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The Biggest Training Mistakes Athletes Make, According to Coaches

Are you making one of these training mistakes? From volume to motivation, here’s where trail runners get tripped up. 

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Effective endurance training is as unique as the runner undertaking it. Some things work well for some runners, but not for others. However, there are some strategies that are decidedly ineffective across the board. We caught up with a few elite runners and professional coaches to learn what mistakes they see most often, and how to address them.

Know Your Why

“The biggest mistake I see athletes making is not asking why,” says elite runner and coach Mason Coppi. “I think it is relatively easy to come up with big goals, whether it’s winning a high-profile race, setting a new PR, completing your first ultra, or even just starting to run. But eventually, your goal is going to get hard. When this inevitably happens, you are going to ask yourself, ‘Why the heck am I doing this?’”

You don’t need to spend hours journaling or going to a ten-day silent meditation retreat to find out your “why”. It’s a continual process that will shift and evolve, just as you do. Between racing seasons, take time to reflect on what parts of training are resonating with you. 

Here are a few questions we like considering when it comes to assessing our own goals and motivations: What gives you purpose? What brings you joy or makes you feel truly excited to get out of bed in the morning? What do you value? Who or what inspires you? What are your strengths? How does running connect you to those different pieces? What types of runs do you look forward to the most, and which ones do you dread?

It’s unlikely that, after much consideration, your answer will be “Well, an Instagram influencer made it seem really cool” or “Jeff at the office did it.” Lasting, sustainable motivation, the kind that fuels long love affairs with the sport, comes from within, and not (usually) the desire to snag a few more Strava kudos or add another buckle to your collection. 

trail running training mistakes
(Photo: Tandem Stock)

Your “why” doesn’t have to be huge or noble. It can be small and simple. It just has to feel authentic to you. Coppi’s “why” is the simple pursuit of fun.

“I am at my happiest when I am flowing on trails. Even when things get hard, I think there is a playful element to fighting demons,” says Coppi. “Developing a ‘why’ can make sure you are in the sport for your own right reasons and give you something to draw on when things get real.”

When you find the “why” that feels right to you, share it with others to help hold yourself accountable. 

Practice Your Race Day Fueling On Long Runs

San Diego-based coach Jessica Riojas Schnier says the worst choice she sees athletes make is not fueling enough during long runs. She says she wants the athletes she coaches to treat long runs like races when it comes to fueling and hydration. 

During-race nutrition plans should be well thought out and practiced often, to the point where it feels natural on race day. Set out your nutrition and gear the night before so you don’t forget anything in the early morning pre-run preparation. Keep track of what you are eating during each long run, so you can recognize patterns with what does and doesn’t work for you. Everyone’s nutrition plan looks very different, so don’t feel the need to stick to a plan because you think it’s what everyone else is doing,” says Riojas Schnier. 

Race day is the wrong time to play roulette with your stomach. Nutrition can make or break your experience when it comes to long runs and races. The best fueling strategy is the one that works for YOU, and that can take plenty of trial-and-error to nail down. As a baseline, we recommend starting with 16-20 oz of fluids per hour of exercise, depending on your sweat rate and environment. Make sure you’re getting some electrolytes. If you’re not replacing the sodium that you sweat out, you won’t be able to use the carbohydrates and water you’re consuming. 

Proper fueling isn’t just important for competition, it’s imperative for training (and overall health), too. 

“The biggest mistake I see athletes make in training is not fueling on the runs. It is so vital in order to be able to repair, recover, and adapt. We see so many athletes finish every run with the tank on empty, taking a lot out of the body. By fueling during a run, you aren’t digging yourself a hole but instead layering another brick onto your aerobic foundation,” says elite mountain runner and coach Tabor Hemming. 

Sports nutrition can be expensive. But, it’s important to practice with what you plan to use on race day. But, you can mix in some homemade alternatives further out from race day. Keep your food simple. Lower fat and fiber, and higher carbohydrate options work best. You can use sports nutrition like gels and chews, or try mixing in some whole-food options. Choose products or snacks that maximize carbohydrate intake with a mix of glucose, fructose, and sucrose. 

Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to figure out what works best for them, which is why you should never wait until race day to find out that tater tots do not work for you. 

Easy Means Easy. Really. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most of us could stand to run our easy days slower.

“Many athletes run their easy runs too hard,” says ultrarunner and coach Jenny Quilty.  “It can take a lot of work to develop an awareness of perceived effort and find individualized cues for easy effort across various days, and I think it’s often even harder to fully trust and value our own perception of effort.”

“Easy effort” is a big, catch-all term for a variety of paces (exact output can vary depending on if you’re following Jack Daniels, Phil Maffetone, or Renato Canova style training) but what does easy actually mean, and how can be sure you’re running easy enough?

The good news: you can go too fast, but you can’t go too slow. Even a snail’s pace enhances slow-twitch muscle fiber development, reduces injury rate, and improves recovery. 

You could train by heart rate. You could try the “talk test,” making sure you’re able to speak in complete sentences during your easy runs. Or you could also zoom out and see if you’re able to recover between runs, feel energized going into workouts, and keep out of a chronic injury cycle. 

While there’s evidence that many athletes benefit from going a bit quicker on easy days when they feel good, many athletes, especially those just starting out or stuck in cycles of injury, stagnation, or regression, should probably slow their rolls. Shoot for a minute or two slower per mile than your marathon pace, adjusting for terrain, stress, and environmental factors like weather and wind.

Shake Things Up

Stuck in a rut? Running the same routes, races, and workouts over and over again? Time to disrupt the norm. 

One of the most common mistakes I see among runners is not progressing their training over time. Every year, they’re running the same mileage numbers, the same types of races, workouts, and long runs. We need a changing, evolving stimulus to get faster so we have to keep pushing the envelope to keep improving!” says Denver-based coach Jason Fitzgerald. 

If your routine is getting stale, try mixing it up with a new trail. Or sign up for a new and challenging race distance (pro tip: challenging doesn’t always mean longer! A tough 10K is a great training stimulus.) 

Also, if you’re being smart and running most of your runs easy, try incorporating some workouts. If you’ve been doing speedwork for a while, level up with a combo workout. Slowly build your volume over time, and add in intensity. 

trail running training mistakes
(Photo: Tandem Stock)

Spread Your Volume Out

Variety may be the spice of life, but consistency is the roux that holds it all together. 

“The biggest mistake athletes make is loading training on a single day without consistency throughout. Almost 100% of the time, when athletes decide they want to train for an ultra or a big FKT, they get the urge to go out and do big days in the mountains or on the trails that make up more than half of their weekly mileage in one run,” says Boulder-based pro trail runner Matt Daniels. “Usually, the athlete will end up injured and have setbacks. It’s best to run 5-6 days a week shorter each day than to go out after running two days a week and run a long effort on the weekend.”

The body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. And severely stressing your body out just twice a week with training stimulus is a poor way to spur growth and adaptation. By spreading your training stimulus out, your body can tolerate a higher overall load with more individual doses. 

Try and work your way up to five or six runs a week, even if they’re short. While the actual number of miles will vary from athlete to athlete, try to do about 15 percent of your volume on three days (these are ideal days for strides and easy running), one day with about 20 percent (perfect for a workout) and one day with 35 percent (long run!  That leaves you two whole days to rest! Athletes with high life stress should shoot for two rest days a week, while some runners can get away with just one day off every seven days. 

SAMPLE WEEKS: 30/60 Total Miles

Monday: Rest

Tuesday: 4.5/9 with strides

Wednesday: 6/12 with a workout

Thursday: 4.5/9 super easy

Friday: Rest/optional cross-training/4 miles

Saturday: 10.5/16 long run!

Sunday: 4.5 /10 w/ hill strides

A training plan or coach can help you dial in the specifics, but increasing your run frequency can help safely build volume and lead to major training breakthroughs.