Training by Feel Instead of Using a Training Plan

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In his book RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, best-selling author Matt Fitzgerald explores the run-by-feel practices of elite runners and draws on new research to explain why their techniques can be effective for all runners. RUN will teach runners how to listen to their bodies so they can train in the most personalized and adaptable way and begin to realize their full potential. This excerpt from the book introduces the limitations of training plans and the potential of learning to train by feel.

Having quit running in the middle of my senior year and not seriously taken it up again until eight years later, I did not know much more about the art and science of training when I set about training for my first marathon in my mid-20s. The only “new”idea I applied then was the idea of gradually increasing mileage, which I had learned from watching my dad train for three marathons when I was a kid and from having been a distant observer of my older brother’s training for a marathon during his freshman year of college. I was entirely ignorant, however, of the concept of training workload modulation and, more specifically, of the practice of scattering short recovery periods throughout the training process. Consequently, I tried to increase my overall running mileage and my long run distance every single week throughout the entire training process, which must have lasted at least 12 weeks and probably closer to 16.

Needless to say, I was overcooked by the time race day rolled around. I felt good, and indeed better and better, throughout the first several weeks of training, but I started to feel lousy around the time I made a cross-country trip to New York City to attend my friend Mike’s wedding a few weeks before the marathon. I went for a run in Central Park with the groom and just felt lousy. As it happened, I had chosen to take Joe Friel’s seminal triathlon training book, The Triathlete’s Training Bible,on the plane.This was the first real training book I had ever read. I learned many things from it, including the importance of training workload modulation. I clearly recall looking up from the book at one point and staring at the back of the seat in front of me, thinking, “I’m doomed.”

The Limitations of Training Plans

Yet even as I made a cottage industry of training plan design, I became increasingly frustrated by the limitations of training plans. The major limitation I discovered was neatly summarized in that classic Robert Burns line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” (which is sometimes translated from the Scots dialect as “The best laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry”). Nothing ever went as planned in my training or in the training of any other endurance athlete I knew. Sooner or later in the process of executing a training plan, aches and pains, illness, outright injuries, fatigue, bad days, fitness plateaus, and other factors force the athlete to miss or modify or put aside planned workouts and in the process discover that many, if not most, of the remaining planned workouts are no longer appropriate. In other words, sooner or later, unless the athlete stubbornly sticks to the plan all the way through, with inevitably disastrous results, he has to keep scrambling to steer the best daily course toward the original goal. The plan essentially goes out the window—or at least it should.

I laughed out loud sometimes when I compared my training plans to the training I actually did.They shared almost no resemblance, not because I lacked the discipline to adhere to a plan, but because setbacks and surprises always steered me off course and required me to improvise if I were to have any chance of achieving the goal for which I had designed the plan. I began to wonder why I even bothered creating plans.

Training by Feel Instead of by Plan

Coincidentally, as I set about experimenting with a more improvisational approach to training, the name of a rising new elite running coach was suddenly everywhere on the running Web sites and in the running publications I read. A former elite runner, Brad Hudson graduated from competition to coaching after the 2000 Olympic Trials Marathon and quickly made a name for himself as an innovative student of the sport.And it appeared from what I read that Hudson’s approach to training was highly improvisational, relying more on immediate adaptive responses than on advanced planning to guide the fitness-building process.

What intrigued me about this approach was that it validated the course I had recently taken in my own training and a conclusion I had drawn from my recent immersion in the new brain-related research in exercise science. The novel brain-centered model of exercise performance that emerged from this research suggested to me that the training process should be guided by feel,for reasons I have explained in preceding chapters.To me this cutting-edge science made sparklingly clear sense of important experiences familiar to every competitive runner. It explained why we feel we can go faster or farther when we are in fact capable of going faster or farther—our bodies communicate this ability to our brains through chemical and electrical messages. It explained why there will never be a better indicator that we are fatigued and need to rest than that of simply feeling lousy—because dozens of different physiological factors contribute to fatigue and only the brain can effect a synthesized assessment of all of them. It explained why when we get a sudden hunch about what we ought to do next in our training, it’s probably correct—again, because our bodies know. So, I reasoned, if our consciously experienced feelings are such accurate sources of information about our physiological state and such reliable predictors of how our bodies will respond to various types of training stimuli, then it should be possible to train very effectively by feel. And since training plans never work out, I further reasoned, then runners really should train by feel.

In the hope of learning more about how to train by feel, I contacted Brad Hudson. He was graciously willing to mentor me, and we quickly or substitute it based on what developed a friendly relationship. Eventually, your body tells you it needs. we agreed to collaborate on a book, entitled Run Faster, that explained his improvisational training philosophy, which we named “adaptive running.” If you read that book, you will find a few training plans in it, and Brad Hudson does write training plans for the elite runners he coaches. But these plans are much more flexible than conventional training plans. “I plan every workout in pencil (literally and figuratively),” Brad explained in the introduction to Run Faster, “and make a final decision about the workout at the last minute.” You might think that training by feel and working with a coach are incompatible, but Brad plans his athletes’ training largely by observing and asking how his runners feel, and he is often more willing to heed the messages of their bodies than they are. “My runners often grumble about replacing planned hard workouts with lighter ones when I determine it’s necessary,” he wrote. “And I am certain that in most cases they would go ahead and do the planned workout—usually with bad consequences—if I were not around. That’s just how runners are.”

Since the time I mixed Brad Hudson’s adaptive training philosophy with my understanding of the practical implications of the new brain-centered model of exercise performance, I have not created a single training plan for myself. In each successive training cycle, I have worked to further refine my own method of improvisational training, which I cheekily like to call “winging it.”

Training without a Plan

Beginners need training plans because effective improvisational training requires experience. Only by drawing upon a substantial body of running experience can you consistently make accurate interpretations of your body’s messages and develop good hunches about what you should do next. Experience also teaches you what works and what does not work for you. Training without a plan, as I define it, is not exactly training without planning. It merely replaces a detailed written schedule with a minimal set of definite parameters that are carried inside your head. These parameters include a typical weekly workout schedule, a peak workload, and a definite duration for the training cycle.

Improvisational training is therefore not truly winging it. The improvisation occurs within a specific framework, and that framework is defined through experience. For example, you will train more effectively if, instead of having no idea what kind of run you will do later in a day, you decide, for example, that in the next training cycle you will run six times in a typical week, with high-intensity workouts on Tuesdays and Fridays and a long run on Sundays, and then wait for your body to give you reliable hunches about what is duration. best to do in successive weeks. Only past experience can tell you that a typical weekly schedule of six runs per week with high-intensity work on Tuesdays and Fridays and a long run on Sundays is the best weekly schedule for you. And for that matter only experience can give you good hunches about the specific form each run should take as you come upon it. Therefore, as a beginner you must rely on conventional training plans initially and then gradually wean yourself off them as you gather experience about what works and what does not and you develop a mind-body connection as it relates to running.

 In his book RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, best-selling author Matt Fitzgerald explores the run-by-feel practices of elite runners and draws on new research to explain why their techniques can be effective for all runners. RUN will teach runners how to listen to their bodies so they can train in the most personalized and adaptable way and begin to realize their full potential.