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Don’t Look Forward

Why it’s better to structure your training around the past, not what you hope to someday achieve.

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Unless you’re new to the English language, you’re probably familiar with the expression, “Don’t look back.” Its origins lie in the Book of Genesis, where God commands Lot and his family to flee the doomed city of Sodom and not look back, but Lot’s wife disobeys and is instantly transformed into a pillar of salt.

Nowadays, the phrase “Don’t look back” is typically used to encourage a person to move on from a difficult or traumatic experience. The underlying wisdom is that looking backward in such circumstances saddles a person with feelings of regret that prevent them from making the most of the future. More broadly, there is a tendency in our culture to privilege the future over the past. We associate the past with pain and disappointment, the future with hope and possibility, and therefore we train ourselves and others to be forward-looking.

As runners we bring this mindset to our training. We prefer to think about where we’re going and what we’re yet to do and not about where we’ve been and what we’ve done. As you read this, you might even be wondering why any runner would want to do the opposite. I’ll tell you: My coaching experience has taught me that looking forward isn’t all that helpful to a runner, whereas looking back is. Bear with me while I explain.

The Pitfalls of Looking Ahead

There are two ways in which runners commonly land themselves in trouble when they look ahead. The first way entails asking the question, “How good a runner can I be?” or “What’s my limit?” Runners who fixate on the future in this way tend to get ahead of themselves in their training, rushing the process of getting better and often giving in to disappointment when they fail to improve at the expected rate.

This way of looking ahead is a trap because it is impossible to predict any given runner’s maximum performance potential or how long it will take them to get there. The dreams and ambitions that runners set their hearts on are oftentimes arbitrary, lacking a solid evidentiary basis.

Consider Randy, a runner I coach who decided he wanted to break 16 minutes for 5K, having never raced a 5K before (he’s a trail guy). Despite making tremendous progress in his build-up to race day, I judged Randy to be in 16:20 shape, but he was excited by the gains he was making and determined to go 15:59 nonetheless. As a result, he pushed a little too hard in his final few key workouts, started too fast in the race itself, and blew up, crossing the finish line in 16:42.

The other way in which runners look to the future to their own detriment entails asking the question, “How hard can I ultimately train?” or “Where should I end up in my training?” Runners who fixate on the future in this way tend to chain themselves to training plans and development schedules that may or may not be appropriate for them.

I roll my eyes every time I see a readymade training plan for some specific goal like Boston Marathon qualifying, as if a certain amount of training were universally required to reach a particular level of performance. I’ve lost count of the number of runners I’ve encountered who got in over their heads with their training because they presumed they had to train a certain way to achieve their goals or realize their full potential.

Building Brick by Brick

Good-looking man running in the city. Fitness, workout, sport, lifestyle concept.
Photo: Getty Images

There’s nothing wrong with having dreams and setting goals as a runner. But these future aspirations should have very little influence on what you do today or tomorrow in your training. Improving as a runner is like building a brick wall. Your ultimate ambition might be to stack bricks 10,000 layers high, but if you’ve only laid down 100 layers so far, then all you can do is work on the 101st layer. You can’t stack bricks on air. In other words, as a runner you must always train as the athlete you are today, not as the one you hope to be at some point in the future. 

Elite runners offer a helpful example in this regard. The pros famously train hard — logging upward of 100 miles per week and regularly completing epic individual workouts. But none of these athletes started out here. Each builds up to this level of training over many years. Kenyan coach Patrick Sang, whose roster includes marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, has said that he puts each new athlete he works with on a 10-year development plan. 

What’s more, the plan is not the same for everyone. Even at the elite level, individual runners have different optimal training formulas in terms of volume, intensity, recovery, and other factors. On the Flagstaff-based HOKA NAZ Elite team, for example, Lauren Paquette runs 65 to 70 miles per week because she tends to get injured if she runs more, Scott Fauble runs 110 to 120 miles per week because his performance in key workouts suffers if he runs more, and Scott Smith runs 120 to 130 miles per week because he doesn’t attain peak form if he runs less. All of these runners discovered their volume sweet spot through trial and error, and you’ll need to do the same. 

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the endpoint, this process is quite simple and straightforward. All you have to do is take a look at where you are now in your training and development and take the next step. If you peaked at 45 miles per week in your last training cycle and you tolerated that volume fairly well, try peaking at 50 miles per week in your next training cycle. If you’ve developed as a runner to the point where a basic 20-mile long run isn’t a huge challenge, try incorporating some faster efforts in some future long runs. If your toughest speed workout in the last training cycle consisted of 8 x 400 meters, try 10 x 400 meters in the next cycle.

Mind you, doing more is not the only way to build on what you’ve done. You can also refine what you’re already doing. For example, if you’re making the common mistake of doing too much moderate-intensity running (and in particular, the mistake of doing your easy runs too fast), shuffle things around so you’re spending 80 percent of your weekly training time at low intensity (i.e., an intensity at which you can speak comfortably) and 20 percent at higher intensities, as the pros do. Get into the habit of stepping back from your training every once in a while and assessing it with a critical eye, searching for gaps, imbalances, and inefficiencies that you can address going forward — without looking forward.