Excerpted from “Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach For Every Runner” by Alan Culpepper. Copyright © 2015 by Alan Culpepper. Published by VeloPress and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Several years ago I had a business meeting with the then mayor of Tempe, Ariz., Hugh Hallman. At the time we met, he was training to run a marathon and was leading a charity organization that had raised a lot of money through a race. He had only been running for five years but had come to fully embrace the essence of running and the freedom, clarity of thought, and daily satisfaction of accomplishment it brought to his life.
As we concluded our meeting, he told me he was going to meet his wife for an evening run together. I was amazed that he still had plans to run after what had surely been an exhausting day, but it was a good example of how he found balance in his life. He shared that he absolutely had to run, not only for his sanity but also because it was his time to connect with his wife and talk about their days. After they ran, he would go home and eat, shower and work a few more hours before going to bed.
What’s the point of that story? As long as you schedule for it and make it a priority, running can fit into any schedule. Sure, plenty of things will get in the way—the biggest variables for most runners, regardless of ability or experience level, are weather, illness, travel, and family or work commitments—the key is knowing how to manage those situations. Sometimes compromise is in order. The key question you have to ask yourself is whether the workout or run will set you back more than it will be of benefit.
You may have heard that running in harsh weather conditions makes you tougher. But does it? While there are times when you can gain a psychological edge by proving to yourself that you are mentally strong enough to run on a windy day or that you’re not going to curtail a workout because of drizzle, trying to combat the elements often just breaks you down mentally and can lead to lingering ailments or even injuries.
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Your training, if prescribed correctly, should be challenging enough without having to fight the weather. That doesn’t mean that you can’t run if the weather isn’t ideal. But you don’t always need to go head-to-head with it either. Mother Nature is a powerful and often relentless force. Yes, there is satisfaction in running in cold weather, completing a good workout on a windy day, or refusing to back down when the weather changes unexpectedly. But there is a big difference between dealing with the weather and fighting it. Dealing with it is empowering; fighting with it is draining.
Fighting it: You’ve planned a long run with a training partner on a standard loop in which you know the mile markers. But when the time comes to do the run, you find that the wind is blowing at 25 mph and gusting even higher. Instead of changing your plans, you head out with your partners and hope it won’t be as bad as it seems. You get battered by the wind for two hours, and worse, you don’t feel as strong as your training partner, which undermines your confidence and leaves you emotionally down in the dumps.
Dealing with it: Instead of starting a long run in miserably windy conditions, you and your training partner opt to either take a new route that is sheltered from the wind or delay the run for a few hours to see if conditions improve. This doesn’t mean you are weak or lack toughness; it means you’re smart and want to get the benefits of the long run without the detrimental side effects.
Fighting it: You have a tempo run planned that you normally run at lunchtime, but the weather ends up much warmer than expected. Defiantly, you head out in the heat of the day and run the workout as intended. You wind up cooked from your efforts, and the ensuing dehydration and fatigue take their toll over the next several days.
Dealing with it: Instead of pushing on through the heat, you consider pushing your workout back a day or shifting the session until later that afternoon, when it is cooler. You get the benefits of running at a sustained tempo pace without the lingering negative effects brought on by the heat.
Fighting it: You wake up on a morning when you have a speed workout planned to find that a few inches of snow have fallen overnight. Trying to prove to yourself that you’re tough enough to run in wintry weather, you forge ahead with the workout on your normal loop. You find yourself frustrated with the pacing of your intervals and irritated due to slipping around for an hour. You also put yourself at greater risk of injury from the unstable footing.
Dealing with it: You decide to either simulate the workout indoors on an indoor track or on a treadmill or bump the workout to the next day.
There are times to break from your routine and times to push onward. If unusual circumstances demand compromise, be creative with your training. Using a treadmill is a great alternative when dry ground and safe footing are not an option or when heavy winds make it impossible to run with a consistent gait. You will get a better workout on the treadmill than slipping around on snow-covered trails or being battered by the wind. What’s the bottom line? Don’t consider the weather your enemy or an unnecessary stressor that is impeding all the progress you’re making toward your ultimate goals. Yes, weather can be an obstacle and can change unexpectedly. Keep your perspective, and don’t allow it to be more than a small variable, a temporary impediment to work around. By adapting your workouts with small adjustments or schedule changes, you can still maximize your training efforts, avoid injuries, and maintain your long-term psychological composure.
Running when you are sick isn’t fun, nor does it allow for effective training. Your body is telling you it needs rest; you need to listen or suffer the consequences. When I pushed too hard in training, I would often become ill. Getting sick is sometimes an indication that you are training too hard, that you are pushing your body to the point of being more susceptible to illness. Or you might simply have picked up a bug. Either way, it’s a good idea to rest and not push yourself too hard when you’re not 100 percent.
When you feel awful, it is easy to take time off. The harder decision comes when you feel so-so—not great but not terrible. Training when you are ill often only extends your illness and in some cases can make it more severe. Too, jumping back into training too quickly following an illness, even if you might be at 80 or 90 percent of your normal health and energy levels, usually is not favorable to overall productivity in training. It is far better to rest for two or three more days, run easy or not at all, and skip the planned harder session before jumping back in.
