In this chapter from Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach for Every Runner, two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper shares the work/life and training balance strategies he developed to compete at the highest level–while raising a family.
A few years ago, a friend of mine decided she wanted to run her first marathon. Her goal was to finish the marathon and enjoy the experience. Being a New Jersey native, she was drawn to the New York City Marathon. And understandably so—it’s one of the world’s most prestigious races, with an amazing course that winds through five boroughs of the city to a grand finish in Central Park. She was fortunate to get in via the lottery and started planning her preparation.
Being a somewhat new runner and having never trained for a marathon before, she sought the help of a local coach and training group. After building a nice base of fitness in the spring, she settled into a 16-week training program by the first week of July. She committed to the training with the end goal of her 26.2-mile marathon the first weekend in November. She had in place many of the right elements to assure her success: desire, perseverance, dedication, and a training program. What she was lacking, however, was balance, a not-uncommon situation among runners, and unfortunately, it ended up vastly diminishing her experience.
The main problem was that her training was forced upon her current lifestyle, obligations, and scheduling requirements. She allowed the training group’s coach to dictate too many of the variables, which undermined her own dedication to the goal. Unfortunately, she did not choose a coach or group that were a good fit for her goals, and with this came continual and difficult compromises with her schedule as well as energy-sucking ongoing juggling to fit in the training.
Based on her goals, the training level was too aggressive, well above what she needed to complete a marathon and actually enjoy the process. Some of the many examples that wore her down and made for a less-than-ideal approach included long runs very early on the weekends for the sake of the group, hard sessions in inclement weather without concession, pushing through training during vacation, and a lack of compromise around her work obligations.
Despite all that, she did reach one goal and finished the New York City Marathon—but her experience was not a pleasant one. “I did not enjoy the race,” she told me afterward. “All I did was put my head down, did not look to either side, heard nothing, felt nothing, and my entire focus was simply about finishing.” Not surprisingly, although she has remained fit and active, she has not run since that marathon. It was all too much, and her training sucked the life out of what should have been an amazing, even a life-changing experience. Not only was her chance to enjoy a world-class event squandered, but the lasting satisfaction that comes with the process of preparation was compromised as well.
One of the best things about training for an endurance event such as a marathon is that it is not just about accomplishing a goal; it is also about the journey. Immense personal satisfaction can come from executing a great workout, taking a run on a beautiful day, breaking ground on snow-covered streets when no one else is out, exploring a new trail, running faster for a workout that you did weeks earlier at the same effort, or finishing a long run strong, knowing you could continue for 2 more miles if you wanted to. Equally meaningful satisfaction comes from a new level of fitness or the increased self-confidence derived from running. But those joys and gratifications can go unrecognized without balance, robbing you of a key part of the running experience.
I credit the consistency that I enjoyed throughout my career, per- forming at a high level year after year and continuing to improve, in large part to my ability to create an environment for success. I became very good at developing balance in my approach, and that allowed for sustainability. The Olympic approach is all about finding that correct balance so you can focus on completing the necessary training with the proper amount of mental output. If the training is forced into your schedule, as was the case with my friend, then it either won’t be as productive as it could be, will drain the joy from it (thus zapping your desire to continue), or will require an unnecessary amount of mental energy y.
There is a common misconception that training should be tough not only physically but also psychologically. Some runners feel it necessary to make the training harder mentally than it should be. I recall a friend telling me he got up very early every day, did 150 push-ups and other core strength exercises, and got out the door at dawn for his run. Though some runners may need to work out very early for scheduling reasons, he forced himself to do it merely because he thought it would make him tougher. In the end, all it really did was make him tired and cranky because he was continually sacrificing sleep. Don’t make the training harder than it needs to be. Find your balance.
Developing An Environment For Success
During runs and workouts, you want your focus on the task at hand, not on what it took just to get out the door. If the setting is right, it is easy to focus on training. Getting the setting right is of course easier said than done. Many runners are so spent emotionally by the sacrifices made and juggling done just to get to the starting line that they cannot perform as well as possible. Having a clearly defined goal and a training plan in place to support that goal are imperative, but these are not all that is required. Endeavor to create an atmosphere that is free of unnecessary distraction and mental drainage.
