All training is (not) equal

I am a believer in training programmes. That is mainly because I know that I am quite a lazy person and unless I have a training programme, I will often struggle to get out and run, especially for the tougher sessions in the week. That is why, once I started trying to find out how good a runner I could be, I began to list what I wanted to do in a week and try to stick to that.

Early marathon training schedules

Initially I had training schedules cobbled together from what I could find online, along with a dash of ‘what I can achieve considering all the other things I want / have to do in my day-to-day life’ and a splash of advice from runners that I got to know.

Then I started reading and building training schedules from books – in particular I used The Competitive Runners Handbook by Bob Glover and Shelly-Lynn Florence Glover, Advanced Marathoning by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglass and The Lore of Running by Tim Noakes. I then added to that my growing personal experiences of running marathons.

Eventually I had a bit of a breakthrough at the Paris Marathon 2010 with 2:43:55 – the first of my peer group at my club the Mornington Chasers to run faster than 2hrs 45min and get the UKA Championship Start qualifying time.

Coaching – the answer to improving

But I was a bit stuck then and didn’t know how to improve further. That is when I met my coach Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs and he started providing my training. An email every fortnight, with clear instructions of what to do every day of the week. Simple.

The only challenge with having training provided by a coach (or indeed from the web or a book) is that there is a degree of inflexibility. To my mind the schedule that is provided is, by its very nature, the optimum training to hit the target you have set for yourself. So any deviation from that schedule, means that you are not training at the optimum level. If you don’t believe that, then you are following the wrong programme or training with the wrong coach.

Not following the programme

This is why recently I have been wrestling with myself. Since launching my business, freestak, with my wife Julie, there has been less time to train. Obviously I managed up to the London marathon, but since then training has not been consistent.

Additionally I have been doing things that would not fit into the training that Nick sends – 7 hour runs with Julie around the mountains in Chamonix, 2 hour pre-breakfast runs in the Alps, a 24-hour relay race where I ran 4 x 10km laps cross country, half of it in the dark, during a storm and through knee-deep mud over a 24 hour period during which I slept for less than 2 hours.

But is that all bad?

Last night, I attempted a club run at the Mornington Chasers. My legs were toast after the 24 hour race two days previously and I had a deep ache in the middle of my right hamstring. I voiced my concern that what I had been doing recently – essentially lots of very long, very slow runs in tough conditions – meant that I had lost the fitness required to run a decent marathon, as I struggled to keep up with the group. In response a friend and training partner said

Well it is all good training and you’ll get great strength benefits from the weekend’s race as well as altitude benefits from all the running in the Alps

Is all training, good training?

So is he right? Is all running good training? I can’t imagine that if Mo Farah trained like Usain Bolt or visa versa, that would do them much good for their respective events.  But for the rest of us, maybe it doesn’t matter so much?

If I am honest, I think that specificity becomes more and more important the closer you get to your absolute limit. If you are just starting out, then I believe that all running – indeed almost all exercise – is going to be beneficial.

But after my summer of fun, I don’t feel as though 26.2 miles at faster than 6 min/mile – which is what I would need to run to PB again – is going to be easy and climbing the slippery pole back to the shape I think I need to be in, will be a pretty stiff challenge.

But at least I still have my training schedules, thanks to Nick. So I am going to simply download them every two weeks and tick off the runs, one by one. Who knows, maybe I have laid down the foundations for a great 10 weeks of training up to the Frankfurt marathon… only time will tell I guess.

The danger of generic – free – training schedules

One of my pet hates is people providing incorrect information or unqualified opinions without bothering to check what they are saying. I’ll give you an example – I know that the new film in the Bourne franchise is due out on DVD on Monday. I strolled in to my local HMV store today and asked one of the shop assistants when they would have it in stock…

Erm, It’s like not out for another three weeks or something – we’ll have it then

Why, if he clearly didn’t know the answer to my question, did he feel the need to tell me something patently not true? And worse, for HMV, he is doing his employer a massive disservice giving people false information that will potentially damage sales. Hrumpf.

But actually I don’t care about HMVs profits and to be frank, if a company employs people who stretch their earlobes and get ironic neck tattoos and think that is a good way to build the business, then they deserve what is coming to them.

What has that got to do with running?

Dis-information is all around us. Take running for example. Anywhere that runners gather, you will likely find someone spouting off about the importance of never stretching or eating your body weight in pasta every day or running around the streets of your city with no shoes on. And the internet only serves to amplify this tendency for some people to say whatever comes into their heads and expect other people to take it as the gospel truth… take free downloadable training plans for example.

A quick search of the world wide web will reveal thousands of ‘free’ marathon training plans that you can download and print out and selotape to your fridge door to guide you through the weeks and months of preparing for a marathon. The problem is that they are – to a greater or lesser degree – wrong. At least they are for you.

