Training: Adapt


There are a lot of training plans out there, some great and lots that are not so great. If you like having someone tell you what to do, get a plan and follow it. Do whatever neat tricks you have to help motivate you to do just what the plan says when it says to do it. 

If you don’t like having someone tell you what to do (that would be my MO), look at a bunch of plans, find out what they have in common, and create a plan that you and your body feel good about. You’re the expert. Trust it. Adapt, and go. 

That’s going to be our mantra for quality training anyway: be ready to adapt. Every coach I’ve read so far has iterated a version of this. If the plan calls for running 10 miles at a 10 minute a mile pace, but you are stressed out by whatever’s going on in your life, consider that you may be better running 5 miles that day. Head out, see how you feel, and be willing to adapt that day’s run. Coach Matt Fitzgerald calls this running by feel. 

It doesn’t mean we abandon a training plan. It means we’re sensitive to our bodies and our lives as we train. 

Some days, warns coach Pete Magill, we don’t have the energy to do much and we have to bail on a workout. Magill is a masters  (over 40 years old) elite runner (supa fast) who says there are no good workouts, just good training plans. 

In an interview, Magill said, “…what we’re trying to actually do is build a running body. We’re trying to build the muscle. We’re trying to build our cardio vascular system. We’re trying to wire our nervous system. What workouts will impact the by stimulus that would create the adaptations for all of those?” 

This is a link to another good interview with Magill. 

Sometimes on days when we least expect it, after those first few miles, we have energy and focus to go even further and faster than we’d planned. We can adapt up, too. I headed out this week for what I thought was an easy run, something under an hour at a relaxed pace. The first two miles were slow, and I was even engaging in some self-pity about how slowly I run now compared to two years ago (never, ever compare yourself to another runner, especially your former self). Then I left the trail, hit the asphalt, and began to pick up the pace. Each mile, I got faster, and it continued to feel good, not too hard. 

I had set a parameter, which was I planned to run for no more than an hour or 7 miles. When I hit that point and felt great, it was tempting to keep going for a bit. I didn’t. I have to think about the runs I did last week and plan to do next week. One day’s run can mess up an entire plan if I let myself go too hard or too long.

Adaptation is what your training is about: breaking down the body so it adapts to the stress. You know when you get strong? When you rest, refuel, and recover. When you adapt to the work you already did. A training plan is about figuring out how much to do — not too much, not too little — and fitting that into our lives. 

Another reason to have a plan is to take choice and decision-making out of the mix. If every day you had to decide what kind of workout out to do, you might just talk yourself out of doing anything at all. Having a training plan conserves energy. 

There’s an adage that we should never judge a run by the first mile. I’d amend that to say the first two miles because it takes me that long to warm up. The beauty of a plan is that we don’t decide what to do during that first mile. We decide before we get out on the run.

When I began running two years ago, Wednesday was tempo day, Friday was speed day, and Sunday was long run day. I never had to decide what to do. 

When I didn’t feel like doing that run, I just started running, giving myself permission to change the plan. Almost always, I’d find I could pick up my pace for tempos or decide I could do just one sprint, which would lead to another. 

Giving myself permission to change the plan helped me get going, and then the plan took over. It’s easiest to go with a default.  This is what’s known as a nudge, something that gently prompts us or steers us to behave in a certain way. 

In May this year, I started thinking about training for a half. I wanted to run a half because when I’d been running two years ago, I had started to train for a half. I thought I was building my miles up slowly but I knew sh*t all about running. I was pretty much running on ego. My last long run was 11 1/2 miles at a fast pace. After that, my right achilles hurt too much to keep going long. I didn’t understand how I hadn’t trained correctly for my body at that time.

When I decided in May this year that I’d run a half-marathon, I knew most training programs were 12 or 16 weeks long. I thought I surely must have plenty of time. I wasn’t thinking, well, most training plans don’t have 51 year old menopausal women in mind so maybe this plan will need a lot of adapting. I just thought if some coach published a plan, it should basically work.  

