I’ve just sat down and planned my races from January through to August 2020. While I was doing so I began to really appreciate some of the benefits of this plan and how it helps achieve my running goals.
So why do I need an annual training plan? The main reason for planning in this way is that it really motivates me to train and get excited about the year ahead. In addition to this however, there are other benefits for such advanced planning which help me to achieve my goals and feel good about my running.
Increasing the Chance of Success.
In a previous blog I talked about how running can help with general problem solving skills. One of the key components of this is having a goal and making a plan. For the goal to be reached it needs to follow certain criteria handily remembered by the letters SMART. To ensure your racing goal is SMART it needs to be:
Having the idea that you want to get fitter in 2020 is great, but it’s not very specific, so you’re not going to know how to get there or when you have achieved it. Knowing that you want to be fit enough to complete your first 20km trail race gives you a specific goal to aim for which is…
You will know you have achieved your goal of completing the 20km trail race by whether or not you complete it. Better still, because the race is timed you will also know if you have done it in the time you wanted. So whether your goal is completion, a top ten finish or a time between 2 hours and 2hours 15, all these things are measurable so you will know when you have reached your target.
There’s no good asking for the moon, so to increase the likelihood of us achieving our goal we need to ensure it is achievable. I like to think in terms of acceptable margins, rather than pass or fail. So, for example with times I will have a margin of time I would like to complete something in, with positioning, I will have a margin of acceptable criteria (e.g. top 20). This gives me much more chance of achieving my goal.
You are not going to be very motivated to achieve something that is not in some way rewarding for you, even if that reward is just the sense of achievement at having completed it. What we know about goals is that the harder they are to attain the more rewarding it feels to achieve them. So, whilst you want your goal to be achievable, it’s always good to make it a ‘stretch target’ ie one that you will have to work hard to get. For me my margin of achievement will include a goal that is relatively easy, as well as a goal that is going to be difficult (ie the dream might be to complete my fell race in 2 hours, but I’ll be happy with anything up to 2 hours 20 minutes).
If you have a goal to achieve this week/next week/sometime/never the chances are it will end up being never. Giving yourself a time limit for achieving your goal keeps you to task and ensures that you remain focussed on your goal.
Breaking it down
For any difficult goal, we can easily become over-whelmed if we think about where we are now and where we need to be. However, if we plan for the year ahead, we can break down our main goal into a series of smaller achievable goals.
When Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, he did so by having a series of smaller goals where he would aim to run just a second or two faster. So if your big race for next year is a challenge of distance, you could aim to complete some smaller races prior to this race and then you have a series of smaller goals to aim for. This also has the advantage of helping us see if we are on track for our big goal or whether we need to change the parameters (e.g. give ourselves more time).
Once we have identified the process goals along the way to our main goal we can start to think about the training we need to do to reach each step. Breaking down our main goal like this therefore provides a really good framework for the training we are going to do along the way.
Each Goal has its Own Timeframe.
Once we have broken down our goal into a series of smaller goals we can allocate a realistic time frame for each smaller gaol as well as an overall time frame. This helps us do a good reality check about whether the race we really want to do is achievable in the time we have remaining or whether we need to see that as a goal for another year.
Because fitness is not a linear progression but works with periods of plateauing where we may need to rest or ease back in order to absorb the training we have done, we need to plan ahead to think about how much training we can do without becoming over-trained and/or injured.
Some longer distance trail events (like the Three Peaks, UTMB) require you to have completed specific qualifying races so planning ahead means that you can make sure you meet the qualifying criteria.
“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up some place else” (Yogi Berra). Thinking and planning for goals is a really great way to motivate ourselves and keep us to task. If we know where we want to be we are more likely to complete the plan to get there. This gives each training session a sense of purpose beyond just the session and helps us see how it fits into the whole big picture.
When I had created my plan I began to feel excited about the year ahead and about the new goals and plans I had made. This can be a really good motivator on a winter’s evening when the wind is howling and the hail is bouncing off the road; if we were just training for training sake or for some unknown goal this might be a time when we decided to give that session a miss. However, if in our head we have an idea of the races we want to complete and feel excited about them, that provides an extra motivation to go out and take a small step towards our overall goal. It certainly helped me to get out and train last week when it was raining and cold!
Everybody leads complicated lives; a friend of mine told me the other day that she had marked off in her calendar the races she would like to do for the next year, but wryly suggested the likelihood was most of them would get scrapped.
