Ask a Coach: How to Adjust Your Training Plan

Runners run together on a paved pathway

If you’re following a training plan to prepare for a race, way to go! Structured training is a surefire way to improve your fitness and help you achieve your goals. But what happens when life gets in the way of your plan? Maybe you get sick, a big storm makes your workout impossible, or a long travel day interrupts your schedule. Or, you may follow your plan to the letter, but you feel so exhausted that the thought of your long run makes you want to sit down and cry. What can you do?

I tapped Coach Tim Lyman to share his best advice on how to shift your plans when life gets in the way.

“Runners can be their own worst enemies, and what makes us successful at the sport can also be our downfall,” Lyman says. “The same motivation that gets us up and out the door in the morning can easily become the same stubbornness that makes us run ourselves right into an injury. It’s a fine line.”

If you need to alter your schedule, make those changes, and don’t stress over them. Obstacles affect every runner, from the beginner to the seasoned pro. Training plans are designed to have structure, but they’re not so rigid that they can’t be changed. With a few tips in your back pocket, you can learn to tweak your schedule as needed without sabotaging your progress.

Here are some instances when you may need to adjust your training:

  • You are sick
  • You feel constantly feel worn down
  • You have pain or a troublesome area that has bothered you for days
  • Your non-running life is excessively stressful
  • The weather presents safety concerns
  • Your workouts aren’t challenging you enough
  • You just know you need to deviate from the plan

This is not an exhaustive list; the most important thing you need to learn is to listen to your body and do what feels best for you. While consistency is important, missing a few days of running to focus on recovery will not derail your entire plan. Here are some guidelines straight from Coach Lyman to help you know how to adjust.

A runner bends down to tie their shoes.

If I need to change my schedule, how do I decide which run to drop?

In this case, I would ask why a workout had to be tossed. Fever? Skip the speed session. Chest cold? Forget the long run. General time constraints? Do 20 minutes if you can’t do two hours.

There really is no “most important” workout each week, since each session provides a different stimulus and all are equally important.

With that said, my recommendation would be to not skip the same type of session week over week. If you have to miss the long run one week, make sure you don’t miss it the next week. Toss the speed workout instead.

As long as a runner is healthy and uninjured, any mileage is good mileage, so logging half the planned mileage is still better than skipping out on the entire workout. Don’t let “perfect" get in the way of “good enough.”

I had a bad workout. I couldn’t hit my paces and I felt really tired. How should I proceed?

Again, we would need to evaluate why the session didn’t go as planned. Hot/humid conditions? No problem, proceed as scheduled, and consider adjusting your paces if conditions persist. Under the weather? Take an extra rest day. Flirting with overtraining? Dial back the volume. But in this case, we’re assuming no outside factors got in the way and it was just a botched workout. In that case, first and foremost I would argue that there’s no such thing as a “bad workout” as you learn just as much (if not more) from these workouts instead of the ones that go perfectly well.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that training adaptations take weeks to manifest and you won’t see the results from what you are doing today until six to eight weeks later. In my experience, many runners mentally expedite this timeline and expect themselves to be further along in their training than they actually are.

Third, if a runner is healthy, has perfect conditions and is well-trained but does not hit their expected paces on key workouts leading into the race then we would recommend reevaluating the goals for the race in order to ensure a more positive and enjoyable experience during the event.

A woman runs by herself.

I caught a cold. How should I adjust my training schedule?

This one is pretty straightforward. Generally speaking, you can run through a head cold and sweat out a fever. Anything from the neck down, however, is a reason to rest. In most cases for most people, continuing to train when sick results in low quality sessions and a delayed recovery timeline.

Most often, our advice for runners under the weather is to focus their efforts on getting back to feeling 100% and prioritizing a return to training rather than promoting a “train through it” mentality.

Life got in the way and I couldn’t complete my most important workout. How should I adjust?

No one workout is so important that it will make or break your race or training cycle, so there is a degree of flexibility here. Of course, if weather is a concern, you can replicate runs on a treadmill or flip-flop days to complete your run in better conditions. While long runs and speed workouts are important, fundamentally speaking, the greatest indicator of overall success is total weekly volume.

So, if conditions don’t permit you to complete ten miles on a Saturday and your schedule doesn’t allow you to move the workout to Sunday, then simply try to sprinkle in some of those ten miles throughout the week.

Here’s where it gets a little sticky though, as we preach the message of “don’t make up for missed mileage.” What we mean by this though, is to not add all ten miles to the next workout.

Training plans can be broken down into percentages (i.e. “x” miles at “y” effort). If you have to miss an important workout, zoom out to a seven to 10 day viewpoint, look at how that session plays into the bigger picture and then tweak the rest of that time to get as close as possible to your planned mileage.

A runner wears a jacket in the cold.

What else should I keep in mind when it comes to changing my training plan?

It helps to have access to a qualified coach who can provide suggestions on adapting a plan or program. Every other runner out there will have their two cents, but consulting a certified coach can help eliminate a lot of confusion and avoid mistakes.

A training plan consists of microcycles (36-72 hours), mesocycles (7-14 days) and macrocycles (6-8 weeks). The little cycles compound and result in bigger cycles. I argue for the inclusion of a “megacycle” (the entire training block). And guess what— these also compound season over season, year after year.

No one workout is important enough to risk a stress fracture and sideline yourself for the season. No single mile is important enough to log if you are feeling extremely ill. No one step is important enough to take if you are not fully recovered from an injury. Maintain a flexible headspace, keep the 10,000 foot view in mind and surround yourself with a knowledgeable support team (like a coached training program), when possible.

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