How to Recover When Your Training Plan Goes Off the Rails
Life takes over. You get injured, sick, or sidetracked and training isn't going as planned. You can still salvage your next race.
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How’d your training plan go this summer? If your gut reaction is to cringe a little, you’re not alone.
Everyone hopes their race prep—for a 5K or a marathon or any distance—goes according to plan, but it’s common for things to get off track every now and then, says Melanie Kann, a New York Road Runners coach. Whether it’s due to injury, illness, work stress, or even lack of motivation, it’s important to remember that life happens: “We don’t train in a bubble,” she says.
So getting derailed en route to your fall race is a relatable, if not totally expected, issue. (Phew!) And what’s even more reassuring is that you can easily get back on track. “The best plans have some flexibility built into them to accommodate life’s little ‘speed bumps,’” says Kann. In fact, she says, “If you come across a plan that says every single workout must be executed perfectly, run away!”
First thing’s first. “Take a deep breath and focus on what you’ve done already to assess where you currently are,” says Kann. Next, determine what you can do in order to keep moving forward, either with or without your original training plan. “Just as no two runners are exactly alike, no two courses of action will be the same either.”
Here, four common scenarios—and their action plans—to help you determine your own course of action.
You were injured for three weeks of your marathon training plan and now you have eight weeks left before race day.
Assuming you’ve been cleared by your doctor or physical therapist, start with a series of short runs or run-walks of 20 to 30 minutes every other day for that first week.
“This will ensure everything is in working order and gently build back some fitness while you readapt,” Kann says.
Continue to check in with your body (and your PT if necessary) and if you feel healthy, gradually add in more time on your feet by about three to five minutes. “Running for time rather than mileage will help you curb the urge to compare your current self to your pre-injury self,” Kann says.
Most important, resist the urge to “make up for missed miles” to catch up to your plan. Instead, continue bumping up your weekly run time and don’t worry if you don’t make it to that “holy grail” 20-miler. “I’ve seen marathoners have success with as low as a 16-mile-long run (three to four weeks pre-race), but I urge those runners to rethink their goal and to focus on finishing safely rather than go for a specific time,” Kann says.
That 5K you were trying to PR at snuck up on you—it’s next weekend and you’ve been running sporadically a few miles at a time the past several weeks.
Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as you think. You can optimize your body in the little pre-race time you have. “During race week, a few easy runs with some strides (15-second bursts of speed done as gradual accelerations) at the end will help sharpen the legs up a bit and help you stay loose,” Kann says.
That being said, consider an alternate definition of what success might look like this time around. “With a week to go till race day, you will want to set a new time-free objective; maybe you can pace a friend who is a little slower than you and focus on their PR instead.”
Your friend got hurt and legally transferred her bib to you for a half marathon—but it’s in six weeks and the longest you’ve run lately is five miles.
“Most half-marathon plans are around 10 weeks long, so while you’ll be a little behind, you can safely train up for the event, as long as you are 100 percent healthy and aren’t nursing any injuries,” Kann says. (And make sure to check the race rules about bib swapping!)
For any long-distance event, the long run is the cornerstone of your training, so that takes priority over all other runs. This means that you may want to take it a little easier on the speed work or cut out a midweek tempo run altogether so you can put your full effort and more mileage in on the long run.
And if you need to walk some of the miles, go for it: “Walking miles are worth just as much as running miles.” As long as you check a nine-miler off your plan two to three weeks before race day, you should be good to hit 13.1.
You’re going on an end-of-summer two- week vacation (lucky you!) and you’re worried you won’t be able to follow your training plan and run as much as you’d like to.
“Remember that any running or physical activity while you’re away is a deposit in the ‘fitness bank,’” Kann says. Runners often discredit the activity they wind up doing when traveling because it might not be equivalent to their effort at home, but even short, easy runs or long walks every day will keep your body on track.
Plus, a little downtime can do your body good. With the lack of stress, true regeneration can happen, helping you to come back even stronger. Kann says every runner should repeat this mantra: “You can only train as well as you can recover.”