The more significant the goal, the more careful you have to be in terms of psychological strain. Construct an atmosphere that makes training as easy as possible emotionally. You should enjoy training and allow it to exist only as a positive part of your life. By constructing an atmosphere that allows for the least amount of psychological strain, you free yourself to be mentally focused and physically as effective as possible.
Whatever your level of engagement in running, adhering to the principle of proper balance is critical. But how do you go about creating it? It begins with an understanding of the importance of what I call “training flow.”
The Importance Of Flow
The Russian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi famously defined “flow ” as being “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, with full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Immersion, focus, involvement, and enjoyment are key components of having flow in your running. In sport, we often hear it called “being in the zone.” But as it relates specifically to training, flow includes yet another crucial element: developing a systematic rhythm to your monthly, weekly, and daily routines.
It’s critical that your training have this rhythm in order to be sustainable and ultimately successful. Anyone can train hard and adopt a mind-set that spurs on temporary motivation and a willingness to push hard through a particular workout for a few weeks or months. I am talking about more than being ready to train hard. Flow is a holistic concept that recognizes that every day has a purpose and a rhythm, and it incorporates large and small elements inclusive of both your training and your daily life. It’s about having a sense of mindful presence when you look not only at how running fits into your life but also how each day’s run or workout fits into your overall training plan. Each session needs to fit into the grand scheme, and no one part should be overemphasized. It’s important to have a sense of presence every day and know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it as it relates to a bigger picture. You need to realize that a single day’s activity—whether it is a long run, an easy recovery run, a grueling speed session, or a day of crosstraining or rest—is as important as that of every other day. Each activity plays a near-equal role in training, from hard work days to easy rest days. Understanding this rhythm helps you to focus on your tasks each day and also helps create and maintain a healthy, sustainable perspective.
Here are common scenarios that work against a sense of flow and rhythm. Do you recognize yourself in any of them?
Some runners turn workouts into a competition with others in their training group, basing their measurement of success on who finished ahead of whom in a workout or long run instead of how well they met that workout’s prescribed goals.
Others focus too much on one or two days of the week—getting in a well-executed long progression run and pushing hard during a speed session—only to neglect recovery runs, active rest, or good sleep habits. They are in the bad habit of making the long run or weekly tempo run the main focus for their week and in doing so allowing the other five days of the week to become an afterthought.
Still others feel tired or experience a rough work day and either allow themselves to dog it during a tempo run or take several days off until work stress and sleep habits become normalized.
To reach your ultimate race goals, every aspect of your training must work in harmony. Temporary satisfaction or misguided competitive drive throws you out of balance and should be tempered if you hope to achieve your true potential. Pushing hard in a workout is great, but if you neglect post-run strides, cut the next day’s workout short, or run too hard too often, you will not be able to achieve flow, that rhythmic accord that helps create balance and provides purpose and order to your training.
If you simply want to get back into shape or enjoy the simplicity of competition or an endorphin release, then pushing hard in workouts here and there or on the weekly long run is a great way to do so. If you have a specific goal, however, then your training must be intentional with a specific purpose for each day. In the chapter on training, we will explore how the various physiological elements work together on a weekly, monthly, and long-term basis to allow the body to be fully developed.
Finding flow from the beginning is critical. For one thing, establishing a rhythm allows you to better determine how you are going to feel each day. You may not always feel good, but you can at least be pre- pared for those days in the week where you don’t feel as spry. Too, flow enables you to better wrap your head around the training. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you start a training cycle, especially given all the other influences and variables in your life, such as work, family, and travel. When you go out and hit every workout hard or find yourself competing against training partners or obsessing over the number of miles in a long run or the pace you have to hit in your tempo, you can start to feel overwhelmed. You wonder, “How am I possibly going to keep this up week after week?” Flow helps you plan not just for a day but for the entire week and beyond, breaking your training down mentally into more manageable pieces.
It is a beautiful thing when a moderate 10 -mile r un physically, mentally, and emotionally feels like an easy 3-mile effort. Part of that has to do with advancing your training, but it also has to do with finding flow.
