Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


4 Reasons Your Training Plan Will Fail (and what to do about it)

It’s that time of year again when most runners are starting the real meat of their training plan.

The recovery period is over, you’ve had your few weeks of building back into a plan, and now the real work begins.

But, when was the last time you took a look at your training plan? I’m talking about an in-depth assessment of your workouts, the volume, the paces and everything included.

Do you understand the why? Why you’re running that 8 x 800 session? Why your tempo run is set to that pace?

Now, I’d argue that most runners don’t need to know the intricate details and science behind their plan. You can make a ton of progress just following along.

But, whoever wrote it better understand.

Unfortunately, when I consult with runners, a lot of the training plans I see them using suffer from a lot of the same mistakes. Mainly, being tied to a lot of 1980’s physiology and a misunderstanding of the physiological demands of the race distance for runners like you.

In this article, I am going to outline the four most common flaws I see in most training plans. As you read this, have a copy of your plan training open and see if you can spot any of these mistakes in your workouts.

4 Reasons Your Training Plan Will Fail

Flaw 1: No Race Specific Workouts

As the name implies, race-specific workouts means tailoring your workouts to the specific physiological demands of your race distance.

Now, this might seem obvious – isn’t every workout training you for the demands of the race? Well, not really.

The difference between the physiological demands of commonly run race distances can be quite different. Certainly, there is some overlap between distances in close proximity, like the 5k and 10k, but there is a large difference between the specific demands of the marathon and half marathon.

Let’s take the marathon for example.

The marathon requires you to (1) be very efficient at burning fat as a fuel source to (2) conserve carbohydrates while running fast (3) while doing so on very tired legs.

Now, let’s take a couple of workouts from a popular marathon training program – 6 x 800 and 6 x hill repeats.

The workouts are what we call a VO2 max workout – you run at max speed for 2-4 minutes and then take an equal amount of rest between intervals.

Research demonstrates that an increase in VO2max does not increase fuel efficiency. Likewise, VO2 max intervals don’t specifically develop or improve your aerobic threshold (ability to run at marathon pace).

Therefore, a workout like 6 x 800 or 6 x hill repeats during marathon training has limited benefit to your marathon specific fitness.

Now, it’s okay to have a workout like this sprinkled into your plan two or three times over a 16 week training cycle to break the monotony and spice up the legs – I recommend it. But, take a look at your plan. If you have more than two or three of these sessions in your 12 or 16 week plan you’re in trouble.

How do you fix this?

Luckily, this fix is pretty simple – just swap out those workouts that aren’t specific to the demands of your race distance for those that are.

Luckily, I make this pretty easy for you in this article with example race specific workouts for the most common race distances. Just take those workout examples and swap them out with your mis-guided workouts.

For most runners, not performing race specific workouts is the reason they feel like they are getting fitter and faster in training, yet fail to run their goal time on race day. Their training is getting them fitter, just not for their specific race.

Not enough easy miles

One of the most common questions I get, especially from newer runners sign up for one of our plans is “how am I supposed to run fast if I am running easy all the time”.

That’s because for most runners, about 80% of your training plan should be easy miles.

These easy runs help target your aerobic system and aerobic development is the one true secret to training and it’s the key to unlocking your potential. Here’s an article on what the aerobic system is, in case you’re not quite sure.

Sure, track workouts, VO2max sessions, and tempo runs will increase your fitness and are still important to racing faster.

However, nothing will consistently help you improve like developing the aerobic system.

But, why is this?

In short, during any event longer than 5k, the aerobic system contributes more than 84% of the energy required to run the race. In the marathon, that number is 99%. Here’s the data if you don’t believe me.

That means to run your best at longer distances from 5k to the marathon you need to fully develop your aerobic system.

So, how do you develop the aerobic system? With slow, easy runs. And that’s why your plan should have lots of them!

Now, take a look at your plan – are you doing the majority of your mileage at your easy pace? If not, here’s what you can do…

How to fix

The fix here isn’t quite as easy as swapping our race specific workouts.

My recommendation, and this is you taking me on faith here, is to remove intense workouts from your week until your ratio is 70-80% easy miles to 20-30% hard mileage.

Add up your total weekly mileage. Then add up the amount of mileage that is at easy pace. Divide your total easy mileage by your total overall mileage. This number is the percent you’re running easy.

I know removing hard and fast workouts seems to be a recipe for racing slower, but science proves otherwise. Recent research from Dr Stephen Seiler et al from the University of Agdar, Norway, backs up this methodology; finding that high volume, low intensity training stimulates greater training effects for recreational runners, in particular when using the 80/20 split of easy/hard training.

A conclusion backed up by the 2014 Salzburg study published in the Frontiers of Physiology, found that the concept of ‘polarized’ training demonstrated the greatest improvements.

After a 9 week training period, runners using the 80/20 easy/hard split had improved their ‘time to exhaustion’ by a whopping 17.4% and change in peak speed by 5.1%.

If you’d rather not remove workouts from your plan, another option is to add more easy mileage. Now, you might be scoffing at me, thinking if you add more miles you’ll likely end up injured.

However, it’s a common misconception among runners that increased mileage has a direct correlation to an increase injuries. This simply isn’t true. Mileage alone does not cause injuries.

Intensity, mechanics, strength and unintelligent training are far more likely to cause an injury than running easy mileage. Increase your mileage the smart way and you’ll be totally fine.

No Ancillary Work Integrated Into Your Plan

A training plan is more than just the miles you run and the workouts you perform. It should include everything you need to make you a better runner.

Ancillary work, like strength training and cross training, can help keep you healthy and make you a better runner – but not if they are just thrown on top of your running plan without regard for intensity, the phase of your training plan, and your specific weaknesses.

