The missing ingredient that can transform your training

It could mean the difference between setting your personal record and falling just short.  It could help you finish strong in your first race instead of shuffling through the final miles.  It might keep you injury free or help you conquer the most challenging course you’ve ever run.  It could help you get in the best possible shape without neglecting your family, work, and other responsibilities.

Yet you probably don’t have one.

A training strategy is an essential tool for runners, but most runners don’t take the time or effort to develop one.

The primary resources of any runner – time, energy, and physical capabilities – are limited.

A training strategy guides how you allocate these limited resources to achieve your running objective(s).  It helps answer questions such as:

  • How much time should you allocate to running vs. other workouts?
  • What kinds of running workout should you focus on?
  • How much time should you allocate to rest and recovery?

In this post I’ll outline how a training strategy can help you and what a training strategy looks like.

Why do you need a training strategy?

When I got serious about running marathons, I ripped a “training plan” article out of Runner’s World magazine.  The training plan outlined about 18 weeks of running.  It prescribed a run for each day of each week, with a rest day sprinkled in here and there.

I dutifully performed the training workouts prescribed in the plan, fully expecting to achieve my goal in my next marathon.

I failed miserably in my next marathon.

While the magazine-article training plan was useful, I needed more than it could offer.  I needed insights and guidance that were uniquely tailored to me – my performance level, my strengths and weaknesses, my preferences and habits.

I needed a training strategy.

The key to a training strategy is its unique focus on the individual.  Since each individual runner is different, each of us will have different training strategies.  Here’s what a training strategy offers:

  • A Reality Check.  A training strategy includes an honest assessment of your performance level, mindset, strengths and weaknesses as well as the amount time and energy you have available.  It includes a review of the past 12-18 months for previously hidden performance trends and issues.  This reality check provides a baseline for your training, especially if you identify and acknowledge poor habits or a weak fitness level.
  • Balance.  A training strategy considers all the elements that influence your running performance, including workouts, rest and recovery, and nutrition.  These aspects must be effectively balanced to improve your performance.  For example, your performance will suffer if your rest and recovery is not sufficient to support your workouts.  By considering all aspects of your running performance, a training strategy ensures that you have enough balance to succeed.
  • Day-to-day decision making support.  Life is unpredictable; it’s rare for an entire training period to pass without disruption.  Perhaps you or a relative is sick or you start a new project at work and you can’t spend as much time training as planned.  These unexpected events force you to make choices about how to tweak your training.  A training strategy narrows your focus, allowing you to make more informed choices.  You maintain the most important aspects of your training and, if necessary, compromise less important aspects.

A training strategy provides the context necessary for achieving your goals.  The training strategy should complement (not replace) your training plan.  Based specifically on your unique situation, a training strategy helps you make the right choices about what to include on your training plan as well as how to adjust it over time as your situation evolves.

What does a training strategy look like?

A training strategy can take whatever form is most effective for you.  It can be informal and simple (five bullet points on the back of a napkin), or it can be formal and comprehensive.  The key is accessibility – your training strategy should be easily accessible so you can frequently revisit it (revising it when necessary) during your training period.

Keep the contents of your training strategy minimal at first.  You can expand the contents over time as you gather information.  The minimal essential elements of a training strategy are:

  • Short description of your objectives.  A statement of your objectives; this will provide the basis for your strategy.  What are you trying to accomplish?  What are the biggest challenges that your objectives present?  Are these new challenges, or have you faced similar ones in the past?
  • Individual Assessment.  An analysis of your fitness level, recent performance, strengths and weaknesses relative to your objectives.  The assessment should help you identify potential areas of focus for your training.  Your analysis should review the past 12-18 months to spot any emerging trends.
  • Priorities.  A short list (five or fewer) of focus areas that will make the biggest difference in achieving your objectives.  Example focus areas include “Build the endurance to maintain my pace late in the race” or “Make sure I get enough sleep to recover sufficiently” or even “find something I can eat while I run.”  These priorities should be explicit choices to emphasize certain areas of your training plan, recognizing that you will put other areas on the back burner if needed.

Don’t spend a lot of time developing the first version of your training strategy.  It’s better to get a first version down quickly and update it periodically as your training progresses.  You can adjust your strategy as you evaluate the results of your training.

Once your training strategy is in place, it should be easier to develop a training plan.  If you already have a training plan, use your strategy as a sanity check – make sure the training plan is focused on your priorities.  The training strategy and training plan should be in synch – the training plan should be the tactics through which you implement your strategy.

This post discussed the “why” and “what” for a training strategy.  In the next post, I’ll walk through “how” to develop one, using my own strategy for an upcoming marathon as an example.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear feedback.  Do you currently have a training strategy?  How has it helped you?  Do you see value in creating one?  Is there something else that should be included in a training strategy?  Please post a comment and let me know your thoughts.


