Throw Out your Fancy 12 Week Program: why Flexibility Matters

If you need to start training for your next race, there are a lot of online training programs available to you. Simply go on Active or Runner’s World and you can print out a 5k or 10k program in a matter of minutes.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Not so fast.

Fancy programs that project daily and weekly volume totals with set workouts months in advance are seriously flawed. These types of programs lack flexibility and are too formulaic to be as effective as they could be. How do you know what you’ll feel like 4 weeks from now on a Thursday?

Deciding roads vs. trails, 4 miles vs. 6 miles, 8x800m intervals vs. 6x600m intervals should be a game-time decision based on a multitude of factors. Don’t let your running schedule run you. You might even want to skip a workout and try a different training alternative.

Running plans need flexibility; they shouldn’t be carved in stone. If you have been running for years, you know how important flexibility is and you implement it in your own training. Workouts are planned for when you know you’ll be energized or tired. Foresight and planning has their place but can easily lead to injury or burnout if a running scheduled is stubbornly adhered to.

Static Programs Lead to Static Progress

Running schedules that don’t change used to be popular when people thought it was all they needed. Planning ahead was thought to be a good idea (and it is) but it’s not enough. Scheduling an easy day before and after a long run won’t cut it 6 weeks from now when you don’t know how you’re going to feel.

Ask any accomplished runner what their weekly mileage is and you’ll probably get a vague answer. Something like, “I’m shooting for about 60 miles” or “Somewhere in the mid-high 50 range.”

Ask a new runner and you’re likely to get a very different answer. They’ll tell you with confidence, “This week I’m going to run 22 miles.”

Why is there such a difference in these two approaches? Seasoned runners know that training has to be flexible. Every day, your run must adhere to your body and the numerous variables that can make you feel great or terrible. New runners often don’t understand this – they get a stock training plan and read it like the Bible. They never miss or change a workout.

Go on any prominent running message board and you’ll see hundreds of posts by new runners complaining about injuries. It’s frightening. You’ll see the same runners asking if they can run five minutes less than what their training plan prescribes. Of course you can run less!

This dogmatic approach to running schedules injures a lot of runners every year and keeps them from improving at the rate they should. The first few years of running are the most exciting – PR’s are often minutes instead of seconds. I want to get back to where new runners are worrying less about their injuries and more about things that matter (like when to wear the next race t-shirt).

Promoting Flexible Randomness

I want to encourage new and seasoned runners to implement more flexibility in their training.

  • Listen to your body and run less if you need to
  • If you’re feeling great, run an extra 5 or 10 minutes out on the trails
  • Don’t always run in the morning
  • Stop running that same boring loop in your neighborhood

Constantly challenging the body in new and different ways keeps your muscles guessing. You’re using different muscles and staying more engaged with your training by planning so many deviations from your normal routine. Elite coach Brad Hudson calls this type of training “Adaptive Running” – he believes in a responsive, evolving, and creative approach.

You should too. To start, one of the easiest ways to be more flexible with your running is to run more trails. With uneven terrain, direction changes, and elevation gains and drops, the options are limitless to try new things and experiment. Rotate a few pairs of shoes. Ditch the technology and try minimalist running.

Always switch up your training – be random. I used to run 4 strides after most easy runs. I still do that, but I also do 20-30 second surges at the end of my runs at various speeds. Sometimes I do them on trails and sometimes on the roads. I’ll even do them at the end of a long run. Or I’ll only do 10 seconds, but up a very steep hill.

When you start basing workouts on motivation, your health, the weather, how rested you are, and randomness, you’re going to see major improvements. You will absolutely enjoy running more. And isn’t that what it’s all about?