Consistency - Work the plan and the plan will work
With just over 8 weeks to go to race day, the single most important requirement in your training is consistency. Much can happen in two months, good and bad, and many of you may have had a stuttering start to your preparations for this year’s race – injuries, illness, work and life stress may have gotten in the way and you may feel frustrated and anxious at where you are in relation to where you think you need to be.
On the other hand, many of you may be in the middle of a great training period, injury and illness-free, and raring to go. The irony is that the next four to six weeks are equally crucial for both groups, regardless of progress to date. It’s in this window that all the good work can be undone (if you train too hard now, perhaps getting carried away with how you’re improving and performing), or it’s where you begin to lay the foundation for a great race. Obviously, if you’ve laid that solid foundation and developed fitness and performance, then your objective for the next few weeks is to consolidate and “sharpen the sword”, whereas those who are taking their first steps towards race prep need to build fitness and accumulate training time.
Either way, the key is consistency. Consistency is to physiology what, umm, controversy is to Paris Hilton – it thrives on it. So physiologically speaking, it’s vital that you give your body routine. Not so much that it’s boring, of course, but establish good training principles now and your body will reward you for it.
Some of the principles worth bearing in mind are:
- Progressive overload – the body is an amazing machine. Put it under stress (and yes, a running session counts as stress) and it adapts by becoming stronger. Muscle, heart, lungs, enzymes, brain – you name it, they are designed to adapt to stress and make you stronger, fitter, faster. The key to applying this is to recognize two things:
- If you want to improve, whether it’s to get faster over a given distance, or to simply run further at the same pace, you have to constantly “challenge” the body to adapt – stress it just beyond the point of comfort, and it will get better. So if you comfortably manage 30 minutes now, the goal is to run 35 min next week, or to run just a little further in the 30 minutes (a good training programme will “weave” both distance and speed together as you evolve).
- There is such a thing as too much stress. Almost all injuries are caused by doing too much, too soon. Finding this limit is difficult – it takes body awareness and experience, something you may not have (yet). But the principle is vital – listen to your body, make sure you are recovering from one day to the next, and not demanding too much of your “adaptability”. This is equally important to those starting out (you have to build the training time without exceeding that limit) as it is to those who’ve been training well (you have to make sure you hold back, because your body is by now strong enough that it wants a challenge every day! Hold back, sometimes easy is better!)
- Recover – linked to the above, always remember that training doesn’t make you fitter, or faster. It’s the recovery after training that does it. An athlete (even the elite) who is in the middle of a hard training period will perform worse than when they are well rested, and so they know that the hard work today pays off tomorrow ONLY if they rest. So part of the next 8 weeks needs to be a real respect for rest. Build it into training – one complete rest day per week is recommended for most. For some, if you’re starting out, 2 or 3 days a week of rest is good, but perhaps you can do some gym training on one or two days to complement your running (more on this in the future)
- Train to the goal – I’ll talk more about goals next time, but it’s absolutely vital that you work with a plan in mind. That means a plan for Two Oceans. If your target is a 2 hour half-marathon, then that imposes a very distinct set of requirements on you, because you’ll need to be able to run 5:41/km for 21.1km, on a fairly hilly course. Likewise, if you’re aiming for a 6 hour Ultra, it means 6:25/km average over some hills. In both cases, your training needs to reflect the demand, both in terms of the distance required and the pace you need to run it. Some days will need to be faster, other days slower but longer. I’ll talk more about the specifics related to your goal next time, but the principle is vital - be SPECIFIC. Two Oceans will throw hills at you (up and down), so incorporate them into your training. If your goal is merely to finish, then now is a good time to work out your strategy, because if you plan to walk BEFORE you HAVE to walk, you can achieve your goal much more comfortably. But you need to gear the next few weeks to that goal.
Goal-setting is therefore absolutely vital, and as I mention, it’s something I’ll talk about next time.
For now, the main thing is to get going. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, though of course if you’re well on course, the next 8 weeks takes on a different meaning compared to if you’re just taking the first real serious steps. But as mentioned, the key is consistency from this point forward. 8 weeks is enough, if you manage them correctly.
A special word to those who are early in their training: Two crucial pieces of advice – the length of your longest run each week now needs to start heading upwards. By the last week of March, your goal is probably to do around 75% of your estimated race time. For example, if you are looking at a 2:30 finish, that’s around 2 hours. Not all running, mind you – the clever use of walk breaks is vital! But it’s a target to build towards. And secondly, take the opportunities you have. You may have grand plans to run for an hour, only to find your plans scuppered by a lack of time and other stresses, but the 20 min jog you can still squeeze in is not trivial. It’s part of consistency, and so just keep ticking over, getting the time on your feet. Just remember to rest!
Next time, we’ll talk goals, targets and training for the specific demands of the race! If there are any questions, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments below - I'm in the USA with SA Sevens right now, so I can't guarantee immediate replies, but I'll do my best.