Once you develop flow, it can stay with you for the long term. For example, whenever I came off an extended break following a training period that led up to a big race, I was amazed at how uncomfortable I felt during a short , easy run. You know the feeling, right? A few weeks of less activity, and your aerobic base can start to dwindle. Truth be told, that easy 30-minute run would soon be shorter than my second run on any particular day. I rarely ran less than 5 miles at a time on a double-run day, and yet starting out with an easy 5 miles a few weeks after a big goal race always felt mentally like an uphill 15-miler on a windy day.
But that will not feel like a discouraging setback if you understand the rhythm of your training in the big picture and how your body adjusts following a rest period. As your body adapts, so too does your mind. Maintaining the mindful presence from your previous training period and carrying it over to your next one—even after you’ve lost some fitness and conditioning—will help get you through the rough periods of your new training program and keep your psychological and physiological systems in sync.
So how do you develop flow in your training routine? You must establish a mind-set based on the rhythm of a training program in which every day has a specific purpose. Easy days, tempo runs, longer intervals, speed, the long run, mileage, tapering, rest—everything plays a role and is harmoniously interwoven into your weekly and monthly regimen. Allowing for a proper amount of time to build up also aids in this process and not only prevents many injuries but also lets you slowly work into the flow of training. How you sleep, how you maintain your diet, how you execute your fueling strategy, and how you implement your stretching routine all play into the development of flow. The process also involves prioritizing your time and making sacrifices when you must.
What gets in the way of flow are things like jumping into training without a plan, overemphasizing one element, pushing too hard in workout sessions, racing in practice, dogging your easy days, and a lack of mental acuity. You can’t do everything and expect to do everything well. You can’t limit your sleep, spend too many nights out with friends, or be a workaholic and expect to run with the proper level of intensity, focus, and effort.
Flow is about more than just training; it has to do with the overall balance in your life. It all starts with timing.
Timing Is Everything
A predictable schedule and training routine are the first steps in creating an environment for success and a platform that encourages flow. Lack of consistency makes it easy to get snarled up in all your other commitments or allows your daily run to become a cumbersome mental weight. There is nothing worse than having to put off your run and then having it hang over you in a negative way. Running should be our release, not a chore. Having a planned time each day for training helps eliminate lapses in self-discipline and keeps your training from becoming burdensome. The first step in creating the balance that leads to flow is choosing a time that fits your schedule and your temperament.
The training must suit your lifestyle and not be forced in where others think it should go. For many people, running must be done in the morning before the workday begins; some must get up as early as
4 a.m. to get a run in before morning obligations with the family, work, or commuting begins. For them, running at lunchtime might be a better option. Still others know they have time in the early evening, and for them this is the best option. The key is to be realistic.
As someone who transitioned from a full-time professional athlete to a full-time businessman with a young family, I have found that running in the morning is not feasible for me at this point in my life.
No One Gets By On Talent Alone
Running during my lunch hour is my best option and one that I have grown accustomed to. I enjoy the break in the middle of the day to get out and exercise and don’t feel the strain of getting up at the crack of dawn to go out the door. I know I wouldn’t last more than a week if I had to wake up at 5 a.m. to get my run in. Couple that with the darkness of cold winter mornings, and I cringe just thinking about it. It all comes down to your personal preference and what is practical for you.
Running at a time that suits your temperament and schedule not only lessens the mental burden and gives you a greater chance to achieve flow, but it also helps to ensure predictability in how you feel. Running at approximately the same time each day allows your mind and body to get into a rhythm. Our bodies love routine. Taking a we’ll- see, day-by-day approach makes it tough to predict how you are going to feel. Having some control over your timing helps you keep your focus on the workout at hand rather than on, say, the heat you didn’t expect in the middle of the day because you never run at noon or the fact that you are uncomfortably full from dinner as you head out on the odd night run.
In addition, deciding on a time and embracing that it is your time to train lessens the chance of infringement by outside distractions or commitments. Plan parent-teacher conferences, business meetings, or other work and family obligations around your training time as much as is possible. In other words, treat your training time as one of your planned commitments, and don’t compromise except when absolutely necessary. Holding fast to planned workout times reinforces your commitment and intention. Allowing your training time to be overrun by work or family obligations leads to inconsistency and disrupts balance. Does that mean you have to be a bit selfish about your time? Probably. But remind yourself that it is typically only an hour a day (perhaps longer on weekends), and the benefits are immense relative to the sacrifices you are making. Remember, even during extremely busy periods of your life, it is unlikely that you’ll ever feel more stressed after you return from a run. Rather, your daily run of ten gives you time to clear your head, think rationally, and come to a greater understanding of stressors in your life. In contrast, missing your planned running time because of a work, family, or personal commitment can cause anxiety and breakdown and erode your dedication to running.
