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A psychological approach to a training plan

23-May-17

By Sarah Cooke

Following on from Alice Morrison’s article on New Year’s resolutions and my article on motivation and running goals, I wanted to look more specifically at how I could apply my experience as a psychologist to formulating a training plan. I’m going to start this with a statement that contradicts the purpose of the article and may be controversial: You don’t have to have a training plan.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have one, but take a moment to consider the purpose of running in your life and the nature of your personality. This will be different for everyone. Some people are goal-orientated and running gives them a sense of achievement and this is where the enjoyment lies. Other people may use running as a way of unwinding in the midst of a life that is already full of challenges and striving. The former runner will likely benefit from a clear and structured plan that gives them the best possible chance of achieving their goal. The latter runner may find that an approach that is too structured or too focused on individual races takes away from the enjoyment of just being out there and free from pressure.

Firstly, give yourself permission to just run for fun and then decide whether you still think a training plan is what you need. For further tips on setting realistic goals and motivating yourself to run, see the previous articles. For the purposes of this piece, I will assume that you are reading it because you think that a plan is going to benefit you and your running and I will address some of the principles which lend themselves to such an approach.

I am not an expert in all the physical considerations that go into training but there are plenty of plans out there developed by successful runners and coaches that do account for these. This article won’t provide you with a step-by-step formula for a successful race, but if you struggle to follow plans or find that negative thoughts and feelings get in the way, then you may find it helpful to use these pointers alongside your preferred training regime.

Create a routine

We are creatures of habit and when something becomes routine, motivation is easier to find. This doesn’t mean doing the same route at the same time and the same speed every time you run – boredom is motivation’s enemy. However, if you know that you always run after work on Wednesdays then the question is no longer ‘shall I run tonight?’ but ‘where shall I run?’ or ‘how far shall I run?’. Indeed, one of the benefits many runstreakers (people who run every day) have spoken to me about is that daily running is easier for them to maintain than running several times a week. They know before getting out of bed each morning that they will run at some point. I’m not suggesting that everyone should run every day, but anything that overcomes the potential for procrastination will make a training plan more likely to be successful.

Don’t neglect the social side

Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Extroverted people may find the idea of spending hours at a time running alone with only their thoughts rather daunting. An introvert may relish the time alone to get lost in their own head. Play to your strengths – if you prefer to be surrounded by people then join a club, make your local parkrun part of your routine and find training partners who will help keep you motivated. Sign up for races with friends and share the goals and training. Conversely, if you need your space, then use your runs as a way to wind down from the demands of others and take time for yourself. I would still recommend that everyone mixes it up a little – even the most extroverted runner will benefit from occasional headspace and introverts may find they enjoy the change of the odd social run more than they expected. It is perfectly legitimate to have a plan that includes a run with a friend even when this doesn’t directly fit with your desired race pace/distance training.

Start slow

Research backs up what most runners know to be true (Jarrett & Rhodes, 2017)  – a strong finish is better than a strong start. However, this isn’t just because muscles take time to warm up. Once your mind registers that your body is tired or in pain, then there is more room for self-doubt and the remaining distance starts to seem overwhelming. Get the pacing right and you are more likely to win the mental battle. Stop worrying about whether that first mile is going to affect your average pace and focus on sustainable effort – this is more important in ultra-running than sprinting. Which brings us to…

Social media: Friend or foe?

By social media, I mean apps such as Strava as well as Twitter and Facebook. The running community is a hugely supportive one and there are many benefits to be gained from developing friendships with like-minded people and receiving encouragement. In addition, a recent study found that social networks and ‘competitive fitness’ encourage people to run further and faster (Aral & Nicolaides, 2017). 

However, this can have its downside. If you are prone to making negative self-other comparisons or worrying about what others will think of your Strava stats, then you may be at risk of either losing motivation and giving up or of pushing yourself for a distance or pace without listening to your body.

Self-awareness is key here. If you thrive on competition but are able to bounce back easily if someone takes your course record, then embrace it and follow the progress of runners who inspire you to explore your limits. If, on the other hand, social pressure is sapping all the fun from your training, then consider whether you need to take a social media break, follow more supportive runners or change your approach or goals.

Keep a record

Whether you upload your runs to an online app or not, there are undoubtedly benefits to keeping some sort of record or log. This gives you clear evidence of progress. Health Psychologist Daryl O’Connor (Jarrett & Rhodes, 2017) suggests that short, frequent runs may be more achievable than long runs for many people and that a log can help you to see how the miles still add up. Going back to point one (above), sustainability and maintenance are the key to behaviour change and to developing an identity as ‘a runner’. A record can also help you to spot patterns in your own running behaviour and when your training goes to plan or veers off course. This can help you to identify the obstacles that need to be overcome.

The points above are easy to incorporate into most training plans. The last point should undoubtedly be that running is fun! Psychology aside, this is my first rule as a runner. Lose sight of this and running becomes another thing you ‘have’ to do and you may start to resent your training plan. Learn when you need to ditch the structure (even if it’s just for a short time). Just lace up your shoes and run as far as feels right at the pace your legs dictate and in the most beautiful place you can get to – that will usually take you a long way whether it be in distance or mindset.

References
Aral. S., & Nicolaides, C. (2017). Exercise contagion in a global social network. Nature Communications, 8: doi 10.1038/ncomms14753
Jarrett, C., and Rhodes, E. (2017). Minds run free. The Psychologist, 0952-8229, 50-54.

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