity from dwindling to the point of no return. Adding regular sessions of short hill repeats, fast strides or form drills reinforces muscle-fibre and nervous-system development. Moderate tempo, fartlek or hill runs preserve lactate removal and buffering capacity.
4 - Not Recovering Properly
"A lot of runners feel guilty if they take a truly easy day." says coach Joe Rubio. "most fail to acknowledge that all gains in fitness are achieved during recovery. The body grows stronger if it encounters a training stress above what it normally encounters and is then provided with adequate time to recover and regenerate."
THE FIX: Patience is a virtue
Running damages muscle fibres and connective tissues, as well as depleting fuel and hormones. You replace the latter quickly, but repairing muscle and tissue takes time. Younger runners need two to four days between hard workouts, while older runners might need twice that. But there's more to recovery than a hard-easy approach. Smart runners take breaks from training to allow unhindered repair to take place. Once a week, Rubio schedules a 'true recovery day' for his athletes: 30 minutes jogging (high distance runners do two easy jogs) or the day off. And one week a month, he cuts the volume by 20 percent.
5 - Thinking More is Better
When it comes to their workouts, some runners believe that more is always better. 21 kilometres beats 10; more track reps trump fewer; and big, brawling workouts are a badge of honour. In John L Parker's cult novel, Once a runner, Quenton Cassidy is a school age runner who undertakes a brutal training regime. In a single workout, Cassidy rungs 60x400m broken into sets of five reps, with 100m jogging in between reps, and 400m between sets. The oft-referenced session has inspired many a runner. Who wouldn't be impressed with such a feat? Here's who: smart coaches and runners.
THE FIX: Don't eat the whole thing
"It's a common mistake to work too hard in a training session," Says exercise physiologist and coach Tom Schwartz, "as a rule, it takes about 14 days to recover from a super-hard workout, and that assumes easier workouts for that recovery period." So, an excessive workout will require recovery similar to that needed after a hard race, eliminating the other workouts you could be doing in the interval that increase your risk of injury.
6 - Overtraining
"I was once asked to write a scientific article on overtraining," says coach Jack Daniels, author of Daniel's Running Formula. "My response was that it would be the simplest article ever. It's two words long: Avoid it." Overtraining occurs when we push our bodies too hard for too long. "Too hard" can take the form of intensity, volume, long-term accumulation of hard running - or all three. Overtraining also results from over - racing. In his book Lore of Running, Dr Timothy Noakes lays out the warining signs of overtraining.
- Impaired performance
- Heavy legs
- Muscle and joint pain
- Weight loss
- Elevated heart rate during training or upon wakening
- Increased thirst at night
Overtraining can come on quickly, with the first sign being a sudden, seemingly inexplicable drop in workout or race performance. Or it can materialise as chronic fatigue. Somtimes, mental burnout precedes physical burnout. Most runners look forward to hitting the road and to other training sessions. When you don't, it's often your body's way of telling you that something is wrong.
THE FIX: Easy does it
If you catch overtraining early, you can use the following strategies:
- Decrease training intensity and/or volume until you feel refreshed
- Forgo 'hard' training, logging only easy distance until you rebound
- Cease all training for one or more days
- Cases of severe overtraining require six weeks to 12 weeks of rest
- And under no circumstances should you train harder in an attempt to somehow 'push through' overtraining syndrome
Dave Byrne of The Long Run - Front & Centre at 2015 City2Surf
7 - Refusing to Adjust Workouts
Many runners believe that once a certain workout is started, it must be completed exactly as planned. Any deviation is tantamount to quitting. "The biggest mistake athletes make, especially good athletes, is their inability to adjust workouts on the fly," says distance coach Christian Cushing-Murray. Wise coaches and runners understand that unpredictable variables - weather, fatigue, allergies, stress - can affect workouts. A refusal to adjust to these variables changes the workout.
THE FIX: Go with the flow
Remember that workouts are tools to achieve running goals; they are not the goals themselves. In a workout, you create a specific stimulus to trigger a specific adaptation. Adjusting on the go lets you keep your eye on the target and apply the correct stimulus. Adjusting the workout does not mean failing the workout - it isn't a test, it's a tool. Remember, the adaptation is the goal.
8 - Being Resistant to Change
Some people just don't know how to let go: these running fundamentalists have no interest in trying new or untested workouts. They cling to training routines that have served them since they were first fitted for running shoes. The training worked then, it'll work now, goes the reasoning. And injuries or poor performances are just temporary setbacks. The truth is that any type of training - any running at all - will make an untrained runner a better runner. The first time you pulled on running shoes and headed out the door, you kick-started a physiological process that led to improved fitness. That's a hard first impression to shake, but as your 'running body' changes, your training must change too. What worked during your first year, won't work during your fifth, or tenth, or twentieth.
THE FIX: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!
All runners require new conclusions to meet the new information they should be getting from their bodies. Some masters runners, for example, will change their training every few years - to combat fast twitch fibre loss, declining V02 max, decreased flexibility and other age-related issues. But by making these adjustments, their performances will slow less dramatically than many of their peers. If your body never changed, then your training could remain forever the same. But every workout creates a slightly different running body. Every age, every setback, every success alters you a little. Ignoring the physiological reality to maintain faith in a 'one and only' training approach isn't just misguided, it's unbelievable.
9 - Delaying Injury Prevention Plans
In the introduction to his 2010 article 10 Laws of injury prevention, Amby Burfoot noted that "running injuries can be caused by being female, being make, being old, being young, pronating too much, pronating too little, training too much and training too little." In other words, running injuries are going to happen. Studies confirm that 50-80 percent of runners will suffer an injury during any given year. So the ideal time to deal with them is before they occur. Yet most runners don't; instead, they wait until the first pinch in their glutes, pain on the outside of their knee or a twinge in their arch to start researching.
THE FIX: A Stitch in time
Five Key injury prevention principles to embrace:
- Don't push to breaking point in your workouts.
- Do exercises to prevent or correct muscle imbalances.
- Allow proper recovery
- Being glycogen (carbohydrate) and liquid replenishment within 30 minutes post-run.
- Do strength exercises to ward off common injuries
10 - Pick-and-Mix Workouts
The term 'smorgasbord runner' describes the group of runners who treat training like a buffet - they choose the elements they find most appealing from a variety of sources and then, with great enthusiasm, they cram them all into a week. Smorgasbord runners aren't trying to build a training plan, they're looking for a workout-based multivitamin pill, or a workout that by itself transforms fitness, instills confidence and ensures race success. They just aren't sure which workout it is, and therefore feel obliged to try all of them.
THE FIX: It takes a program
Workouts are links in the chain of a good training program. They create fitness adaptations that will be exploited in future workouts or reinforce gains from past sessions. You wouldn't mix ingredients from chocolate, carrot and strawberry shortcake recipes; and you shouldn't create a training plan by picking from lots of different training sources and shoehorning what you like into one workout.