You’ve been there: A few miles into a run, you are wondering to yourself, “Why am I running today? When is my next race?” Maybe you ran long the day before. Perhaps you have an especially challenging workout the next day. Whatever the reason, you are not sure exactly why you are doing a particular workout on a given day. Likewise, you might have no idea how hard you should be running, or whether you should be running at all.
Like many other aspects of life in 2020, you are caught in a cycle of uncertainty. Accompanying that uncertainty is a sense of feeling “lost,” where you are not exactly sure where your running should be – base work, speed work, race prep?
Unless you are running “just to run” - and many of us do exactly that - you are probably accustomed to training for a specific race, or a series of races. In that case, every workout in your training schedule has a certain purpose that is aligned with your current training phase. Commonly referred to as “periodization,” the optimal training method for any race distance is to go through different phases - usually lasting several weeks - where you focus on different aspects of your running. Generally, those distinct periods are base, build, sharpen, peak, and taper.
But again, all of that is shattered when races are canceled or postponed and there are extremely few certain race dates on the calendar anywhere.
So, what to do? Here is a recommended 3-step plan that can help you get through it. Remember that most training plans have distinct periods that all begin with a base period, followed by a building phase. Together, the base and build phases account for about 10-12 weeks for marathon training, and about 6-8 weeks for half-marathon training.
Step 1: Get back to basics with base work.
This is where you gradually increase your volume (total weekly miles) over time at an easy pace. The objective is to improve endurance, not to gain speed. A key aspect here is to think in terms of weeks, not days. How many weeks? That depends on your level of fitness when you begin the base work. There are no one-size-fits-all regimens for base building, and runners start their own base periods with different levels of conditioning, speed, strength, and stamina. A coach can help you schedule a series of weeks where you focus on your base training, after which you’ll notice improvements in your speed. That’s a positive development to note, but it should not be your daily goal to “beat yesterday’s time.” That will come in the next phase.
Step 2: Start to build strength and stamina.
There are several commonly used terms for the next periodization phase. “Build stage,” “quality workout phase,” and “stamina phase” are examples that coaches use. The common component of this phase is that the workouts begin to increase intensity, with tempo runs, interval sessions, hill workouts, and other types of runs. It is important to note that not all your workouts will be high intensity during this phase. A lot of your weekly mileage should continue to be at your aerobic pace. There is also a need for “recovery runs,” which typically are scheduled for the days after hard workouts or very long runs. The objective of recovery runs is to loosen up stiff and tired legs, and to move oxygen and nutrients into the muscles for repair.
Step 3: Move on towards sharpen and peak phases or GO BACK to Step 1.
After the base and build periods is the “sharpen” phase, where workouts focus on “goal pace.” Workouts include many miles of sustained intensity at increasingly longer distances. Beyond the sharpen period is the “peak,” where intensity and volume are the highest in the training cycle. Finally, after that, the “taper” period leads up to a target race.
>But in the current uncertain times we are experiencing, the question runners face is “Will my race happen, and if not, what do I do?” That is the key point at which you must evaluate the likelihood of the race occurring, weighed against your own current level of fitness, overall health, and (most important) willingness to commit to the growing demands of the training cycles ahead.
This is where you have to make the decision to (1) proceed into the next phases of hard work, or (2) show the discipline to back off training, let your body recover from weeks or months of hard work, and…start over again with base work.
It is frustrating but does not have to be thought of as “going back to square one.” Instead, think of your training as going through a series of plateaus. If you progress through Steps 1 and 2 properly, and have remained healthy through those weeks of training, you will be starting another base period at a fitness level that is higher than before. From there, you can advance through another building stage, and hopefully will see another race on the horizon.
Most importantly, you must not fall into a mentality of “I have reached this level of fitness and I want to stay here.” It is extremely difficult to sustain the high levels of intensity and volume that are common during the sharpen and peak periods. A typical training cycle has only a few weeks of training in these phases, and they are not designed for long-term training within those periods. The number one reason to avoid too much intensity and mileage? Injury. You do not want to become injured.
So, why am I doing this workout today?
Back to the initial question: “Why am I running today?” Whatever your answer, make sure that your workout is consistent with your periodization phase. Are you in the early weeks of your base training? If so, you should not be doing intervals on the track. Are you in the middle of your “build” period, where you are ramping up speed and intensity? If so, you might not want to be grinding out a hilly 10-miler the day after a hard intervals session. Are you wondering why you’re scheduled for a 3-mile “recovery run” the day after a long run? If you cannot answer the question, ask your coach. If your coach cannot answer the question...then it might be time to find another coach!
The point here is that you want to avoid the pitfall of wandering aimlessly through days and weeks of running without purpose. When faced with uncertainty, you can establish your own certainty by planning your base and build phases, followed by planning what to do next depending on the question we all are trying to answer: “When is my next race?”
Paul Carmona is the Online REVEL Coach who has designed training plans specifically for REVEL downhill courses. He is a 24-time REVEL Marathon Finisher and has run multiple Boston Qualifiers on every REVEL course. His current streak is 22 BQs in a row at REVEL marathons! You can contact Coach Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.