When I was training as a full-time athlete, my entire day was planned around my workouts—running two times a day, doing strength and core sessions, getting massage or physical therapy treatments, and occasionally doing crosstraining exercises—and although finding the time was less of an issue, I still approached each day very seriously. Elite runners who are training full time have different obligations, but the champion principles of commitment, dedication, and time management apply just as much to a recreational runner who works a full-time job. Elite runners typically run twice a day, four to six days a week in order to achieve the necessary mileage for racing longer distances. I always ran my primary sessions in the morning, after my standard morning rituals and proper hydrating, and did not let other things get in the way. Delaying that first run session by even one hour—by doing tempting things such as reading the newspaper, answering e-mails, running errands, or relaxing at home—adds an element of burden to getting out the door. The point is that no matter whether you’re a recreational runner with a full-time job or an aspiring elite runner or somewhere in between, you must take advantage of the window of time allotted to you. Delaying by 20 minutes or 3 hours for any reason chips away at your intent and shifts the focus of your run from something you were planning to do with gusto to something you do with less meaning or even dread.
How can you build that window of opportunity for yourself? Decide what time of day you can commit to with the least amount of compromise to your existing schedule, and don’t allow that time to be disrespected by yourself or by others. This reinforces your intention to the training process and helps build consistency. Your training should not be a burden but should rather complement your existing schedule. Sacrifices are certainly required, but not so much that you are contin- ually making changes in your life or forcing the training where it just does not fit. The less-than-stellar results that my friend experienced in her buildup to the New York marathon showcases how this approach can undermine your goal.
Training Alone Versus Group Training
For many runners, training with a group is an essential component of successful training. Indeed, many of the world’s best distance runners train with other runners. Elite runners from Japan, Kenya, and Ethiopia have consistently achieved success with group training, and in recent years many top U.S. runners have returned to the group training model that flourished in the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s, when American runners achieved a high level of success in international competition.
For recreational runners, running clubs or specialty stores often have training groups that meet a few times a week for harder sessions and the weekly long run. Many runners benefit from a group dynamic because it makes the mental aspect easier; getting out the door to go push a hard workout is easier when you have a group to meet and also provides accountability, not to mention the added benefits of being around like-minded individuals and enjoying the camaraderie of others who share your passion.
For some runners, however, there is nothing quite as wonderful as running alone. Whether during long runs, easy runs, or even hard workouts, some people love and respect solitude.
I did both, always with an eye toward individualizing my approach to training. Once out of college, I did not train with one particular group regularly but rather used different groups or individuals to the benefit of my training and my psychological stimulus. I did not find it useful to take a generic approach in which an entire group performed the same workouts week in, week out. Nor did I wish my workouts to be adversely affected by other athletes and their training schedules.
For me, there was nothing worse than having someone racing me in practice who did 25 percent less mileage a week, took days off consistently, ran a significantly shorter long run, and was in essence fresh for workouts—and then felt the need to be up front pushing the pace. As soon as I graduated from college, I began to dictate my own schedule and align myself with others who I knew would complement my training.
Although I was self-coached and did a lot of my running alone, I also trained with Adam Goucher, Scott Larson, Pete Julian, Marc Davis, Mark Plaatjes, Mark Coogan, Keith Dowling, Shawn Found, Andrew Letherby, and many others along the way. There will always be some athletes who complement your style and approach better than others and some you simply enjoy running with. (In the next chapter, I’ll highlight some of the cautions of training with others as it relates to intensity, and specifically some of my experiences doing hard workouts.) The model I adopted was based on the premise of using other athletes to elevate my productivity during workouts while at the same time eliminating some of the unnec- essary anxiety and mental burden that can accompany training alone. My goal was always to make the training as mentally easy as possible while still getting the necessary physical work done.