At that point, I was running three times a week, running 4 or 5 miles twice a week and 8 miles once a week. Sometimes, it was really hard to get through those 8 miles, and I feared the process of increasing the time and miles on those runs to build up to 13.1 miles (the half marathon length).  Most plans jack up the miles fairly quickly. I was sensing that I didn’t have the strength or stamina to run those longer runs. 

I looked up a half-marathon training plan from Run Less, Run Faster. The authors suggested that a runner have a three month base of 15 miles each week with a long run of 8 miles before beginning the plan. I was so relieved! I didn’t have to start adding miles yet. 

I wrote down a training plan from Run Less, Run Faster, thought it looked pretty good, and set it aside.

Then in July I looked at the plan. And I wanted to puke. There are a lot of long long runs in there, long long runs, getting up to 15 miles, and the speed work looks like a torment. Hell. Misery. Even after three months of steady running, I wasn’t ready for a plan of that intensity.

Magill is adamant that we older runners need to build a base slowly. He says we are in a “no mistake zone.” I’ve got a half-marathon planned for October and I started building my base in April. That’s seven months. I have wondered whether it’s still too soon for me. 

Here’s what I mean. When I was running 8 miles in May, it was hard work to finish them. I began to think I was a) too old and b) running long distances just wasn’t for me. I kept running, though, and I added in strength conditioning so I could run more efficiently. My body, mind, and nervous system began to adapt. 

Now 8 miles feels like a good distance. Once I hit 10 miles, it feels hard. If I spent several months running 10 miles as my long run every other week, then I’m guessing 10 wouldn’t feel so hard. When 10 didn’t feel too hard, I could raise the bar to 11 or 12, which would feel hard, and then once I’d adapted, I’d raise to 13 or 14. That would be running by feel. 

Instead, I’m running by the calendar. Gosh darn it, I’ve got a race in 9+ weeks, and that’s how long I have to adapt. It’s ego. What I’ve said, and I hope I mean it, is that my long-term running health is the most important. If my achilles, ankles, and feet can’t handle this pace and don’t have enough recovery time, I should slow down my training and be willing not to race the half in October. 

Training to race a half is more important than racing a half. While I train, I’m studying. While I train, I’m pushing myself. While I train, I’m wrestling my ego, my self-pity, my self-doubt and rallying my optimism and self-love. 

Even with all that, thinking about not racing in October makes me sad.

I re-read recently You (Only Faster) by Greg McMillan.  He said we’ve all got a work out that feels great and the workout that takes a whole lot of energy. Some of us are Speedsters while some of us are Endurance Monsters. The rest of us fall in between those two poles (combo). 

His point is that we need to build a training week that takes into account which runs require the most recovery time. We don’t want to put one hard workout after another. McMillan wants us to ask ourselves three questions in order to create a training plan:

  1. How do I respond to each type of workout as well as to my day-to-day training?
  2. How do I recover from training and racing?
  3. And, how do I adapt to training?


The long run is hardest on me and takes the most time for me to recover. Some days it’s the most difficult mentally, and some days it’s the most fulfilling spiritually.

Besides the long run, many training plans include runs with timed intervals or fartleks (literally, speed play). Speed work supposedly increases the risk of injury. It’s demanding.

I read about a study that showed soccer players who did interval training every other week in their off season training experienced as much cardiovascular gains as those who were running intervals every week. So while some plans include speed work every week, every other may benefit us just as well. 

McMillan has a plan that utilizes either fartleks or tempo runs once a week rather than including both of them each week as many plans do. The other runs are steady pace runs, 45 minutes to 100 minutes long (McMillan prescribes runs by time on the road rather than mileage, which is another way to adapt one’s plan). McMillan wants us to use a training plan as a template and then individualize it to suit us best.