What is the problem with free training plans?

This little rant has been inspired by a conversation on twitter that I was involved in a few weeks ago. A contact asked a number of people for a recommendation for a training plan. I suggested a few books that I believe explain the principles of endurance training and provide useful sample training plans and then came the all too familiar response:

Oh I really don’t want to spend any money – I only want free training plans

Now why is that? Perhaps the answer is that the person looking for free plans doesn’t put any value of the years of experience and knowledge that the authors of good training manuals have acquired? Which means – and this is where I get really frustrated – that they don’t put any value on their training OR the end goal they are trying to achieve.

Can it be right that £12.99 and a few hours of reading and studying is more than our intrepid runner is prepared to spend on achieving their goal?

The truth is that generic training plans are never going to be exactly what you need for your training. How can they be? The author has never met you, knows nothing about you and doesn’t even understand the basics of you life and your goals, like whether you work in a manual job or you have three children or you are aiming to break two and a half hours for the marathon.

And I think it is stupid to expect anything useful from a free training plan that you download from a website, after all you would never expect to ask someone for directions without telling them where you are going, how long you have to get there and how you are going to travel, would you?

So what is the answer?

Which brings me back to the start – people, often without malice, will tell you rubbish from time to time. There is no way to avoid that. Worse, some of them will write down what worked for them – or what they would like the world to believe worked for them (“Oh I ran over 100 miles a week every week in training”) – and publish that as a plan for you to follow. You might get lucky – the author of the plan might be exactly like you, with the same time pressures, same biomechanical weaknesses, same unmissable social events on exactly the same days as in your training, same race date, same weather conditions… I think you get my point – but it is likely that anything you download for free won’t be exactly right for you.

What do you do? Well I think that if you are prepared to spend £100 or more on a pair of trainers and much more on a wardrobe of kit, then spend £100s on massage and physio before spending hundreds or sometimes even thousands on race entries, flights and accommodation for your chosen race, you should spend a few quid and some of you precious time working out a training plan that is right for you.

There are some amazing books out there – my favourites include Pfitzinger and Douglas’ Advanced Marathoning and Marathon Running by Richard Nerurkar – and if you read one or more of them you will know how to build a proper training programme that is right for you.

Or you could invest £60 and get half a year’s access to the tailored training plans available through the RunLounge*

The truth is that the best training programme in the world is the one that works for you. If you can manage a speed session, a threshold session, a long run and a couple of other runs each week and increase the duration and intensity of those runs as you build up to you race, you’ll be on track to do well. But beyond that, you must realise that the details of how, what and when you do your training will be unique to you. That isn’t available for free from the internet!

And then…?

And then when you have worked out exactly what you need to get you to the finish line of your key races in the time you want, you can post it on the internet and let people download it for free: you never know, they might be exactly like you!





* Disclaimer: I have a vested interest in the RunLounge as I edit and produce much of the content on there. Just so you know.

Show me the evidence

Belief vs. empirical evidence – it’s a bit like a battle between love or magic vs. science or logic. The romantic in me always wants to believe that there is a magic and an art to running, but the truth is, I believe that running is a direct input-output relationship.

If you train and prepare well, you will get the result you want. If you don’t, you won’t.

So when I announced to my coach that after tackling three ultra marathons in three months, culminating in a 130 mile three-day stage race at the end of August, I would like to start a 15 week programme to race a marathon in Italy in December, I thought that he would simply tell me that it wasn’t possible, that I was being foolish.

Instead, he double-bluffed me. He said that me racing a marathon in December would be possible, but he would want to see something before we seriously contemplated the idea…


So I have a target, which is not the one I thought I might have. Now I have to qualify for my own challenge, by running at least one half marathon personal best, between the end of the epic-ultra and the middle of November. If I can do that, then perhaps the marathon is a ‘go-er’.

Belief… or naivety

But many runners don’t have a coach who is used to greedy athletes wanting to revisit the sticky honey pot of racing time and time again. And I was reminded of this by a friend who told me of a group of new runners, training for a 10km road race, who had decided – for what reason I don’t know – that they were going to try to run sub-35 minute times on their debut.

I am not talking about seasoned 1500m, 3000m or 5000m track athletes here, going for their first road race. No, these are real newbies – people who have never really been very active or trained consistently. The fact is that they are completely naive and they have picked up the idea that 35 minutes is a good target from goodness knows where. They haven’t even tested themselves – no track sessions, no ParkRuns…

The truth is, maybe I am the one who needs to rethink things – maybe I set limiters on myself and everyone I come in contact with through running, because I don’t believe in magic. I believe in evidence. But then again, maybe a little evidence is always a good thing. What do you think?