5 Training Mistakes Every Runner Makes
I’ve been coaching runners one-on-one, in groups and online for more than 23 years. I have guided thousands of new and seasoned runners through their training for 5Ks, ultramarathons, and everything in between. And I’ve seen these five issues come up over and over again, like a scene out of the movie Groundhog Day.
1/ Running too much, too soon
Running is a high-impact activity, and covering too much terrain before your body is ready can leave you with aches and pains that can delay your progress and lead to injuries.
Give yourself plenty of runway to build your mileage – it will give your body and mind time to adapt to the demands of running. A general rule of thumb is to ramp up by no more than 10 percent per week. If you’re running about 16 kilometres per week (four-ish kilometres, three times per week), then you should add no more than a kilometre the following week. As you build your weekly mileage, you’ll be add slightly more mileage week to week. (For example, once you’re covering 32 kilometres in a week, you could safely add three kilometres the following week.)
2/ Obsessing over pace
Whether you’re learning to run or training to improve your race time, the key to achieving your goals is to train by listening to your body on the given day.
The rise of GPS devices has allowed runners to see their paces in real time, which has led to the troubling trend of runners using pace as their only guide. However, a pace that feels easy and comfortable on a cool, cloudy, wind-free day may feel challenging on a hot, sunny and gusty day. Weather, terrain and your health are all variables that can make certain paces feel easier or harder than they would on an average day.
Training by pace is a little like trying to pick the winning lottery ticket numbers. Misjudging what pace might be appropriate on a given day can lead to running too hard or feeling ashamed if you run slower than planned.
The body knows effort, not pace, and when you learn to train by effort, you will always train in the optimal zone on the given day. Let your pace be the outcome of your performance, not your guide.
3/ Training too hard on recovery days
The day after a hard or long workout, it is vital to follow with an easy-effort run or cross-training session to give the body time to recover and adapt. It’s a little like sleep to our health. Recovery workouts allow runners to heal, adapt, and improve. This is especially true for masters runners (that is, those over 40) – recovery takes longer as we age.
Plug in easy-effort runs or low-impact cross-training workouts (cycling, using the elliptical, swimming, hiking) on the days after your hard or long runs. It can help to leave your watch at home and run by feel. Every kilometre or so, check in with your breathing and effort level. If it doesn’t feel easy and you can’t talk in full sentences, slow down. Another way to run easy is to use run-walk intervals – run for several minutes or a kilometre, walk briskly for a minute or two and repeat.
4/ Cramming for a race
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is fitness for a race. If you attempt to cram 18 weeks of marathon training into a six-week plan, bad things will happen. It takes time for your body to adapt to the demands a race will put on it, especially a long-distance event. The sad truth is that many runners who prepare this way never attempt that distance again because the race ends up being so painful.
Training is one the best parts of being a runner. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for a target race and it will pay off. You’ll improve your speed, distance, and stamina, and that will motivate you to keep training and racing.
If you’re just learning to run, give yourself several months before you race, and take your time. You will hit a tipping point where you can improve more steadily, but not if you push too quickly in the beginning. Allow six to eight weeks to prepare for a 5K or 10K, 12 to 14 weeks for a half marathon, 16 to 22 weeks for a marathon, and 20 to 24 weeks for an ultra. When you have a long runway of time, it allows wiggle room for life’s happenings (illness, holiday, work) along the way.
5/ Playing catch-up
Speaking of training detours: jumping back into a training plan as if nothing happened when you’ve missed time due to illness or injury can lead to more illness or injury. A training plan should be written in pencil, not permanent marker – adjust as needed to ensure you reach the starting line healthy and ready to finish your race.
If, for example, you start to feel a tightness on the outside of your knee and it is affecting your running gait, it doesn’t mean your season is over – it is, more often than not, a yellow flag. By dedicating a few days to low-impact cross-training and foam rolling, you are more likely to heal and continue on your training plan. If you push through it to stick to your training plan, it can lead to a longer recovery and more serious injuries. The same is true when you’re sick. If you have a mild illness (above the neck), invest two to three days in active or passive rest and, if all feels good, continue on with your training plan.
If you are sidelined with a more serious illness or injury, put your training on hold, invest time in healing and when you get the green light from your doctor, start back gradually and based on where you are, rather than where you should be in your plan. You’re now on a training Plan B, and it should start with very short, easy-effort runs for the first week and build slowly from there. In some cases, you can build back up to a solid base before the race, while other times it makes more sense to defer your race entry.
It is always best to avoid playing training programme catch-up to reach a certain long run distance before race day. This game leaves you fatigued and sore, and it will negatively affect your race-day performance. It is always better to go into a race healthy and with a lower base of mileage – your body and mind will be better prepared for the demands of the race.