Prior to any structured training, many runners are fairly haphazard in their approach to running, putting in varying amounts of volume and intensity depending on mood, weather, and the like. While any exercise is obviously good for your body, training requires more focus and strategy. Herein lies one of the greatest challenges in following a structured training program: scheduling conflicts.
For instance, your child’s T-ball games are on Thursdays, the same day you are supposed to do your tempo workouts. Or maybe you have to work every Sunday, which is also the scheduled long run day. As coaches, we find ourselves reassuring runners about these issues every marathon cycle. By giving you three simple guidelines for working around life’s obligations, we offer you the tools to tend to your responsibilities without letting your running get off track.
Guideline 1: Maintain Regularity in Training
If you decide to switch your workouts around, stay as consistent as possible. For instance, if you trade Thursday’s workout for Friday’s one week, try to do the same every week moving forward. The key is to avoid constantly swapping different days every week.
If you move your strength workout to Friday one week, but then do another strength workout the following Tuesday, you’ve done two strength workouts within a 5-day period. This not only upsets the training balance but also can lead to injury and overtraining. If you know something is going to regularly conflict on a certain day of the week, make sure the changes are uniform across weeks and months. If you work all day Sunday, switch your long runs to Saturdays throughout the entire training cycle. Routine is the key here. The more you can maintain it, the better.
Guideline 2: Ensure Rest Days and Easy Days Remain in Place
Put simply, you should always take either an easy day or a rest day between speed, strength, and tempo (SOS: something of substance) workouts. If you miss your speed workout on Tuesday and complete it on Wednesday instead and then go right into your tempo run on Thursday, you’re asking for an injury.
In this situation, the best bet is to move the tempo run to Friday, leaving an easy run on Saturday and a long run on Sunday. This shows that you can adjust for certain obligations and disruptions without upsetting the entire balance of training.
Guideline 3: Something Is Always Better Than Nothing
Consider the previous example in which an SOS workout was missed on Tuesday. What’s a runner to do if there is no other possible day to reschedule the workout later in the week? One option is to just move on. That’s right, cut your losses and move on to the next SOS workout. In some circumstances, there may be no way around this scenario.
If you don’t have time to get in the full workout, however, the other option is to consider sneaking in a quick run, or abbreviating the workout, getting in what you can. Even a 25-minute run is better than forgoing a workout altogether.
Adjusting for Illness or Injury
Illness and injury are certainly the most frustrating reasons you may need to adjust your training around. Over the weeks to months you spend preparing for the 13.1-mile distance, you are likely, at the very least, to catch a bug. The chance of injury, on the other hand, is largely avoided through smart training, but it is not entirely eliminated. Even when you’re doing everything right, you can trip on a curb and take a spill or roll an ankle on uneven terrain. Here is how to navigate these potential running layoffs, depending on the number of days missed and when these days are missed.
1 to 2 Days Missed
Maybe you tweaked your knee or were sick in bed for a couple of days. If you come out unscathed after a day or two, training can resume normally without scaling back mileage or intensity. You just lose a couple of days of running—no harm done. For example, if you took a wrong step at the end of your long run on Sunday, causing you to miss training on Monday and Tuesday, simply jump back in on Wednesday.
If you are feeling 100 percent, complete Tuesday’s SOS workout on Wednesday and move the Thursday tempo to Friday. This allows you to still fit in all of the week’s SOS workouts, but it also adheres to the rule of scheduling an easy or rest day between hard runs. However, if you aren’t able to reschedule your SOS days to fit within those parameters, then just forge ahead with your tempo run on Thursday and let go of the missed SOS workout. While a number of missed workouts can spell doom for your marathon goals, a single lost workout will never be your demise.
3 to 6 Days Missed
Physiological regression will be minimal, even if no running at all takes place within this time frame. Usually, a person who misses this many days has something more than a 24-hour flu or a simple ache or pain. With that said, if you are feeling healthy enough to get in a couple of short, easy jogs while you recuperate, by all means do so. If instead you’re truly laid up, rest assured that the consequences of a few days off won’t deter your end goal.
After 3–4 days of missed training, come back slowly by running easy for 2–3 days, then pick the schedule back up and follow it as usual. If you have missed 5–6 days, run easy for 3–4 days and then revert to the previous week’s training regimen. After that week, jump ahead and catch back up with the training program. For instance, if you miss Week 3, run easy through Week 4 and then return to Week 3’s workouts during the 5th week. After that, jump to Week 6 and follow the training as it was originally prescribed.
7 to 10 Days Missed
At this point the body starts to lose some of those hard-earned physiological gains you have made. You’ve probably heard the saying “You lose it twice as fast as you gain it.” It always seems that it takes a lot more time and effort to gain fitness than it does to lose it. Taking a week and a half off from running definitely necessitates serious schedule modification; however, that modification depends on the point in the plan at which the missed block occurs. If it occurs before the strength portion of the training program, then the runner won’t have to make any major adjustments to race goals.