The biggest benefit of group training comes during the hard sessions. Without question, running a hard session with a group allows for the opportunity to push just a little harder than you might alone. A group session can create a setting in which it is easier to achieve high-quality efforts, removing a large amount of the anxiety, dread, stress, or physical complacency of not running hard enough.
I’ve done many hard workouts in which I’ve thought, “I can’t wait for this to be over.” Doing some of my workouts in a group setting helped alleviate that stress before it elevated. That didn’t always mean I would do the whole workout with the other athletes; sometimes I would simply wa rm up with the group or perform my own workout at the same time and place a longside the others. Just having a group at the track at the same time can ta ke the edge off the workout mentally and provide enough distraction to not feel like a crazy person enduring this pursuit alone.
Another option I would often exercise was to integrate just a portion of a group’s workout into my own session. For instance, if the others were doing 400-meter repeats at a simila r pace to my 800- meter or 1,000-meter efforts, I would do the first lap with the group and keep going to finish the entire distance of my reps. At times that meant I would have to adjust the amount of rest between reps in order to be in line with the group’s routine. But having the built-in support for some of my reps a llowed me to have some great sessions doing workouts in this fashion.
Despite the many benefits of group training, I probably most enjoyed and appreciated running alone. Running solo on my easy days allowed me to pay closer attention to how I was feeling and ensure that I was recovering properly for the next sessions while at the same time not running too easy and missing the opportunity to gain a small aerobic benefit from the effort. Running with others on my easy days almost always included some kind of compromise of when and where the run would take place. In addition, it inevitably led to conversation for the duration of the run, which led to my heart rate being elevated and my pace slower. Sometimes a group even becomes a crutch, and you wind up taking on the habits of the group, some good but some bad. While having the accountability is great, you must take care to maintain your individual incentive and not lose your personal motivation or running identity.
In the end, there are benefits to running with a group as well as to running alone if both are done strategically. If you have only run alone to date, consider finding a group to share your passion and the ups and downs of training. If you tend to run with other athletes for every run, consider taking a step back from that. Running alone has its charms and benefits. It’s a time when you can keep tabs on your physical self, but it’s also a chance to reconnect to your psychological self. One of running’s greatest benefits is the primal act of getting lost in thought, and that’s nearly impossible in a group scenario.
Maintaining Balance When Life Gets In The Way
The first few years after g raduating from college, I would of ten include one of Coach Wetmore’s unique workouts that called for a 5-mile tempo run in the morning a nd then 16 × 300-meter repeats in the afternoon. The logic behind two hard sessions in one day was to stress the system in two distinct ways. I always enjoyed these workouts and usually felt really good during the second effort of the day. Your nervous system gets activated in the morning, as does your cardiovascular system, which makes the second effort much easier than one would expect. Also, since we usually did a tempo effort in the morning, coming back to do short intervals with generous recovery in the afternoon would not leave me very fatigued. The quick 300-meter repeats actually felt good and were not too mentally strenuous due to the shortness of the intervals.
On one occasion, deep in the Colorado winter, I had the two-in-one-day special on the docket only to wake up to snowy winter conditions that were unfavorable for running outdoors. I was training with Marc Davis (a 1996 Olympian and former American-record holder for 2 miles on the track) and former college teammate Shawn Found (a sub-29-minute 10K runner) at the time. Because of the weather, we decided to flip the two workouts and run the 300-meter repeats on the indoor track at the University of Colorado in hopes that the sun would melt the snow to the point where we could run the tempo run that after- noon with good footing. After completing the 300s, we spent the next five hours eating, rehydrating, and resting our legs.
We reconvened at 4 p.m. to run the tempo run on the dirt roads around the Boulder Reservoir. We started our warm-up, and within 2 minutes we real- ized the slippery, ice- and snow-packed surfaces were going to be a huge cha llenge. The top layer had melted during the warmest part of the day, but by late afternoon, temperatures had dropped to 15 degrees and made everything very slick.
We discussed whether we should bag the workout or make it work. Since we were a lready out there, we decided to give it a try. I remembered that I had my racing spikes in the car, and it suddenly came to me that we could wear those on the icy dirt road. Racing spikes are designed to be used on a track surface, and although we have all used them for various cross country workouts and races on grass at times, this was no track, nor were there any grass or soft surfaces to be found. But in my mind, the idea of wearing spikes to run on ice for a 5-mile tempo run in 15-degree weather made perfect sense.
