4 Lessons About Training I Wish I Knew When I First Started Running
I’ve been fortunate to be a runner for more than half my life (albeit I am still pretty young) and had the opportunity to train with some of the best running groups and athletes in the US. Likewise, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to learn from some of the best minds in our sport as a coach. I guess you can say I’ve been a lucky runner!
This unique blend of experience and perspectives as an athlete, coach, observer, and student has significantly impacted the lens through which I see training as I’ve gotten older. Specifically, it’s opened my eyes to the mistakes I made in my own training; particularly how I approached running from the mental side of things.
In this article, I am going to imagine I’ve developed a time machine so that I can go back into the past to tell the younger version of myself four lessons I should heed. (Yes, I am a big enough running geek that this is what I would do if I had a time machine.) Follow along, and hopefully you can apply some of these lessons to your own training and prevent some of these pitfalls yourself.
Stop running while injured
Like all runners, I’ve had my fair share of running injuries. Whether they were from adjusting to the mileage demands and intense training as I grew as a runner or from pushing the envelope too hard and not getting enough rest, I experienced just about every injury you can imagine. Most were short lived, a few were painstakingly long, and one ended my career as a serious runner.
While some injuries can’t be avoided, at least not when you’re pushing your limits, my stubborn approach to injuries could have saved me a lot of time on the shelf, prevented further injuries, and allowed me to be more consistent with training and racing.
You see, my first instinct when I came down with an injury was to ask, “How can I run through this?”
You’re nodding your head because I know this is how all runners think.
Instead of realizing the tell-tale signs of an injury, thinking long-term, and deciding to take a few rest days (which would not have impacted my fitness in the slightest), I chose to run on it until it became so bad that I needed weeks, not days, to fully recover.
The trick with most running injuries is that if you identify and treat them early, they tend to disappear rather quickly. For example, if you feel a slight tug at the bottom of your foot (a sign of plantar fasciitis), sleeping in a splint, resting for a day or two, some massage, and strength exercises will knock that case of plantar fasciitis out before it has a chance to become anything meaningful. However, decide that it’s okay to run through, despite the increasing pain at the bottom of your foot, and you may need six months off and two surgeries to run again (I speak from experience, obviously).
If you feel an injury creeping up, take the time to get rid of the pain and the source of the problem early. It’s infinitely better to take one or two days off to ensure you’re healthy than need weeks or months down the road.
Being tough doesn’t mean being stupid
Along the same lines, I should have learned early on that “being tough” didn’t mean running through extreme fatigue or never needing a rest day. As the legendary coach, Alberto Salazar, once said:
You’ve got to have the confidence in yourself where you believe that you can take those days off and you can recover and you can run great. A lot of what we see in athletes that just train all the time and never give themselves adequate recovery is often portrayed as toughness. What I’ve realized over the years is it really is a weakness. It’s an insecurity that you’re not good enough to recover like other athletes: I’m not good enough to do that; I need to keep training; I can’t take time off; I can’t take easy days.
This “tough” mentality was ingrained since childhood, which it is for many athletes. I grew up in a football-crazed town, which meant I played hurt and water was for sissies, but that mentality couldn’t be further from the attitude needed to be a good distance runner. My stubbornness only lead to up and down workouts and race results. Looking back at all my training, I’ve never once said, “Boy, I wish I had trained harder,” but I have looked back and wished I would have trained smarter.
Don’t skip on the ancillary work
Even as a semi-professional runner, finding the time and energy to fit in all the “little things” was difficult. If I wasn’t rushing off to work, I was passed out on the couch after a 150-mile week. For me, getting in all the miles and the workouts was priority number one, and finding time for supplementary work, like strides, hill sprints, core work, and drills, was a luxury for those days when I had extra time. Many of you probably approach your supplementary work the same way, and I am here to tell you that making this type of training a priority will make you a better runner.
For marathoners and those runners blessed with the ability to run for miles on end, getting in speed development work, such as strides and explosive hill sprints, will allow you to run more efficiently and improve your top-end speed. Ultimately, this will lead to faster marathon and half marathon times and raise your performance ceiling. Likewise, if you’re a beginner or injury-prone runner, working on strength, core, and form work will ultimately allow you to train more and stay healthy.
Getting too stressed about bad workouts
Perhaps my biggest mistake when I first began running was being too hard on myself. Looking back at my old training logs, an outsider reading them might think I was suffering from severe depression. Having a bad workout on Friday would ruin my entire weekend.
Not only is this not productive from a training standpoint, it’s not a healthy or fun way to approach running. Relaxing about my training would have made me less nervous at races and allowed me to enjoy the process more. Just as important, it would have prevented negative thoughts from creeping in my head and causing ruts in training and racing when I couldn’t get positive momentum going.
Western runners can learn a lot from the approach to training Kenyan runners adopt. First, Americans have a mentality that you are only as good as your last race, or as good as your last workout, and carry this with us from race to race and workout to workout. However, when you talk to Kenyan runners, their approach to their fitness is the opposite. They think you are as good as your greatest day, even if you have not had it yet. Likewise, Kenyan runners learn how to leave their workouts at the track or on the roads. They train hard and push the limits during the workout, but as soon as it’s over, they forget about it—good or bad. This allows them to move on after a bad workout and not let it linger and bleed into their next race.
Heed the lessons I learned along my journey from athlete to coach, and you can avoid these simple, yet significant, training mistakes. Now, if only I could be certain I would have listened myself in my stubborn youth!