Bad Training in 3 Graphs

When you’re training for distance running, there is a lot that can go wrong. And some of those things aren’t that obvious. You’re working hard, you’re getting the training in but you keep getting hurt. Or even worse, you keep putting the work in and feel like you’re not getting any better!


There can be a lot of reasons for something like that, but let’s take a look at three big-picture reasons that your training might be holding you back — and how to avoid it.


Bad Training Example #1: The Plateau



The plateau problem is sneaky because you’re training consistently, you made progress from where you started, but you’re not seeing any more improvement. It’s tough to know why because nothing has changed.


training consistently, no improvement


But the fact that nothing has changed is exactly WHY you’re not seeing any more improvement. Your body is really good at adapting to things, but it’s not good at anticipating things. So once it’s adapted to what you’ve been doing, it stops. It doesn’t know that you want to be in BETTER shape — you need to tell it. That’s when you need to mix it up and keep challenging your body to continue to improve.


So if your normal routine is 4 miles, 3 times a week, your body will get comfortable with that. But any time you try to run farther, or faster, or add hills, it will be in for a shock.


need to add new stimulus


The best way to combat that? Run farther, or faster, or add hills! Anything to mix up your routine and add some new stimulus that your body has to adapt to.


Make sure that you don’t do ALL of those things all at once, of course. If you’re running 3-4 times a week, make one run a longer run (add 1 mile every 2-3 weeks), and one run a “speed” day. That doesn’t mean that you need to be running sprints, but it does mean that you’ll be challenging your body to run faster on that day than on your other days.


Some good, easy examples of how to mix up the pace on that day:


  • Pick up the pace 10-15 sec/mile every mile
  • Run a hilly route, and push the pace on the hills
  • Do 1-2 miles of 30 sec pick-up / 90 sec easy


These are not crazy track workouts, but it’s enough to trigger your body to continue to adapt and improve. And that’s the way to bust out of the plateau.


The plateau can cause problems for more experienced runners, too. If you’re doing the same types of speed workouts over and over again, training season after training season, you may need to mix up your approach in order to reach the next level of performance.



Bad Training Example #2: The Over-Achiever



This chart is more complicated than the first one, so let’s go over it quickly:


When you look at the blue line, it starts out at your current performance ability (baseline), and then it dips down when a stress is added. A stress in this case is a hard workout or a long run. Something that tires you out to the point that it negatively impacts your performance ability. So for example, if I asked you to run a race the day after a long run, you wouldn’t be able to run as fast as you would without running a race first.


stress + recovery = improvement


BUT, this negative impact is temporary. Given enough time to recover, you see that your performance ability returns to its baseline level and actually goes PAST that level. Now because of that hard workout, you’re actually in better shape and have a HIGHER performance level than before. That’s how you improve as a distance runner — add stress, recover properly, get faster.


The problem starts when you look at the red line. That line indicates what happens when you add another stress BEFORE the recovery process allows you to improve. Then the new stress sends your performance ability even lower, since you weren’t back to your baseline yet. (Think hard workout, followed by long run, followed by race — it wouldn’t be pretty!)


In a world that values “no pain, no gain” and working harder to get ahead, this is a VERY common problem that I see with distance runners. But you can see that without the proper recovery, this becomes self-defeating.


train, don't strain


One very important thing to note with this is the amount of time it takes to properly recover varies — it varies from workout to workout, and it varies from person to person. Even with the same person and the same workout, it can vary based on what other stressful things you have going on in your life.


A couple of rules of thumb to be on the safe side of this:


  • No more than 3 hard days in a week (two speed workouts, one long run)
  • Have one easy running day in a week for each hard day you have
  • Spread your hard days as far out from each other as you can


Again, these rules won’t apply to everyone. But if you’re concerned that you might be struggling from over-achiever syndrome, this is a good place to start.



Bad Training Example#3: More is Better



This is a cousin to the over-achiever but instead of decreased performance, here the risk is injury.


You become a better runner by running 40 miles a week than 20 miles a week. You become a better runner at 60 miles a week, as well. What about 80 miles a week? 100 miles a week? Yes and yes.


However, you start to reach the limit of your potential at a certain point and see diminishing returns from the added training. So maybe consistently running 60 miles a week instead of 40 allowed you to improve your half-marathon time by 5 minutes. Bumping from 60 to 80 might let you drop another 3 minutes. As you get closer to your full potential, the curve starts to flatten out.


diminishing returns and increased risk of injury


At the same time, each bump in the amount of training that you’re doing comes with an added risk of injury. That means that you must always be managing that risk as you increase your training stress.


There are several ways to manage that injury risk:


  • Make sure that you’re not skimping on your recovery protocol (icing, compression gear, etc.)
  • Make sure that you’re not skimping on your stretching, foam rolling, etc.
  • Make sure that you’re not skimping on your strength work


The common thread here is that there is less room for error — you need to make sure that you’re checking all the boxes. Things like strength training, recovery protocol, and foam rolling are important for ALL runners, but the more you’re training the more important they become.


And with all that extra work, there still is no guarantee that you won’t get injured.


I think the best way to figure out the correct balance between training stress and injury risk for you is to find what level of training allows you to reach your goals, balance your life, and stay injury-free. There will be some trial and error involved in figuring that out for yourself. And make sure that you’re taking into account all the stress going on in your life and not falling into one of the other bad training examples while you’re increasing your mileage.


Each of these mistakes will keep you from reaching your potential as a runner, and could lead to injury, burn-out, or general frustration. If you’re struggling with any of them, let me know. I know a guy who might be able to help.



About Coach Carl
Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Competitor. For information on his coaching services, click here.