I made it through the out-and-back tempo run unscathed— barely—but it was not a wise choice. I could easily have ended my entire cross country season with one bad step. There are times when taking a risk is necessary to improve, and there are times when a prudent choice is in order. At that particular point in the season, skipping the second of two workouts in the same day on an icy death trap would have made good sense. It would have been smarter to go to the gym and run the tempo on the treadmill or do an altered version of the workout. I didn’t want to do that because I was mentally prepared to do the workout and didn’t want to feel like I was skimping in my preparation. That kind of mind-set can be dangerous because it leads to poor decisions. Having a n approach anchored in common sense is always best. Sometimes things out of your control—like dangerously slick roads—come up, and you need to alter your training without considering the change a mental or physical setback of your ultimate goals.
Training effectively is a delicate process of pushing hard—harder than your body and mind often want to go—and taking risks while complementing that intensity with recovery. It takes honesty and per- ception every day, and it involves using your head and not just relying on your emotions to make a decision. Sometimes compromise is in order. The key question you have to ask yourself is whether the workout or run will set you back more than it will be of benefit. The biggest variables for most runners, regardless of ability or experience level, are weather, illness, travel, and family or work commitments.
You may have heard that running in harsh weather conditions makes you tougher. But does it? While there are times when you can gain a psychological edge by proving to yourself that you are mentally strong enough to run on a windy day or that you’re not going to curtail a workout because of drizzle, trying to combat the elements often just breaks you down mentally and can lead to lingering ailments or even injuries.
Your training, if prescribed correctly, should be challenging enough without having to fight the weather. That doesn’t mean that you can’t run if the weather isn’t ideal. But you don’t always need to go head-tohead with it either. Mother Nature is a powerful and often relentless force. Yes, there is satisfaction in running in cold weather, completing a good workout on a windy day, or refusing to back down when the weather changes unexpectedly. But there is a big difference between dealing with the weather and fighting it. Dealing with it is empowering; fighting with it is draining.
The following scenarios provide some examples of fighting the weather versus making adaptations to deal with it.
Fighting it: You have planned a long run with a training partner on a standard loop in which you know the mile markers. But when the time comes to do the run, you find that the wind is blowing at 25 mph and gusting even higher. Instead of changing your plans, you head out with your partners and hope it won’t be as bad as it seems. You get battered by the wind for two hours, and worse, you don’t feel as strong as your training partner, which undermines your confidence and leaves you emotionally down in the dumps.
Dealing with it: Instead of starting a long run in miserably windy conditions, you and your training partner opt to either take a new route that is sheltered from the wind or delay the run for a few hours to see if conditions improve. This doesn’t mean you are weak or lack toughness; it means you’re smart and want to get the benefits of the long run without the detrimental side effects.
Fighting it: You have a tempo run planned that you normally run at lunchtime, but the weather ends up much warmer than expected. Defiantly, you head out in the heat of the day and run the workout as intended. You wind up cooked from your efforts, and the ensuing dehydration and fatigue take their toll over the next several days.
Dealing with it: Instead of pushing on through the heat, you consider pushing your workout back a day or shifting the session until later that afternoon, when it is cooler. You get the benefits of running at a sustained tempo pace without the lingering negative effects brought on by the heat.
Fighting it: You wake up on a morning when you have a speed workout planned to find that a few inches of snow have fallen overnight. Trying to prove to yourself that you’re tough enough to run in wintry weather, you forge ahead with the workout on your normal loop. You find yourself frustrated with the pacing of your intervals and irritated due to slipping around for an hour. You also put yourself at greater risk of injury from the unstable footing.
Dealing with it: You decide to either simulate the workout indoors on an indoor track or on a treadmill or bump the workout to the next day.
