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Putting training plans together: the building blocks

Building a training plan is a really interesting puzzle. There are so many different ways to put together a plan for a half marathon, for example, depending on the runner and the course involved. Generally, however, all plans need to be built on the same foundational principles because all these plans are built for human bodies. Jack Daniels, in his book Daniels’ Running Formula, lays out eight foundational principles. In this post, I’m going to describe and discuss the first four of these. 


A picture of Jack Daniels' book Daniels' Running Formula

1: The body reacts to stress

When you exert yourself, your body reacts in many ways - your heart rate goes up, you sweat, your muscles become uncomfortable. A lot of the adjustments are made without you even noticing.


2: Specificity

The systems you’re stressing are the ones that react to the stress. So, if you stress your leg muscles, they react. And once stressed, they get stronger. 


3: Overstress

Stress leads to adaptation, but too much stress can lead to breakdown if you are not giving your body time to recover. It is during rest that the post-stress strengthening actually happens. This applies to both our physical and mental systems.


4: Training response

As you put new types of stress on your body, you will see a response in your body’s fitness level. After a time, however, the benefit of this new stress decreases as your body acclimates to it, and you need to again find a new type of stress. There are four variables that you can manipulate to adjust stress: workload, intensity, recovery, and frequency. 


The first and third principles feel the most foundational to me. To get better at running, we need to run and we need to let our bodies recover. Most runners are happy to do the first part, but are not always so great at the second part. To me, recovery encompasses not only building in time to recover from hard workouts, but recognizing all the sources of stress in your life and how it affects your  training. A runner with a toddler may have a few nights of really poor sleep if the toddler is sick and waking them multiple times per night. A runner that travels frequently for work may miss good sleep or healthy foods when away from home. All of those pieces need to be taken into account when training. It may be better to sub an easy run for a workout or skip the run altogether if your body is depleted. Knowing that this isn’t going to hurt your training, but actually help you recover and perform better in the long term, is key.


The second and fourth principles are the fun part for me. When you take into account your historical training and performance, and your future goals, what systems need to be stressed to get you there? How can you be built up over time while kept healthy? How do you maximize the parameters of workload, intensity, recovery, and frequency in just the right way to build your self confidence and belief that you can hit a challenging goal? How do you learn from how you respond to certain types of training from one cycle to the next? This is where the relationship between you and your coach becomes key, as a deeper understanding of the athlete will allow the coach to be most effective in progressing them both physically and mentally. 


These principles, while simple on the surface, can seem like a lot once you dig into them. I think Sabrina Little captures the essence of them in her book The Examined Run when she writes, “Training is the process of leaning in the direction of the athlete you would like to be tomorrow.” This requires you to know where you are starting, where you’d like to go, and what you need to do to get there. The principles just help you light the path. 


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