For example, the mistake many runners make is performing their strength workouts on their easy, recovery or off days.

The thinking behind this idea makes sense – you’re the most tired after hard workouts, so why push yourself even more by adding strength work on these days?

But, we’re forgetting about the recovery aspect and the training plan as a whole.

If you were to perform harder strength workouts, especially anything that involves the lower body, on your easy running day the added stress and shortened total recovery time between workouts would detract from your body’s recovery ability.

That’s why a good strength training plan needs to be tightly integrated into your running plan. Otherwise, you might be doing more harm than good.

How to fix

If you’re currently working from a plan that does not specifically assign you ancillary work in addition to running miles, my recommendation is to add to your training in the following way…

  • Your hardest, most running-specific strength routines (like leg workouts) after your hardest workouts
  • Your medium effort routines (like basic core or hip routines) on your regular running days
  • Any preventive routines on your off or recovery days

I know that’s still even a little general, but it’s difficult to get specific without knowing your experience level or what distance you’re training for.

If you do want something more specific and created for you, we do have strength training built in directly to our custom training plans. So, you get an exact routine (with video demos, instructions, etc.) prescribed to you based on your race distance and experience level and added to your plan on the correct days.

You’re running the wrong paces

The paces for your workouts should all be assigned to elicit a specific physiologic response. That sounds a bit science or jargony, so let me gibe you an example to explain.

In marathon training you’ll be assigned workouts called aerobic threshold runs.

Aerobic threshold is defined as the fastest pace you can run while using the aerobic system as the primary energy pathway. Aerobic threshold is important because it’s the pace that is the perfect balance between fat and carbohydrate utilization. The faster your aerobic threshold pace, the faster you can race the marathon without bonking.

To target aerobic threshold you need to run at aerobic threshold pace, which is roughly current marathon pace. If you run too fast you’ll actually be running a lactate or anaerobic threshold run – a workout that targets a different energy system. Here’s more on different types of thresholds.

Now, the reason most runners and template plans get this wrong is that they base your training paces off your goal time. Usually, it’s a plug and play with something like “30 seconds faster than marathon pace” or “30 minutes at marathon pace”.

But, your goal marathon pace isn’t your current fitness level (if it was, it wouldn’t be a goal). Ideally, it’s where you hope your fitness will be on race day.

Thus, when you attempt to run an aerobic threshold run, you set your paces too fast and thus miss the mark. Here’s an example:

Let’s say your goal is to break 3:45 for the marathon (8:35 per mile pace) and you base your training off this. But, your current fitness is more like a 4:00 marathon, which is 9:09 pace.

That means when you’re trying to run aerobic threshold runs at 8:35, you’re WAY too fast to target your aerobic threshold properly. At almost 40 seconds a mile quicker, this is more a high end or anaerobic threshold run.

Sure, it’s going to get you fitter overall, but it’s not going to help you improve in the marathon. This is exactly why you keep getting fitter and maybe even PRing in shorter events but bonk or fall apart during the marathon.

In short, when your goal time is off, all of your paces are going to be off. That means you’ll be running all the wrong effort levels and negating the most important benefit of your harder workouts. You’ll be wasting your time training.

How to fix

If your training plan is based off your goal pace or time for the race, stop now and re-calculate.

Step 1: Establish a baseline

The first thing you need to do is determine what your current fitness level is.

If you’ve run a race recently, you can use this time to extrapolate what you could run for a longer or shorter distance.

If your goal race is the same distance again, no calculations are needed. We can simply use this time as your data point for step 2

Step 2: Factor in your likely rate of improvement

If you’ve been running less than a year and improving with each race, you can expect about a 6 to 8 percent improvement in performance over the course of your training. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 4:30 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 4:08 to 4:13.

If you’ve been running for more than a year but you’re still PRing in most races and increasing your commitment to training, you can expect a 4 to 6 percent improvement to your performance. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 4:00 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 3:45 to 3:50.

If you’re more experienced and have been training for many years, then you should expect a 2 to 4% improvement in performance. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 3:20 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 3:12 to 3:16.

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Click here to access this handy pace calculator to determine what pace you should be running at in training and at each racing distance based on a recent race result.

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This is the “goal time” you should now use to set paces in your training program.

Step 3: Adjust and adapt

After three to four weeks, if you think you’ve gotten fitter or you want to measure your rate of improvement to determine if you’re making progress towards your ultimate goal, run another race. Try to keep the race as integrated with your training as possible (for example, run the race in place of a hard workout) so you don’t impact your long-term progress.

If you improve, you can now update your “goal paces” in your training plan knowing you are still targeting the correct effort levels.

Need More Help?

I hope this was a great guide to help you better understand the current plan you’re using and to help tweak it to better suit some of the challenges I know a lot of runners face when it comes to their training plan and race day.

If you are interested in getting something more custom to you, we do have training plans available, with coaching, at an affordable cost.

Whether you’re a Masters runner tired of working with template schedules that don’t take into account you’re not 25 years old anymore or a beginner who is always trying generic schedules that are too difficult for you, we write your plan unique to you.

We analyze data from 30 different questions to help craft a schedule suited to your training history, strengths and weaknesses.

Your plan includes the exact mileage or kilometers you need to run each day and assigns you specific paces based on your fitness level.

Plus, you have access to our team of coaches to help adjust your plan when needed, provide feedback or advice after workouts, and to help you stay on track. Check out our options here.

Free Run Faster Course

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The scientific demands of your race distance so you know exactly how to target your workouts and training.

6 Race specific workouts that will help up you crush your next race

The most common mistakes you're making in training and in your race plan (and how to fix them)


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