There are times to break from your routine and times to push onward. If unusual circumstances demand compromise, be creative with your training. Using a treadmill is a great alternative when dry ground and safe footing are not an option or when heavy winds make it impossible to run with a consistent gait. You will get a better workout on the treadmill than slipping around on snow-covered trails or being battered by the wind. What’s the bottom line? Don’t consider the weather your enemy or an unnecessary stressor that is impeding all the progress you’re making toward your ultimate goals. Yes, weather can be an obstacle and can change unexpectedly. Keep your perspective, and don’t allow it to be more than a small variable, a temporary impediment to work around. By adapting your workouts with small adjustments or schedule changes, you can still maximize your training efforts, avoid injuries, and maintain your long-term psychological composure.
Running when you are sick isn’t fun, nor does it allow for effective training. Your body is telling you it needs rest; you need to listen or suffer the consequences. When I pushed too hard in training, I would often become ill. Getting sick is sometimes an indication that you are training too hard, that you are pushing your body to the point of being more susceptible to illness. Or you might simply have picked up a bug. Either way, it’s a good idea to rest and not push yourself too hard when you’re not 100 percent.
When you feel awful, it is easy to take time off. The harder decision comes when you feel so-so—not great but not terrible. Training when you are ill often only extends your illness and in some cases can make it more severe. Too, jumping back into training too quickly following an illness, even if you might be at 80 or 90 percent of your normal health and energy levels, usually is not favorable to overall productivity in training. It is far better to rest for two or three more days, run easy or not at all, and skip the planned harder session before jumping back in.
If you don’t follow a conservative approach and instead try to force yourself into action, you may find that your run is much more taxing than it should be. My own inclination was always to tough it out and just run even though I didn’t feel great. I never wanted to lose physical momentum or feel like I was bowing out. But I strongly advise against that approach. Trust in your overall training, and know that your training plan is based on the entire plan, not just one week or a few days. Doing workouts when sick or when you are on the mend never leads to improved fitness. Nor will you lose fitness by missing a few days of training.
You’ve got to weigh the pros and cons and trust that you will bounce back if you take the extra day or days off. If missing one or two workouts during a week means you can come back healthy sooner, then this is the wisest course. If you simply must run to keep the psychological edge, then compromise by running very easy and shorter than planned. Or considering doing some gentle crosstraining that provides both physical and mental stimulus.
Travel is another area where you must be realistic about how your body reacts to going off its normal routine. With travel comes dehydration, fatigue, stiffness, and other less-than-ideal variables. The pressurized cabin of an airplane and lack of ability to stay properly hydrated do not lend to productive training at the end of a long day, nor does sitting for hours in a cramped airline seat, changing time zones, and altering your eating habits.
Traveling requires a lot of energy and focus even when a trip goes smoothly, let alone when it includes delays and other challenges. If you have a trip coming up and you know that running on your travel days will be touch and go, try to rearrange your training schedule several days out so you can accommodate a run before your flight and move your harder workouts to other days.
A bad combination is traveling and hard sessions. Getting in harder sessions on travel days is difficult to do effectively. You are better off getting up early the next day of your trip or cutting the workout altogether than running when your body is not ready. Even if you are psychologically ready, it usually does not make sense to push in this manner because of the emotional stress tied to both travel and harder workouts. Forcing the issue will likely only compromise future training sessions and possibly increase your fatigue and likelihood of getting sick.
A light shake-out run on a travel day is typically fine, but second sessions should be the exception. It is far better to take an extra half hour to get hydrated and do some light stretching than to run an easy half hour, then squeeze in a longer run or hard workout. The overall benefit does not outweigh the physical and mental burdens that accompany the trip.
Running while at your destination can also present challenges. You may be busy with work and other commitments that compromise your training plan. Or perhaps there is not an obvious place to run near your hotel. Think outside the box. Not every run when traveling will feel good or be perfect. Some may be on a treadmill, and some may be simply squeezed in when you get an opportunity.
If timing and routine are the most important aspects to consider when trying to create a high level of productivity, then traveling certainly hampers those things, forcing changes in sleep, hydration, diet, and training time and duration. The key is deciding whether a run or workout is critical to the overall plan or whether a small sacrifice is in order.
No one can make the decision of running while traveling better than you, which is why planning is critical. As you consider your trip, think through when you will best be able to run just as you would during a normal week. It may not come together perfectly, but it is much better to plan your schedule ahead of time and anticipate possible conflicts. A whimsical approach to training while traveling—or no approach at all—is no different than a lackluster approach at home.
