By our very nature, runners are numbers people. Our very identity is shaped by numbers: from mile, 5k, and marathon personal records to sub-20-hour 100 milers. As such, we tend to plot and measure all aspects of training by numbers: mileage, pace, vertical.
Run for a long enough time, and you’ll eventually develop a keen sense of your ability, as well as what you feel is necessary–in training and racing–for success:
- “My easy-day pace is eight minutes per mile.”
- “Marathon pace is seven minutes per mile.”
- “I need to run 70 miles a week to be fit.”
- “I must do three 50-mile long runs to prepare for my 100 miler.”
And while these ‘rules’ may have some scientific basis (‘we need to run easy and hard,’ ‘we need to run a lot, but not too much’), how we select training parameters is largely experiential: this worked in the past, so it must be The Way. We also tend to believe that ‘it worked before, so must/will work now.’
These numbers, themselves, become hard-and-fast performance and outcome values.
Training and racing based on rigidly defined numbers is an outcome-based approach: “I must do this, in order to succeed.” It is a plan, a recipe, or a system of paces, distances, and workouts that–at one point and time–was effective
Most trail ultrarunners training for a 100 miler would agree that proper preparation would include running:
- A lot (relatively)
- Long distances
- Fast (sometimes, relatively)
- Specifically (in the conditions they will face on race day)
These are a lot of factors to consider, so it can be simplified by the runner and coach by setting performance and outcome goals such as:
- X number of miles per run, week, month, and year
- Y pace
- Z number and distance of long runs
But how one puts together and executes such a training plan is often:
- Arbitrary: based on another’s (friend, mentor or coach) experience, or an external source (books, internet)
- Experiential: what worked in the past
These road maps may provide vital direction, but what if the geography (or the orienteer) has changed? Or what if the map is out of date?
Nothing is Static: Dynamic Internal and External Factors Affecting Training
Outcome approaches to training can work, but are based on rigid suppositions:
- The rigid numbers are most ideal, all the time.
- That our training ability is the same today as it was yesterday.
However, every aspect of training (and life) is based on variable economics. Just like with injuries, our training budget is variable: what we can ‘afford’ fluctuates from day to day, and most certainly year to year. On the short term, stress and non-running obligations can cut into our training budget, while cutting back on other activities and increasing rest can bolster training capacity.
On the long term, it is possible–through consistent training and stride efficiency–to increase training capacity. But more often than not, as we age and become more productive in life (work, family, and friends), our training capacity decreases.
An outcome approach–using rigid numbers and previous experience–often fails to take into account any changes. Such an inflexible approach is thus a dangerous one–a set-up for overdrafting, and a debt of injury and burnout threatens.
The Dynamic Roadmap: Process-Oriented Training Defined
A process approach also uses a number-laded roadmap, but with two notable differences:
1. The inclusion of multi-dimensional (and often qualitative) training objectives that are fully under the runner’s control.
Breaking down those descriptors:
Process training includes training concepts that go beyond distance and pace. They include other variables such as:
- Stride biomechanics–how you move your body over the course of a run
- Finding ease–developing a relaxed rhythm to running
- Terrain and environment
- Non-running factors–daily energy, mood, sleep, and body mass
Process goals are often not hard and fast numbers. Rather, they’re immeasurable components of how the body is responding to running. While one can use measures such as Rate of Perceived Exertion or heart rate, concepts such as daily energy, mood, and sleep quality often have more to do with innate feel than a number.
Under One’s Control
This is the defining element of process goals. Performance goals–such as running a certain number of miles, or a specific training pace–are rigid variables that, while under a runner’s control, may not be sustainable (or controllable) over time. Squeezing in 10 miles per day may seem under one’s control, but is it feasible while working 10 hours a day and raising children?
2. Constant self-reflection on training effect
The runner is constantly self-reflecting on training effect. Rather than adopting a training plan and executing without question, the runner is consistently reflecting on how his or her body responds to training, and adjusting accordingly. What this looks like:
- Apply training: Run a certain distance, pace, and terrain.
- Analyze result: How did it feel–during and after (the next day, week or month)? How does the rest of life feel (work, family, sleep)? What performance outcome was obtained (did you perform slow or fast, or complete the distance)?
- Adjust if necessary: Based on how the training went, adjust the plan accordingly (volume, intensity, training type).
The process-oriented runner has the map, yet consistently re-checks his or her position relative to the terrain ahead. “Is this where I need to be? Am I going in the right direction? Is this roadmap the best route to the destination?”
Conversely, following an outcome approach, because they’re rigid numbers, there is no place for self-assessment or reflection. You’re simply following a recipe, and hoping for the best:
- Eight minutes a mile
- 70 miles a week
- 50-mile long run
The brainless rigidity of a structured training plan without self-reflection may account for the poor coach-versus-finish outcome noted in the Western States survey: well-intended coaches prescribing an arbitrary (if not strictly experiential) plan to the runner, without adequately assessing a runner’s state of being or orientation, and the runner rigidly following it, without self-assessment.
Give a person an inaccurate map with rigid directions, and, indeed, they may be more likely to get lost than the lone runner following his intuition.
A Process Approach to Training and Race Preparation
Rather than adhering to a numbers construct–miles, paces and vertical–a process approach looks at the factors and elements that best deliver success. Addressing those elements–with ongoing self-assessment–allows for maximal preparation within the dynamic bounds of our potential.
The Big Rocks First: Prioritize the Fundamental Demands of the Event
While the outcome approach would dictate “X miles at Y pace over Z months,” a process approach looks to cover the most relevant factors and elements necessary for success at your chosen event.