How a BHAG can transform your running

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969

Despite being made over 50 years ago, JFK’s “moon shot” speech still resonates with people, and still feel its impact today.  JFK’s ambitious goal transformed NASA, jump-starting the Apollo program and spurring the nation’s top scientists and engineers to dramatically re-think US plans for space exploration.  It’s a classic example of a BHAG (pronounced bee-hag), or Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

BHAG is a business strategy concept defined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in the book Built to Last:  Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, which compares successful, visionary companies with similar but less successful companies.  Collins and Porras found that successful companies shared a common characteristic – they all had ambitious, clear and inspiring longer-term objectives.  Collins and Porras termed these objectives “BHAGs” and suggested that a good BHAG greatly improves a company’s chances for long term success.

Collins and Porras suggested that a BHAG is nearly impossible to achieve without consistently working outside of a comfort zone, displaying commitment and confidence, and believing that the goal is attainable even though it seems out of reach.  A BHAG should be:

  • Action oriented
  • Bold, compelling and gripping – it should require no explanation or interpretation
  • Clear (who, what, where, by when)
  • Longer-term in nature – it should require the achievement of smaller goals along the way

BHAGs have driven many innovative and successful companies, including:

  •  Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.
  • Ford:  Democratize the automobile.
  • Google:  Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  • Microsoft:  A computer on every desk and in every home.
  • Wal-mart (in 1990):  Become a $125 billion company by 2000.

BHAGs work because they inspire people to action, stimulate innovation and progress, and cause businesses to re-think the way they operate.

A BHAG for running works the same way.  It stimulates innovation and progress in your training, causing you to re-think the way you operate (your training, rest/recovery, and nutrition).

My biggest progress as a runner resulted from three specific BHAGs:

1.  Qualifying for Boston.  After finishing my first marathon in 3:32.05, I set a goal to qualify for Boston (which required a 3:10).  I started taking training seriously:

  • Increased long runs from 18 to 23 miles
  • Started finishing long runs at marathon pace

It took me 12-18 months and 2 marathons to qualify for Boston.

2.  Breaking 3 hours.  After qualifying for Boston, I decided to run a marathon in under 3 hours.  This goal led to the following changes:

  • Introduced tempo and speed work
  • Reduced running and introduced cross training
  • Introduced a focus on recovery (stretching)

It took me 2.5 years and 4 more marathons to break 3 hours.

3.  Pikes Peak 2010.  I set a goal to finish the 2010 Pikes Peak marathon in under 4:30, a top 2% finish according to 2008 and 2009 results.  I’m not sure what inspired me more – the time goal or fear of the mountain.  Either way, this goal led to more progress:

  • Introduced course-specific training
  • Introduced core strength workouts
  • Increased focus on weight management and eating habits

After 6 months of training, I missed my 2010 Pikes Peak time goal by less than 2 minutes.  If I had allocated 2-3 more months, I would have achieved the time goal.

Each of my BHAGs led to running breakthroughs, forever changing my approach to running.

A BHAG for running shares the same characteristics as a BHAG for business:

  • Action oriented
  • Bold, compelling and gripping – it should require no explanation or interpretation
  • Clear (who, what, where, by when)
  • Longer-term in nature – it should require the achievement of smaller goals along the way

You have many options if you’re considering a BHAG for running.  Setting a PR might not be enough, but a PR that’s 10% below your current PR could be a BHAG.  Racing a longer distance or extremely challenging course could be a BHAG, especially if you attach a time goal.  Or you could target a large improvement in your age group place.

Ask yourself these questions to determine if your running goal is a BHAG:

  • Do you get nervous thinking about it?
  • Are you concerned that you might not be able to achieve it?
  • Do you find yourself thinking more about running once you set it?
  • Are you changing your training, rest and recovery, or nutrition based on it?

If you answer yes to these questions, your running goal is a BHAG.

On July 24, 1969, NASA realized JFK’s BHAG when Apollo 11 splashed down off the coast of Hawaii.  NASA spent over 8 years working to achieve JFK’s BHAG.  Most observers say that JFK’s BHAG accelerated the progress of space exploration by decades.

That’s the lasting impact of a BHAG – it gives you a sense of urgency and inspires you to re-invent yourself.  Every runner needs that once in a while.

How to fix the bad habit that’s blocking your breakthrough

What one behavior or bad habit is keeping you from a breakthrough running performance?  Perhaps it’s your consistency in training or getting up earlier to stretch.  Whatever it is, everyone has a nagging, hard-to-resolve issue that affects their performance.  For me, it’s my eating habits.

At the end of April, I told my wife Annie how I planned to lose 7-10 pounds in May.  Dropping 7-10 pounds would get me to a better racing weight for a marathon I planned to run in early June.

My weight loss plan had one objective – eliminate binge eating.  About twice a week, I go on eating binges.  I typically binge on sweet stuff (chocolate chips, sugar cereals, cookies), but the worst episodes expand to include salty snacks (peanuts, tortilla chips).

