When to Commit to, Modify, or Abandon Your Running Plan

I’ll admit it, I have a problem with commitment. Mostly commitment to one hair color, but commitment nonetheless.

Sometimes we don’t know what the right thing for us is until we start doing something. Once we give that something a go, we can shape it and bend it to our needs or aspirations. I used to think just starting was the hardest step of all, but now I’ve realized that knowing when to walk away from something that isn’t working anymore is the hardest.

I talk, of course, of relationships running plans. Plans are great, for the most part. Professionals or experts put together an idiot-proof (ahem, Ronnie-proof) series of training days broken down by weeks. Each training day specifies a distance and perhaps a recommendation for pace. Some tell you when you can add in cross-training or strength training and others leave those options up to you.

But plans can get you into trouble. Remember that unless the plan states explicitly what kind of runner it’s targeting, it might be assuming that you’re starting at a different level than you are actually on.

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For example, to train for my half marathon, I set a goal to run the whole thing in under two hours, which is, if you want to go through the math (I won’t), something like a 9:15/mi pace. I went onto my handy dandy RunKeeper app and selected the sub-2:00 16-week half marathon training plan, having run a few 5k by that point. The plan featured five running days, two of which were distance days, and two rest days. I started the plan at the beginning, even though that would have me finishing the plan about a month after the first half I’d signed up for (I’m considering a second half marathon one month after that, right at the 16-week mark, because I’m crazy). Despite my starting at the very beginning, the plan escalated very quickly. By the end of the second week, I was meant to be running 8 miles in one go already, when the most at the point I’d ever run was about 6, as we established earlier.

I made it through three solid weeks before my shins began to protest. I’m still not sure if it was the distance or the frequency that did it, but it’s pretty much the worst injury I can imagine having as a beginning runner. The only cure for shin splints–besides not getting them, which is NOT a treatment, so telling me how to prevent them doesn’t help me, thanks–is rest. And when you have only 30 DAYS and the most you’ve ever run in your entire life is a 9.13-mile run/walk, rest due to injury is not possible.**

Anyway, I figured I’d probably have to make a change because there’s a difference between challenging yourself and killing yourself. Sometimes it’s a minor, almost indistinguishable difference, but a difference nonetheless.

I started looking around at other running plans. I can only imagine that the guilt I felt as I compared my plan to others on the Interwebs is something akin to the kind that should accompany infidelity (although I really wouldn’t know). In a way, I felt like I was being unfaithful to my running plan, that I should just do whatever I had to do to make it work, even if it was sucking out my lifeforce. Because that’s love. Or commitment. Or something.

Eventually even my masochistic side realized that my running plan was unsustainable. I started borrowing from other plans, reducing some of the distances on “easy” days to add in strength training where possible and committing to cross-training days with biking, hiking, major beach walking, and other aerobic activities. My plan really had to become my own, because I am not like any other runner out there (barf).

Another drawback of following a cookie cutter plan is that you might think you absolutely have to follow it to the letter, no matter what, and if you miss one distance day, the whole thing just goes out the window. I’d often get really annoyed with myself for missing a day or not scheduling enough time to complete my target distance. To an extent, this still happens, but after reading a million runners’ blogs with the advice “quality, not quantity” it has finally started to sink in. And that goes along with what I can’t stop saying: you know you’re making progress when you can run a long distance and still be able to walk the next day. From that you can infer that the quality of the runs is improving!

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For the most part, it doesn’t matter how far or fast you go, but how you feel, and some days will definitely be better than others. Now, with my hodge podge of a running plan, which now includes yoga and strength- and cross-training in addition to running, I find I can fit in 20-25 miles a week, and that suits my schedule and my shins (mostly).

It was a difficult lesson to learn but now I understand that plans are guidelines. So when you’re considering committing to, modifying, or abandon your running plan, the most important factor to consider whether it is realistic for achieving your goals and won’t leave you injured!

**Shameless plug: another treatment for shin splints besides the whole R.I.C.E. thing is to take ani-inflammatories like ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is great for the occasionally headache or menstrual cramp (right, fellas?) but if you run 4-5 days a week, you can’t be poppin’ ’em like they’re candy. So I take BioAstin, which is actually something my mom pushed on me. It’s not advertised as an anti-inflammatory per se, but supposedly its antioxidant super-strength “promotes joint and tendon health” and won’t damage your stomach and give you ulcers.

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