Though most training plans are constructed week by week, there’s no reason a plan has to be built around a 7 day week. For July and August, I wrote out a plan based on a 10 day cycle: speed, tempo, long run, and fun run. The idea behind a fun run is that I don’t push myself to go far or fast. It’s a recovery run. I can stop to take pictures. I choose any route. If I’m tired and don’t want to keep running, I can stop. It’s supposed to be an easy, pleasurable, no rules kind of run to remind me why I love running.

For my tempo runs, it’s two miles to warm up, and then I pick up my pace. I’m aiming for miles run in 8:30, though I’m finding that I’m able to run some of my miles at 8:00 or under 8:00.  I keep my rule open: just hit 8:30 or under for two miles, preferably three. Keeping the rule open allows me to work hard and to succeed. If I run faster, great. If I want to run a mile longer, great. If I'm not feeling it that day, just get those two faster miles done. Adapt.

Tempo runs can be hard work. In July, I was really feeling it and had to do a whole lot of “okay, I’ll run until I get to that tree or sign post.” I would tell myself that I could walk if I just kept up the pace until I got to that point. Then when I got there, I usually could convince myself to go to the next point.

In August, I’m finding I can go a bit faster and a bit longer and it’s not such a fight to do it. I’m seeing the results of having pushed hard in July, which is great because in July, I had to have a whole lot of optimism. I didn’t know for sure that I could and would improve, but I planned for it anyway. 

For speed work, I’m embracing the play in fartleks and avoiding the precision of timed intervals (for instance, a prescribed speed for a quarter mile, repeated 8 times with recovery jogs in between). I may not see the kind of gains I would if I followed a professional plan and ran the 400 and 800 and 1600 precision intervals they’ve prescribed. That’s okay. I’m still pushing myself hard enough that it hurts, and I’m out there long enough for it to count.

The best thing I did was add in training minutes on the Elliptigo, which is a stand up bike that I take out on the paved trails along the bosque. This has strengthened my legs and butt, which makes me a stronger, more efficient runner. There’s no pounding, so my bones and my achilles aren’t stressed. While Nia is good for cardio, mobility, strength, all of that, cross-training on the Go is much closer to running. It’s allowing me to run just 3 times a week so that I always have at least one day between runs. I need that extra recovery time. Here’s what Magill says about how he’s benefited from the Go. 

I’m still learning how my body progresses, adapts, and recovers. It’s all an experiment.

Since I start back at work at CNM soon, I need a traditional week by week training plan, mostly so the long run always falls on Sundays. Instead of 10 days between long runs, there will be just 7, so I plan on running long one Sunday and easing up the next. Adapt. 

If you’re looking for a training plan to follow, consider these points.

  • Some plans are there to help you run a distance for the first time. The aim is to finish, not to meet a particular speed. Know your goal before settling into a plan.
  • There are plans that start from zero running. Some include running and walking (check out the Galloway method). Some are called Couch-to-5K plans. 
  • If you’ve got a goal to hit a particular pace or go for a long distance, build a base of at least three months of running practice first before starting a training plan. 
  • Most plans for a 10K or longer distance include a long run. Spend several weeks at a distance before moving up in length/time. Every third or fourth week, step it back. If you ran 8 miles one week and then 9 the next, consider running 7 the third week before going back to 9 on the fourth week and then to 10 on the fifth week. Be patient. Not all plans follow this formula, and I don’t trust the ones that don’t. 
  • A good plan includes a taper, which is a week or two of running less (less volume, less intensity) before a race. I’ll talk about taper in another post, but I’ll repeat what I said above: I don’t trust a plan that doesn’t include a taper.
  • Know what knocks you out and stresses your body. Plan accordingly. 
  • If looking at a plan makes you feel sad, it’s not the plan for you. If a plan makes you excited, that’s a good one to start. If you have a plan and rarely follow it, it’s either not the right time for you to train or it’s not the right plan or you may need support from other runners to get you through. If you find yourself going over your plan every day, adding notes, adapting, that’s your plan.