Doing the math convinced me that I could reach my goal within a month.  I consume about 4,000 calories during an average eating binge.  Assuming two binges a week, that’s about 8,000 calories per week consumed during binges.  Eliminating these binges (and adding some good calories) would allow me to drop about 2 pounds per week.

So what was my experience during May?  Did I lose the weight?  No.  I didn’t lose a single pound.  I may have gained weight due to an increase in binge eating.  I never weighed myself on a scale, so it’s difficult to tell for sure.

My poor eating habits had a ripple effect beyond just my weight.  They also affected:

  • My sleep.  These binges often involve staying up beyond my bedtime, and when I finally go to bed I cannot sleep normally due to all the food I just ate.
  • My workouts.  Poor nutrition and sleep results in poor workouts.
  • My productivity.  I accomplished less than I expected in May because the hours I spent binge eating were also spent watching TV.  These hours could have been spent more productively, either working or sleeping.
  • My energy levels.  My energy levels dip by the end of the day.  While other factors (e.g., sleep) influence my energy level, my eating habits surely contribute to it.
  • My emotional state.  I am disappointed and disheartened by my eating habits.  These emotions affect other aspects of my life, including my confidence, my day-to-day relationships and my overall outlook.

Unless I do something about my eating habits, I don’t see an end to these problems.

Enter the book Change Anything:  the New Science of Personal SuccessChange Anything:  the New Science of Personal Success boldly claims that it can help you change even the most difficult behaviors in your personal or professional life.  The Change Anything approach is based on behavioral and social science and rigorous analysis of “changers” – people who have successfully implemented behavioral changes.  Change Anything extends the framework and concepts of a prior book (called Influencer:  The Power to Change Anything) from these same authors.

Does the Change Anything approach work?  I intend to find out by implementing the recommendations in Change Anything on my biggest behavioral challenge – controlling my eating habits.

In this post, I’ll share insights I gained from developing my “change plan.”  Hopefully my experience will help you get a feel for how the Change Anything approach works, so you can decide if you want to try it on the problem that’s blocking your breakthrough.

Overview and Insights Gained

My first insight is that a clear and compelling goal is critically important.  Starting my change plan, I immediately realized that I had to re-state my goal.  The goal of losing weight does not adequately capture what I want to accomplish.  Instead, I want to change my eating habits to improve my athletic performance and have more energy throughout the day.  Losing weight is one by-product of achieving that broader goal, but so is changing my body composition, recovering better and faster from workouts, and eliminating the late day energy dip that I experience.

The four “scientific strategies” that comprise the Change Anything approach resonated with me – it felt like the authors were watching me struggle with my eating habits.  The scientific strategies put structure around the complicated problem of my eating habits, helping me identify where I needed to focus.

Once my goal was clear, I found that implementing the first two scientific strategies was straightforward.  The first two scientific strategies are:

1.  Identify “crucial moments,” or the moments we are most at risk.
2.  Create “vital behaviors,” or the actions we will take to achieve our desired results.

I easily identified my crucial moments and created my vital behaviors.  I manage my eating habits properly 90% of the time.  I only binge eat at certain times under certain circumstances, and I can spot those times as they come on.  Furthermore, I know the actions I should take to prevent eating binges.  I just can’t take those actions consistently.

Taking the right actions to achieve your desired results is the focus of the third scientific strategy:

3.  Engage all six sources of influence

I was encouraged to read that willpower is not the only factor that determines whether I can successfully change my eating habits.  The book defines six sources of influence that affect our behavior and suggests that we are not always aware of this influence.  A major premise of the book is that changing behavior is possible if we can get the six sources of influence working in our favor.  The six sources of influence are:

  • Personal Motivation
  • Personal Ability
  • Social Motivation
  • Social Ability
  • Structural Motivation
  • Structural Ability

I struggled to determine how to get the six sources of influence working for me.  Initially I tried to narrow the six sources to a smaller number that might have the highest impact, but then I realized that would defeat the purpose.  The intent is to get all six working.  Therefore, my change plan calls for action in each of the six sources of influence.  Recognizing that I cannot attempt everything, I focused on the highest impact action(s) I could take within each of the six sources of influence.

The fourth and final scientific strategy made me feel better about my past failures.  The fourth scientific strategy is:

4.   Turn bad days into good data

Change Anything acknowledges that the change process is difficult and that bad days will happen.  I have clearly experienced this difficulty.  Rather than letting these bad days torpedo my change efforts, Change Anything suggests that I learn from these bad days, using them to adjust and improve my change plan.  I can incrementally improve through trial and error, keeping what works and tossing out what doesn’t work.

Moving Forward

I’m off to a good (re-)start at taming my eating habits.  Change Anything comes with complementary access to a web site for managing change plans, and I’ve got my change plan in place.  I’ll periodically report back to let you know how my changes are progressing.  I may not lose those 7-10 pounds in one month, but I hope to steadily improve my eating habits and eventually reach my goal.

What about you?  What habit is blocking your breakthrough?  Have you tried to change it?  Are you willing to try Change Anything?  Could you suggest a better approach?