As a husband, father of four young boys, and someone who works a fulltime job along with coaching and writing on the side, I am very familiar with the delicate balance of life and how it affects training. This area is tough because it does not just affect you but has big implications for others as well. Illness, travel, or weather all have personal implications, but when it comes to family and work, other people with their own variables are typically involved. For that reason, this special consideration can be the most challenging of all.
Balancing work and family commitments with your running takes a high level of sensitivity, communication, and sometimes compromise. Work deadlines, meetings, conference calls, and management of other coworkers all play into the mix. Your children’s school functions, parent- teacher meetings, concerts, recitals, sports, and homework likewise have implications for your schedule and training. Your particular set of circumstances is unique to you, and I would be out of place to suggest any specific solutions or ordering of priorities. What I will say is that you can probably do more than you think is possible, even amid what seems to be an impossibly complicated weekly schedule.
We all live busy lives, and certainly some people have less flexibility than others, but I believe there is always time to train. You can make time for things in life that are important to you. The secret lies in the scheduling, planning, and commitment. With proper scheduling, focused training amid even the most complicated schedules is very feasible.
When my wife, Shayne, and I were both training as full-time professional runners, we organized our days around our training. Naturally that became more challenging after we started a family. We still planned our days around training, but we also had to account for our children’s needs and schedules. We talked about what worked best for each of us and came to the understanding that Shayne, who took on more child care responsibilities during the day, needed to run first because she could not delay her training even slightly without the burden of the running becoming very heavy. With that as our starting point, we planned our weekly schedule accordingly.
On our easy days, we would trade off, one of us taking care of our kiddos while the other ran. For harder running sessions, we arranged for the necessary child care so that Shayne and I could both train in the morning. I could not wait until 11 a.m. to get to the track to do a 6 × 1-mile workout or hard 1,000-meter repeats or a long tempo run. These sessions required increased focus and precision, and for me, postponing the effort until later into the morning would create an unnecessary burden and ultimately a long-term drain.
It took some time, effort, and sacrifices, but we were able to find a good balance that helped maintain optimal training opportunities but also benefited our family. In fact, Shayne and I each ran many of our personal best times and enjoyed some of our best races after starting our family. This was partly due to our overall happiness and enjoyment of having children, but it also had to do with setting a realistic and sustainable schedule that allowed each of us to continue to flourish. Knowing your limitations and being honest about what you are capable of maintaining is vital. While some sacrifice is necessary, you have to be reasonable about the demands you place on yourself so that you can fully commit to the routine you develop. The time of day you choose to train is a simple yet very important part of finding a balanced approach.
Several years ago I had a business meeting with the then mayor of Tempe, Arizona, Hugh Hallman. We were discussing the Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Marathon, which finishes in Tempe. He had been running for only five years but had come to fully embrace the essence of running and the freedom, clarity of thought, and daily satisfaction of accomplishment it brought to his life. At the time we met, he was training to run a marathon and was leading a charity organization that had raised more than $300,000 through the Rock ’n’ Roll event platform.
He met with me at 6 p.m. at a pub in downtown Tempe after a busy schedule of meetings. He graciously kept our meeting time, and we discussed all the event details as well as his involvement in running. He shared how he had gotten started and what type of training he was doing in his lead-up to the marathon. As we concluded our meeting, he told me he was going to meet his wife to do their evening run together.
I was amazed that he still had plans to run after what had surely been an exhausting day, but it was a good example of how he found balance in his life. He shared that he absolutely had to run, not only for his sanity but also because it was his time to connect with his wife and talk about their days. After they ran, he would go home and eat, shower, and work a few more hours before going to bed. Now, we are not all mayors of cities, and this is an extreme case of a chaotic schedule, but it shows that there is always time for your running. As long as you schedule for it and make it a priority, it can fit into any schedule.
In Run Like a Champion, one of America’s most versatile and accomplished runners, Alan Culpepper, reveals the best practices of the best runners. Run Like a Champion reveals all the guidelines, tips and tricks, workouts, mental training, and nutritional practices that Olympic runners use. By making this Olympic approach part of their running, runners of all levels will make their goals achievable from 5K to marathon.