I’m sitting here at the end of a hectic week of Christmas festivities in which I have struggled to train according to my usual routine. That said when I look at the training I’ve done it’s been ok and I’ve managed to fit in all my key sessions, albeit not always on the usual days.

So how flexible can you be with a training plan? Well, the more you train the harder that gets; if you train three times per week it’s relatively easy to swap a rest day round, if you train ten times a week it gets a bit more complicated.

The fact is life, for most of us, is complicated, we have more commitments than just our training and part of being successful at life is about being flexible as well as focussed. That said, whoever wrote your training plan has put a lot of thought into the sequence of sessions and rest days to enable you to train optimally. Whilst you might be able to give a recovery run a miss, or even swap a rest day round, flexibility and changes to planning need to be done with care and thought.

When is flexibility good?

The basic answer to this question is flexibility is good when it complements your training.

When you are on the verge of over-training

There’s no point doggedly following your training plan when you are feeling tired, grumpy and your form is depleting (ie you aren’t hitting the same pace/training zones that you could before). In this case it’s actually far more sensible to cut back, have some easy, recovery days and then look at whether your plan may have been over-ambitious and too much for you. Being flexible in this case is going to help you avoid over-training and in the end lead to better results.

When you are ill

Equally there’s no point dragging yourself through your speed session if you are not fit for it. Just as you need to be fit enough to work when you attend so you need to be fit enough for your session to complete it well. If you are ill and/or feeling under the weather and you drag yourself round a training session, you are unlikely to be able to complete a good quality session and very likely to make yourself more sick.

When you are not recovered enough for the session

You may sometimes have to abandon mid-session, you might feel ok but if you are not hitting your usual power and your heart rate is not rising the chances are you are not recovered enough to do your session and the best thing to do is go home and rest or do an easy recovery session. This can take some courage, especially if you are training with others, but it will pay dividends when you come to your next session fresh and ready to train.

When you are injured

One of the hardest things to do when you are feeling fit is to listen to that niggle in your calf/knee/hamstring and back off for a couple of days. I learnt this the hard way by completing a session of 200m repetitions on a niggling hamstring by the end of which I could barely walk…needless to say I didn’t run again for a long time. If in doubt, leave it out, is indeed a wise mantra and ultimately two days off or on light training is far better than 6 months off with a serious injury. So, listening to your body and doing what your body is capable of can be far more sensible than completing those 200m repetitions ‘because they’re in the plan.’

When you are stressed

Stressful life events can mean that we want to get out and do the training to maintain some sense of normality/sanity. This can work well at times, but when we are really stressed we need to be careful about hard training. Whilst training is a eu-stress (good stress) it is still a stress and if you add this on to other stress it can lead to too much stress and illness or injury. At these times, it might be wiser to go for a gentle run or bike ride, go for a walk, or take more time for rest so that your body can recover and come back to harder training when things have calmed down.

When we need to prioritise other things in our life

Life is complicated and whilst it would be nice to think that everyone in our lives prioritises training as much as us, that’s not always the case, sometimes we need to pay attention to the other things in our lives (e.g. our family, our non-sporty friends, work). However, with a bit of careful planning we can still get some good training in around planned life events. Here’s an example of the changes I made over the Christmas period to enable me to get some good quality training in around festivities and family time.

When is flexibility bad?

Flexibility is bad when it compromises your training and your health

Here are some things I have learned both as a coach and an athlete over the years:

When you double up sessions

Every session in your plan has its own purpose and is a session in its own right. If you try to make up for a missed session by putting two sessions into one, all you are doing is creating a completely different session. For example, if you miss your 20 minute threshold test on Saturday and decide to do that on Sunday in addition to your long run, both the long run and the threshold test will be compromised. Depending on the assigned importance of each session, you may decide to choose one over the other, but you can’t do both together. If you can do a long run after a 20 minute threshold test, you have not done your test hard enough, if you do your 20 minute threshold test after a long run you won’t be able to do it hard enough.

When you don’t have a routine to deviate from

The key to successful training is frequency and frequency requires routine. Whilst from time to time we may have to deviate from that routine, having a good solid base really helps to keep you focussed when life gets complicated. Doing the same type of training at the same time and on the same day each week is a good way to establish that routine.

