Twice each year I sit down to write the upcoming season's half and full marathon training plans. I spend hours tweaking the tiniest of details, double-checking mileage and intensity levels to ensure that each day flows and builds towards a successful race day. I look for possible speed bumps and define an appropriate focus for each point of the training season. Considering the time, scrutiny, and forethought invested in their training programs, you’d think I'd want each athlete to follow their schedule to a "T".
But that’s not the case. Every training program, no matter how ideal and seemingly foolproof, is written in pencil.
So, if you’re going to follow an alterable training plan, why follow a training plan at all? Well, for a lot of reasons. A training program provides the structure we need to successfully achieve our goals. A program helps us stay on task to make sure we log the proper number of runs, ideal mileage, and goal intensity levels that we’ll need to reach race day ready to roll.
I usually expect an athlete to be able to follow 90% of the training plan as it’s written. The 90% Rule (1) gives us the flexibility to adjust the days of some runs because of conflicts, (2) allows us to cut a long run short when our bodies are too beaten up from the week's training, and (3) permits a few days rest if we get sick. By keeping the 90% Rule in mind we add to our programs the peace of mind that a measure of adaptability provides. In other words, we can follow our training schedules, but we are not slaves to its numbers.
One of the most confusing aspects of training is deciding when to stick with the plan and when to adjust it. Training plans are not carved in stone. Even the best training plans can lead to failure if we follow them with ruthless inflexibility. Injuries, illness, Mother Nature, work, and life can all throw a monkey wrench into even the best laid plans. We need to adjust for the curve ball when it comes our way.
Another benefit of the 90% Rule is that it prevents us from indulging in “buffet style” training. We train buffet style when we pick and choose what we don’t want to do and what we do want to do. The problem with a training buffet is that it is overly haphazard. Structured training plans are written a specific way for many reasons. If we veer too far from the program we’ll miss out on key training ingredients—and, subsequently, their benefits. And far too often, what we choose to leave out is usually (1) what we like least and (2) what we need most. A training plan will help you keep the big picture in mind.
Another way to think of your training plan is as a fantasy football lineup. Say you drafted a running back in the first round and you plan on using the running back as your star throughout the season. Well, what if he gets hurt? What if you happen to be matched up against an awesome run defense and you have a suitable alternative you can utilize? The situation has changed. You’d be crazy to stay rigid to the plan you made months ago. Instead, you should adapt and do the best with the current circumstances. Then, when things settle down or return to normal, you can assume your original game plan. It seems like common sense, but when the same scenario hits us in training, all too often we put on blinders.
When a coach writes a training program, he or she cannot possible predict how each and every day of training and recovery will unfold for each and every runner. By being flexible and adaptable as you follow your training schedule—while still keeping its structure honest and in place—you can reach race day happy, healthy, and ready to roll. The 90% Rule will help pace your path to success.
Tim Cary is Fleet Feet's Assistant Training Manager and coach of the Fleet Feet-sponsored Runnababez Elite team. Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors. Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.