Whilst we do often have to compromise in life, early planning for the year, including discussions with significant others about the races we want to do can help anticipate or avoid obstacles which often get in the way of us achieving our goals. This might mean booking time off work for a big adventure race, planning child care/doggy care, saving up money or just simply ensuring our plans don’t clash or get in the way of other major family events.
Some events are logistically more complicated than others (e.g. if you want to race on some continents you may need a visa) so part of the yearly planning process includes planning the logistics of the event, even if it’s just who you are going with and who is going to drive!
A key part to success is the ability to be responsive to changes that happen along the way. If we have an overall plan but something major changes, like we become injured, we can be responsive to this by having another look at our goals and rather than giving up, simply shifting the parameters to what has now become achievable. This can of course work both ways, perhaps we are doing far better than we had anticipated and we can include a time margin as well as just a completion goal for our main race. Either way if we remain responsive, we are more likely to achieve what we want, even if it’s not quite in the way we had originally hoped.
Being Physically Prepared
The reality of any physically demanding sport is that we do not perform at the same level all the time. The very nature of getting fitter is not a linear event, but rather works in stages. Since we cannot work at the same high intensity all the time, but need periods of rest there will be times when we perform extremely well and times when we perform less so.
Peaking is the art of harnessing those times when we perform particularly well and we can plan our training to make sure that we reach our peak level of fitness for our main event(s) of the year. This might mean peaking for a particular race or for a season of races. If we know when our key event(s) are we can make sure that our annual training is geared towards peaking for that time period. Most off the shelf training plans that you buy will have you peaking for the end of the programme which is when you will plan to race.
I use training peaks to help me ensure I am peaking correctly as it summarises training into a handy graph:
The blue line indicates overall fitness and the pink line indicates fatigue, the balance between overall fitness and fatigue is what indicates whether we are ready to perform. At the time of writing (16th December 2019) I have just come out of a heavy period of training where my fatigue was high, and you can see that my form dropped, a period of rest will see the form increase and I am likely to be able to perform better by the end of the week.
Being Mentally Prepared
In the excitement for preparing for a big adventure it’s really easy to get caught up in all the physical aspects of preparing and forget about preparing mentally. Successful people are both physically and mentally prepared and top athletes invest a lot of time and energy into psychological preparation as well as physical fitness. Allocating some time in your plan to mentally prepare for your key race will help you succeed. For example in most ultra events you are going to feel physically and psychologically low at points, so having a plan to deal with this is going to help you stay the course and complete the race, whether this is a particular track of music you are going to listen to, having a friend to cheer you on at a particular difficult spot in the race, or a favourite snack waiting for you.
Anticipating what might go wrong is also a really important aspect of ensuring success so that you can plan to overcome or side-step potential hurdles. For example many people in longer races start to feel nauseous and consequently it becomes difficult for them to take on the energy they need, having a plan for what to do in this situation could mean the difference between completing and retiring.
Of course, once you have put all this time and effort into your training plan you have practised the skill of solving your life’s problems in a positive and goal orientated way. If you can do this for your training, then you can do this across other areas of your life, like your finances, your emotional wellness or any other life problem. The key to this is it is a goal orientated approach, that is we start from where we want to be, then identify where we are and the steps to get from A to B. If we approach life in the same way, not only will we be more successful in life, but we will have a much more positive outlook.
How do I know if my goal is realistic? It can be really difficult to be realistic about our own abilities, so a good way to think about a goal is to work from evidence of what you have done in the past and to build up gradually to harder goals. It’s always better to have a margin of acceptability in any goal rather than a simple pass or fail. For example it’s no good deciding on an exact time for your race as there are so many variables, however, you could have an ideal time margin where the fastest time would be a stretch target and the slowest time would be something close or the same to what you have achieved in the last year. Many training watches and support packages now also give you some prediction as to your times and possible abilities for certain distances and/or duration, so, if you put in enough data they can help with your goals. However, remember, these are only as good as the data they have; your new training watch might tell you that you can do a sub 2 hour marathon but if it only has information from your sprint to the bus stop the day before it’s unlikely to be accurate.
Once I’ve got all my goals what training should I do? This is a question beyond the remit of this article, but there are a number of ways you can find out what training you need to do. You could look for a training plan to fit your race criteria, you could ask an experienced fellow athlete for some advice, or you could invest in a one to one session with an professional coach for some general guidance, or invest in a coaching programme to help you achieve your goal.