One year ago, Ryan Hall wasn't feeling very good. On September 19, 2010, the American record holder for the half marathon finished 14th in the Philadelphia Half Marathon--a race he'd won the previous year. Ten days later, Hall announced his withdrawal from the Chicago Marathon, where he had hoped to challenge for another American record. Four weeks after that, Hall parted ways with his long-time coach, Terrence Mahon, and became self-coached.
Feeling lousy was not so much a symptom of some other problem, Hall decided, but the problem itself. He had not been listening to his body's signals that he was pushing too hard and not getting enough rest. If this diagnosis was correct, then Hall almost had no choice but to become his own coach, because the only solution was to train in a way that allowed him to feel good, and only Hall himself knew how his body felt.
A year later, Hall's diagnosis appears to have been correct, and his solution seems to have worked. In April he became the fastest American marathon runner in history, clocking 2:04:58 in a fourth-place showing in Boston. Now Hall is just weeks away from taking his second first crack at the Chicago Marathon, and he reports that he's feeling great.
All too many runners--not just elites but everyday competitive runners as well--assume, as Ryan Hall once did, that it is normal and acceptable to feel lousy when in the thick of training for an upcoming race. Of course, it is necessary to train hard to improve. And it's impossible to train hard without feeling flat in some runs, and perhaps even a few in a row on occasion. But as Hall discovered the hard way, it is important to feel good most of the time in training, because if you don't, you won't feel good--or perform well--when you race, supposing you even make it to the start line healthy.
Besides assuming that it's OK to feel lousy in training, there are two other mistakes that cause runners to wind up feeling lousy as they prepare for races. The first is planning too aggressively. Training plans often represent the absolute maximum amount of training a runner believes he or she could absorb if everything were to go perfectly in plan execution. But most competitive runners have an inflated sense of how much training their bodies can handle, and in any case, training never goes perfectly. You'll be better off creating a plan that is one or two steps short of what you think you could realistically handle even if everything did not go perfectly. By all means, challenge yourself--just don't set yourself up for failure.
Ryan Hall realized that his training had been planned too aggressively in the period preceding his 2010 unraveling. He didn't take enough days off and he never really took it easy. He now takes a day off from running every week, and he's made his easy days easier. His overall mileage has dropped from 120 per week to 100, but he's fitter as a result because he feels better on his designated hard training days, so he's able to put more into them and get more out of them.
Of course, even a sensible training plan won't get you where you need to go if you refuse to stray from it even when it's not working out as planned. Runners who insist on running every scheduled workout as originally designed--despite accumulating fatigue or the warning sign of pain in a muscle, bone or joint--inevitably end up burned out or injured. It is frustrating to take unscheduled rest, or even just to replace a planned hard workout with an easy one when your body isn't up to it, but your overall progress will be faster if you make these hard choices.
Again, this is a lesson that Ryan Hall has begun to practice to his benefit. On his blog, Hall recently confessed that he used to treat his planned weekly mileage as a binding contract, and would do whatever it took to reach whatever nice round number was on his calendar. Now he knows better, and focuses less on mileage targets and more on what his body needs and is ready for day by day in training.
Take a cue from Ryan Hall and take a "feel good" approach to your training.race.