If you don’t follow a conservative approach and instead try to force yourself into action, you may find that your run is much more taxing than it should be. My own inclination was always to tough it out and just run even though I didn’t feel great. I never wanted to lose physical momentum or feel like I was bowing out. But I strongly advise against that approach. Trust in your overall training, and know that your training plan is based on the entire plan, not just one week or a few days. Doing workouts when sick or when you are on the mend never leads to improved fitness. Nor will you lose fitness by missing a few days of training.
You’ve got to weigh the pros and cons and trust that you will bounce back if you take the extra day or days off. If missing one or two workouts during a week means you can come back healthy sooner, then this is the wisest course. If you simply must run to keep the psychological edge, then compromise by running very easy and shorter than planned. Or considering doing some gentle cross-training that provides both physical and mental stimulus.
Travel is another area where you must be realistic about how your body reacts to going off its normal routine. With travel comes dehydration, fatigue, stiffness and other less-than-ideal variables. The pressurized cabin of an airplane and lack of ability to stay properly hydrated do not lend to productive training at the end of a long day, nor does sitting for hours in a cramped airline seat, changing time zones, and altering your eating habits.
Traveling requires a lot of energy and focus even when a trip goes smoothly, let alone when it includes delays and other challenges. If you have a trip coming up and you know that running on your travel days will be touch and go, try to rearrange your training schedule several days out so you can accommodate a run before your flight and move your harder workouts to other days.
A bad combination is traveling and hard sessions. Getting in harder sessions on travel days is difficult to do effectively. You are better off getting up early the next day of your trip or cutting the workout altogether than running when your body is not ready. Even if you are psychologically ready, it usually does not make sense to push in this manner because of the emotional stress tied to both travel and harder workouts. Forcing the issue will likely only compromise future training sessions and possibly increase your fatigue and likelihood of getting sick.
A light shake-out run on a travel day is typically fine, but second sessions should be the exception. It is far better to take an extra half hour to get hydrated and do some light stretching than to run an easy half hour, then squeeze in a longer run or hard workout. The overall benefit does not outweigh the physical and mental burdens that accompany the trip.
Running while at your destination can also present challenges. You may be busy with work and other commitments that compromise your training plan. Or perhaps there is not an obvious place to run near your hotel. Think outside the box. Not every run when traveling will feel good or be perfect. Some may be on a treadmill, and some may be simply squeezed in when you get an opportunity.
If timing and routine are the most important aspects to consider when trying to create a high level of productivity, then traveling certainly hampers those things, forcing changes in sleep, hydration, diet, and training time and duration. The key is deciding whether a run or workout is critical to the overall plan or whether a small sacrifice is in order.
No one can make the decision of running while traveling better than you, which is why planning is critical. As you consider your trip, think through when you will best be able to run just as you would during a normal week. It may not come together perfectly, but it is much better to plan your schedule ahead of time and anticipate possible conflicts. A whimsical approach to training while traveling—or no approach at all—is no different than a lackluster approach at home.
As a husband and father of four young boys, and someone who works a full-time job along with coaching and writing on the side, I am very familiar with the delicate balance of life and how it affects training. This area is tough because it does not just affect you but has big implications for others as well. Illness, travel, or weather all have personal implications, but when it comes to family and work, other people with their own variables are typically involved. For that reason, this special consideration can be the most challenging of all.
Balancing work and family commitments with your running takes a high level of sensitivity, communication, and sometimes compromise. Work deadlines, meetings, conference calls, and management of other coworkers all play into the mix. Your children’s school functions, parent-teacher meetings, concerts, recitals, sports, and homework likewise have implications for your schedule and training. Your particular set of circumstances is unique to you, and I would be out of place to suggest any specific solutions or ordering of priorities. What I will say is that you can probably do more than you think is possible, even amid what seems to be an impossibly complicated weekly schedule.
We all live busy lives, and certainly some people have less flexibility than others, but I believe there is always time to train. You can make time for things in life that are important to you. The secret lies in the scheduling, planning, and commitment. With proper scheduling, focused training amid even the most complicated schedules is very feasible.
When my wife, Shayne, and I were both training as full-time professional runners, we organized our days around our training. Naturally that became more challenging after we started a family. We still planned our days around training, but we also had to account for our children’s needs and schedules. We talked about what worked best for each of us and came to the understanding that Shayne, who took on more child care responsibilities during the day, needed to run first because she could not delay her training even slightly without the burden of the running becoming very heavy. With that as our starting point, we planned our weekly schedule accordingly.
On our easy days, we would trade off, one of us taking care of our kiddos while the other ran. For harder running sessions, we arranged for the necessary child care so that Shayne and I could both train in the morning. I could not wait until 11 a.m. to get to the track to do a 6 × 1-mile workout or hard 1,000-meter repeats or a long tempo run. These sessions required increased focus and precision, and for me, postponing the effort until later into the morning would create an unnecessary burden and ultimately a long-term drain.
It took some time, effort, and sacrifices, but we were able to find a good balance that helped maintain optimal training opportunities but also benefited our family. In fact, Shayne and I each ran many of our personal best times and enjoyed some of our best races after starting our family. This was partly due to our overall happiness and enjoyment of having children, but it also had to do with setting a realistic and sustainable schedule that allowed each of us to continue to flourish. Knowing your limitations and being honest about what you are capable of maintaining is vital. While some sacrifice is necessary, you have to be reasonable about the demands you place on yourself so that you can fully commit to the routine you develop. The time of day you choose to train is a simple yet very important part of finding a balanced approach.
Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper won national titles from the 5K to the marathon. His first book, “Run Like a Champion,” is available at VeloPress.com.
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