However, it needs to be a routine that works for you. Having a think about your training routine and what works best in terms of when to take a rest day, when to do your long runs needs to include when you have the time available to do them. For example, there’s no point having a training routine which has a long Sunday run if you work long hours at the weekend; it might make more sense to have your long run on your day off mid week.

When you don’t sequence sessions correctly

Sessions in plans are placed in a particular order for a reason. For example, when training for an ultra distance event it’s often good to do back to back long days, to split up this sequence can defeat the object of the training (ie being out on tired legs on the second long session). Equally, doing fast sprints can be compromised if your legs feel heavy from a long endurance session, so making sure that you do your weekend speed session on Saturday and your long run on the Sunday can be really important for maintaining the quality of the speed session.

When you train too hard

If it says easy in the plan, it needs to be easy. If your plan prescribes an easy/recovery session then that is exactly what it should be. If it is too hard, you run the risk of not recovering enough for your hard sessions which you will then have to abandon. Coaches think very carefully about the intensity of different training sessions and they are designed to train particular systems – yes even easy sessions are training. If you decide to train at a different intensity you are not following the plan or training the right zone.

So it is possible to be flexible, and it is in fact a necessity at some points, but we need to do this with a little care and thought to get the balance right.

Plan around your life not despite it

The best way to ensure that you complete the training planned is to plan your training around your life, not in spite of it. Whether we like it or not, there will be times when something other than training will have to take precedence, but if we plan for this we will feel a lot better about it and make sure that we don’t miss key training because of it.

Last week took me a bit of time to plan, but in actual fact worked far better than if I had tried to complete my usual week’s training, which would probably have left me doing less or doing two hard days back to back.

One of the advantages of having an annual training plan with all key dates (including life events as well as training) is that you can plan your training around your life. Planning training in this realistic way gives you a far greater chance of success. So, if you know that you are going to a big family party on 25th December, you can plan to have that day (and/or the next day) free. If you know you have a really stressful period at work every April, this might be a time when you choose to have some down time from training.

Look at things objectively

Even with careful planning, life can still bring up unexpected complications. In these situations ten to twenty minutes of careful thinking about what is happening, and maybe discussing it with a running friend can you help you take a step back and devise a new plan. If you are lucky enough to have a coach you can discuss these with them and together you can devise a new plan based on the new situation.

So it might be that you were hoping to train 6 days per week but you have suddenly started to become over tired, grumpy and are not hitting your targets any more. Being able to think this through objectively and identify the reasons why will help you get back on track. Keeping a training diary is also a good way to help you in these situations because you can look back to a time when it was working and see what has changed when it stopped working (e.g. when you increased your training volume, when you got your new more stressful job). Once you have identified what the problem is you can take steps to overcome it.

Supplementary questions

How tired is too tired? – This can be really difficult to tell sometimes; during periods of heavy training you will feel tired. Too tired, however, is when you are too tired to do the planned training. If you have a training computer which measures heart rate, pace and/or power you will be able to see once you start the session if you are tired by your inability to maintain a training zone or if your heart rate simply won’t rise. Chatting this through with a more objective friend/coach can also help. There are also some mobile applications and tools now which measure heart rate variability which can be a good indication of tiredness, as can resting heart rate; if you take it regularly at the same time each day you will notice when it is higher or lower than usual.

What should I do if I miss training? – Once you have missed training, it’s gone, you can’t bring back that time or that day. What you can do is accept that that has happened and move on from your new position. If you have missed one session this may just be a case of continuing with the plan as written the next day. If you have missed a significant chunk of training you may need to consider building your fitness back. To do this you need to assess where you are and move on from that position, either by going back some weeks in the plan, starting again, or making a new plan.

Clare Pearson
Post by Clare Pearson
January 2, 2020
A professional endurance coach since 2018, Clare Pearson has worked with runners to help them achieve their goals. Clare specialises in trail/mountain/fell running. Clare loves to work with people to help them succeed at their own goals; whether that's a personal best, a completion, a podium or better emotional health. Clare will work with you to design a plan that fits in with your day to day life and helps you get the most out of each session.