These factors include:
- Specific challenges
For a runner looking to complete his or her first Western States, this may include running:
- Adequate volume and long runs required to accommodate the 100.2-mile distance
- Specific terrain, including rocky high-country surfaces, ascending and descending deep (over 1,500-foot) canyons
- Simulated fatigued-but-fast: training on flat and smooth late-race sections on tired and battered legs
- Extreme hot and dry conditions (both running, as well as eating and drinking)
Veterans of the race will then lay out their training to address these important factors. This may include:
- Long runs in hot conditions
- Repetitive hilly or canyon-like runs
- Flat-and-fast runs on fatigued, stiff, and/or sore legs
These variables take precedence over an arbitrary number of miles and specific paces. The ‘big rocks’ address the most important needs for success.
Daily Training Process Goals
Rather than strict numbers, process goals for daily training may include:
Just Show Up
Simply committing to doing a run is vital. Energy, mood, and time may squelch your plan to “run 10 miles at eight minute pace.” However, if your process goal is “run today,” you are setting yourself up for success simply by lacing the shoes and getting out the door.
Then, using self-assessment (“Now that I’m out, how do I feel?”) will optimize that run. Still feel rough after three miles? Be done. Feel great? Keep going!
A process goal: “I am going to get out for five runs this week.”
This is huge when it come to training intensity. On a workout or long-run day, certain arbitrary paces and intensities may not be sustainable on that day. A primary process goal should always be to find ease–to develop a degree of basic comfort and sustainability with any run you’re doing. Developing a sense of ease is vital come race day, because the brain’s belief that what you’re trying to do is possible (and won’t kill you) is the most important factor in success. Thus, finding ease and running sustainably (even when running very fast and hard) should be the basis of all training.
However, when following a rigid outcome approach–burying one’s head, ignoring the feedback from the body, to simply get the work done–this aspect of sustainability is lost. At best, you’re up for a rude awakening when, come race day, your ‘comfort zone’ is not sustainable for the full distance. At worst, forcing training causes injury and burnout.
A process goal: “I’m going to find ease and feel good on this run, at whatever pace or distance that may be.”
Know When to Hold ‘Em, and Know When to Fold ‘Em (Hint: You Should Almost Always Fold ’Em in Training.) Constant self-assessment during the course of a run will tell you when you’re on the edge of an unsustainable effort. When running a workout, you’ve lost the ability to run efficiently, it is time to be done. If in the course a long run, you begin to feel greater than normal fatigue–nausea, bonking, cramping, or progressive aches and pains–it is time to be done.
Greg McMillian had a great post recently on this mid-run self-assessment: listening to the body, then once it is ‘finished,’ pulling the plug. Most runners consider this a failure; however, if you consider that you’re doing only what your body is capable of doing, it is always a win.
A process goal: “I want to run four to six half-mile repeats. If I feel good, I will do six, if I don’t, only four.”
Consistency is King.
This process goal goes along with just showing up and stride efficiency: striving for consistency in training. Frequency and efficiency are components to consistency, as are the types of runs.
A process goal: “I am going to execute the plan (the ‘big rocks,’ frequency, mechanics) for the next three months, preceding my goal race.”
The controllable element of this process goal is that, even if the mileage and paces aren’t what you set out to do, you are still executing–doing the work to the best of your ability.
Focusing on the ‘Renewable Resources.’
I talk about this a lot amongst the athletes I coach: that the research on exercise physiology says that we only have a finite number of miles in our bodies, before our training and racing capacity invariably decreases. More specifically, we have a finite number of hard miles–in training and racing. This represents a non-renewable resource.
However, there are many renewable resources out there–things we can work on, that are not finite, yet will multiply our running capacity. These include elements such as:
A process goal: “I am going to adopt a weekly yoga and foam-rolling routine.”
General Strength Training
Trail ultrarunning success requires more than high aerobic capacity or long periods on your feet. General and running-specific strength–feet, hips, and core–is crucial in keeping your energy going forward.
A process goal: “I will engage in a comprehensive strength routine each week.”
Specific strategies to maximize speed and minimize impact stress help to get the most of of your training. Stride efficiency in training improves performance–more speed–but more importantly, it limits aches and pains, and improves recovery.
A process goal: “During today’s run, I am going to focus on tall and forward posture and good arm swing.”
In racing, this is even more important. Stride efficiency–and having specific process goals related to running stride–is crucial in budgeting early race energy and limiting impact stress. Then, as the finish line nears, stride goals help maintain forward momentum when energy (both physical and mental) is at a premium.
Cover the Non-Running Bases
Rather than believing we have separate running and non-running lives, a process approach recognizes that all aspects of life impact running, and the budget for each must be shared.
Once a runner believes that life impacts running, they can begin to devote focus and energy on limiting the cost of non-running stressors. This might include improved time management at work and being more disciplined with sleep.
A process goal: “I am going to limit evening TV and internet time in order to get to sleep earlier.”
The same goes for nutrition. Rather than set arbitrary outcomes for either weight or calories, having a ‘big rocks’ approach will also ensure the body’s needs are met: eating whole foods, a broad spectrum of macronutrients (including enough healthy fats and nutrient-dense plants), and eating unprocessed foods. And, like running, eating should also be intuitive with self-reflection: “Does this make me feel good? Do I need more, or should I be finished?”
A process goal: “I am going to eat whole foods and limit processed and junk snacks.”
Again, instead of forcing a restrictive diet toward an arbitrary weight goal, this process approach will deliver an optimal outcome–good energy, optimal performance and recovery, and a natural performance weight.
As you can see, a process-oriented approach to training is multidimensional and rich: like a color, three-dimensional topographic map. And like today’s GPS-driven guides, a process approach that involves constant self-reflection that may result in significant course deviations–different routes at different paces. And while this different path may seem unfamiliar, unusual, and slower, it is ultimately the fastest possible way toward your goal!