Sunday, February 22, 2015

DIY Marathoning: The Case Against Training Plans

The other day I entered a fellow runner's Dream Race Weekend giveaway, but I should have known better.  I'm now on his e-mail list and have already received more than one unsolicited e-mail as to why I should sign up for his coaching services.  Each message contains tidbits of his running wisdom, including this pearl:

"Today, I want to expose how being a Team of 1 is particularly destructive to runners."

Sorry, you lost me with that line.

Here's a fact about me: I have run 10 marathons, several half marathons, and races of all other distances, yet I have never in my life followed a training plan or coach.

When I ran my first marathon in 2005 at the age of 24, there wasn't nearly the amount of information available as there is today.  My solution was to simply run as much as I could, increasing my distance bit by bit each day (even this wasn't terribly accurate, as all I had was a stopwatch to keep track of time, not distance).  I hit the wall of the Philly Marathon that year as early as mile 16, and walked/ran the rest to a 4:29:47 finish.

While I was incredibly proud of having finished a marathon, I was also seized by the desire to do better.  I knew I wasn't finished with the marathon yet.  I began chipping away at my time over the years, and it wasn't long before I allowed myself to set the ludicrous goal of qualifying for Boston, that Holy Grail of running accomplishments for average Joes like me.

So how did I manage to knock off almost a full 90 minutes from my marathon debut to my current PR of 3:03:05?

Well, as I said, what I didn't do was follow a training plan.

There are two instances in which a person might follow a training plan:

  1. He is training for his first race at a given distance.
  2. He is training to get faster at a distance he has already raced.

I understand that training for a marathon is a monumental and sometimes scary undertaking for many people, and they want some form of guidance and reassurance as they prepare for the unknown.  But could training for your first marathon truly be as simple as running a little bit farther every day?  If your goal is simply to finish, is a schedule crammed to the rafters with tempo runs, long runs, speed drills and other nonsense really necessary?

Ok, so my questionable strategy allowed me to finish the marathon.  But that brings us to #2. What if you've already run a marathon and want to get faster?  What if, like me, your goal is to join that illustrious club of Boston Qualifiers?

Well, let me explain it like this: I'm a high school German teacher.  That means lots of messy German grammar, such as adjective declensions and syntax that constantly involves throwing random words to the end of a sentence.  When I teach new grammar concepts to my students, I try to avoid the temptation of simply telling them the grammar rule and making them memorize it.  Instead, I expose them to authentic materials: poems, song lyrics, advertisements, children's books, etc.  From there I let them look for patterns and determine the grammar rule on their own before applying it to their own speaking and writing.  I let them learn by doing.

After running my first marathon, each time I entered a new marathon training cycle, I asked myself what realistic, small changes could I make to my training?  With each cycle and accompanying marathon, I learned a little more about myself and how I react to certain aspects of training.  As I continued running marathons, my experience started to count for more than anything a training plan could have ever told me. I started to intuitively understand the marathon distance and what was required to go faster.  The big picture became important, and I began to think of training as a lifestyle rather than just one crossed-off workout after another.  I learned by doing.

The fact is, a random training plan found on the internet or in a book doesn't know you.  It doesn't know your daily responsibilities, your family life, what the weather is like where you live, your preferred pace or your preferred time of day to run.  Blindly following a training plan takes the thinking out of it, which creates a disconnect between what is required to go faster and understanding why that is.  Understanding the why behind something is so important, and getting to that point on your own can be so much more powerful than if someone simply tells you what to do.  Learn by doing.

So what does my training plan look like now?  I run every day because I know my body can handle it (though on Mondays I only do a mile to maintain my run streak and let myself rest).  I do long runs on Sundays.  I eat a varied and mostly healthy diet.  I do strength training and core work.  Above all, my training plan is a fluid one.  I am constantly adjusting mileage and effort as I go to accommodate how my body feels.

I should mention I'm not trying to sell you my training plan.  There is already such a cacophony of advice out there, and most of it is from someone trying to become the next marathon guru or sell you his coaching services.  Take all of this advice with a grain of salt. Yes, including mine.

I'm also not trying to rail against those who follow training plans or coaches.  You have to do what you need to do to reach your goals, and if following a training plan or even spending money on a coach is going to be what gets you there, then go for it.  I'm merely trying to emphasize there is another way.  It takes time and patience, but I am living proof that you can set lofty goals, goals you have no business setting, and still reach them.  And yes, you can still reach them as a team of 1.


  1. Stumbled upon your blog by mistake and have to say I have never seen a more egotistical blog in my life. Really dude...check yourself.

    1. Hey anon, thanks for the comment. I completely agree that my blog can come across as egotistical. Blogs, by their very nature, are a bit self-centered, given that the average blog's content is driven primarily by the goings-on of the blogger's life.

      I also think it's easy to misconstrue a blogger's intent. What I consider merely wanting to share my own modest successes and the alternative path I took to get there, you interpret as egotistical. But I'm genuinely curious here - and I'm not just trolling - in your opinion, what makes my blog so egotistical? I guess you could say this is my way of "checking" myself.

      Also, don't be afraid to put your name on any follow up comments. If you truly believe in something, then don't take the easy way out and hide behind anonymity.

      Thanks for reading.


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