If the setback happens after the strength workouts begin, the runner will probably need to adjust race goals because there may not be enough time to get in all the normal training. Keep in mind that if you can still manage to run some short, easy runs during this period and have the go-ahead from your doctor, the time it takes to return to normal training will be significantly less. If running isn’t possible, commit to crosstraining to prevent a drop-off in fitness. The hope is that fitness will remain high enough to allow an easier and faster transition back to healthy running. Always remember in these situations to consult a physician who is familiar with runners before diagnosing yourself and prescribing your own treatment. In either case, you don’t need to abandon your plans to run the half-marathon, but adjustments are necessary.
Upon your return to running, you should run easy for the same number of days that you missed. If you lost a week, then run easy for a week. After that, go back to the last training week that you were able to complete and repeat it, then run the week that was originally missed, and from there pick the schedule back up. So, with a week missed, it takes 3 weeks to get back on track. If you are able to run easy during your time off, subtract a week from that time frame.
This advice applies throughout the training program, but once strength workouts have begun, you may do the math and realize, “Wow! I don’t have enough time.” Unfortunately, this happens. While many people can rebound quickly enough to run the race, their goal time will be compromised. Once you get into that final 4–6 weeks of training, the pros and cons of racing should be weighed. If you are really looking to run that goal time and you miss 10 days of running with 5 weeks to go, you could choose to look at other race options. If you are comfortable with potentially missing the mark, then go for it.
More Than 10 Days Missed
Unfortunately, if you are forced to miss this much time, you are faced with a serious decision. After 2 weeks of lost training, the decreases in physiological gains are quite significant—as much as 3–5 percent. While this might not seem like much, consider this: For a runner attempting a 2:00-hour half-marathon, a 4 percent loss means an increase of nearly 5 minutes for the overall finishing time. The slower the race goal time, the more time gained. Even worse, after 21 days away from running, 10 percent or more of fitness is forfeited. This means that VO2max and blood volume can decrease by up to 10 percent, anaerobic threshold decreases significantly, and muscle glycogen decreases by as much as 30 percent.
These are all important to endurance performance, and if you miss 2 weeks of running, it may take more than 2 weeks to even get back to your previous level, setting you far off course. In particular, if this happens during the strength portion of the program, there simply may not be enough time to regain your fitness levels and get ready for the goal race. If you don’t have a designated strength portion, you will still be in the hardest part of your training at this time, so the guidelines here are still applicable.
Although you won’t run your best, advanced runners in this situation may be able to sneak in shorter training segments and still complete the race, albeit likely falling short of the original time goals. However, beginners and first-time half-marathon runners should be cautious when it comes to losing substantial amounts of training time and forging ahead to the goal race. For runners in this situation, consider choosing a new race or at least revising time goals. In all our years of coaching, we’ve seen too many people rush back from illness or injury to make a race deadline, often forgoing proper recovery and in the end having a poor race experience.
If you are set on running the originally scheduled race, be sure to step back and understand what the time off from running means for you physiologically. If you’ve taken 2 weeks off, adjust your race goal by 3–5 percent. If you’ve missed closer to 3 weeks, adjust your expected performance by 7–10 percent. For example, if Runner A missed 2 weeks of training and was shooting for a 2:00 half-marathon, she should adjust her goal by 3.6 minutes (120 × 0.03) to 6 minutes (120 × 0.05). The new time goal would then be 2:03–2:06. Any more than 4 weeks off, and we suggest choosing a new race altogether.
Although we have just presented a number of ways to modify your training schedule, we contend that it is best to avoid taking unscheduled days away from training if at all possible. This applies even when your legs are tired and sore, since soreness and injury are not inextricably linked. There will be times during training when your legs are achy, fatigued, and nonspecifically sore; it just comes with the territory. Many of the adaptations that happen during training occur as a result of running on the days you just don’t feel like running.
If you have an injury, however, your response should be different. For less severe injuries, make sure that you are not only taking time off but also using that time to identify the root cause of the problem. Otherwise you may continue to run into the same issue upon returning to training. For instance, if you are experiencing shin splints, figure out what you need to do to reduce the pain, like getting new shoes or implementing a strength routine.
If your body will allow it, reduce the volume and intensity, but continue running short and easy through the healing process. While training may need to be reduced, it doesn’t necessarily have to stop completely to allow for recovery, that is, if the cause of the injury is identified and treated. When you can maintain some fitness, downtime is significantly minimized, and regular training can be resumed much sooner.
Adapted from Hanson’s Half-Marathon Method: Run Your Best Half-Marathon the Hansons Way by Luke Humphrey with permission of VeloPress.