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The Problem With Prescription

It was the year 2012. I was living in Chicago and went on a group run with some other triathlete friends. At that stage maybe about 25% of runners wore GPS watches. We set off and agreed to meet at a specific breakfast joint at the end. One of the runners reached the final destination after the run and proceeded to run several hundred yards up and down on a busy sidewalk in front of the breakfast place until her GPS watch told her she was at 10 miles. Either because her coach had told her that was what she had to run or she’d set that goal for herself beforehand. At the time I thought this was complete madness. I still think it’s madness. The training effect of a 9.75 mile run and a 10 mile run must be infinitesimal. But now in 2022 everyone knows this sort of behavior is relatively commonplace. Everyone has a GPS watch and everyone has either done a version of this themselves, rolling around a parking lot on their bike to hit a predetermined distance or time, or knows someone who has. I remember for much of my youth using a piece of string and a street map to figure out the distance I’d covered. Now, it’s hard to imagine such a world existed.

I face a similar dilemma now with my athletes and feel like I’m almost responsible for the dementedness. Training Peaks gives no easy way to give a range of time or distance when prescribing a single workout. So I’m stuck asking my athletes to perform any given workout to the minute. When in reality, not only do I not care that a 2 hour ride is exactly 2 hours I think it’s better that it’s not. I’m just guessing at the dosage whereas the athlete has an entire real-time biosensory apparatus available to them to figure out whether 2 hours is the right dosage for them at that time or not. Same with Intensity. I do think the coach can provide some good guidance on the overall dosage of intensity over the course of the week and even in specific workouts, but as far as arranging an exact dosage and the precision with which it’s carried out, I don’t think I’m in anywhere near as good a position to decide that as the athlete is. I’m sure my athletes just think I’m lazy, dishing out multiple workouts with nothing more descriptive than “Z1” to guide them. A code for easy, aerobic work below the ventilatory threshold. For me, from tests I’ve done, lies somewhere between 95 and 130 bpm. A fairly large range. Do I care where in their Z1 an athlete does their Z1 work? No. Why not? Because I don’t think it matters. I think the body will tell you where your “easy” is on any given day and it is governed by any number of factors; heat, life stress, sleep, motivation, all of which are tremendously valid and impossible for your-especially online coach-to predict or assess.

So, when reviewing your week, I really don’t hold much importance if your easy or long run is at 100bpm or 125bpm as long as it’s below your first ventilatory threshold. And I don’t care if it's a little bit more or less than your normal long run distance. I would care if you didn’t get out the door at all because you didn’t think you could hit whatever your coach had prescribed exactly for that day. Also, because you don’t give your body a chance to have a say in it if it doesn't experience the stress of an attempt. Take some control back if you find yourself slavishly following the plan and don’t feel like you’ve failed if you’ve done something different. The coach should be there to guide, not dictate. I often quip that my main job is just stopping people from doing something really stupid. Being allowed to do little stupid things is a fast track way to learn about yourself.

Use your training plan as a guide, not a proscription, especially with individual workouts. Unfortunately the coaching tools we’re given don’t allow us a lot of flexibility on that. It’s the sum of the whole that counts. Eight reps are nearly as good as 10 and if you have two more in you after 10, go for it. I believe your body will adjust the next day to whatever strain you put on it the day before. If you leave something in the tank on one day, you will have a fraction more energy the next day. Your coach is just there so you don’t take things to the extreme, one way or the other.

I’m also not a fan of the old endurance coach adage that if you miss a workout, you should never try and make it up. What might be just too much for you on Tuesday, you might be ready for by Wednesday after an extra day’s rest. With experience you’ll begin to know your own body more and more and be able to predict these hills and valleys of physical preparedness. Let your coach know and he or she will be able to suggest adjustments to help. In short, your coach, no matter how good or how experienced, is always just educated guessing at what you can handle both physically, and even more so mentally, on any given day or week and it’s up to you to self-monitor and communicate back to them as much as possible so they continue to help you optimize. In short, stop taking your training plan so literally. It might make your training mates wait for breakfast and that’s never a good thing.

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