Training principles first, then your training plan

Training principles first, then your training plan

When Arthur Lydiard published his first running book, he was reluctant to post any training plans in them. Word has it that he worried about runners reading the plans without understanding the underlying principles and would go out and either 1) get hurt or 2) under perform.

I have heard many coaches say “Arthur Lydiard is one of the most misinterpreted and misrepresented coaches out there” and perhaps things would have been different if not for those training plans. Very few running books today come without several pages of “sample schedules” for various distances and there’s a good likelihood those pages are the most often perused.

All of these books, of course, try to present their vision of how one should train – for better or for worse. Lydiard’s book lays out in great detail, precise principles for training and practical advice before finishing off with the sample training schedules. Visit any athletics online forum and you see that questions tend to be “what schedule should I use for my first 10k” and similar. Then ensues a debate about whether it should be Hal Higdon, Couch to 5k, Jack Daniels, or, for the connoisseurs, names such as Arthur Lydiard, Pete Pfitzinger or Renato Canova. Training plans are picked as if they were flavours of orange, strawberry and chocolate.

Training programmes – nothing but maps

The problem is that the training plans are essentially like a map – they are no use unless you know how to use them and you don’t really know what you’re dealing with until you’re out there “in the land”. A map is not the land, we all know this. There are little details missing, bends that looks sharper on the map than they’ll appear in reality, roads that appear obvious to find on the map but prove difficult to locate as you search for them. Knowing this, most of us treat maps with a dose of scepticism, knowing we need to invest work in understanding it and often needing to see what actually happens when you go on the route before you know what you’re dealing with.

But how many runners can you honestly say treat their training programmes with the same lack of deference? My own experience as an athlete and coach suggest that there is a biblical sense of respect for many training programs.

In 2012, I saw an example of this in the discussions around the training programmes of Canova versus those of Lydiard. The approaches of the two coaches have many superficial differences and while one coached “a bunch of kids from the neighbourhood” and the other the cream of Kenya enough of the same principles pervade Canova and Lydiard’s methods that you could call them “simply different manifestations of the same underlying principles.” But when we discuss today it is often the map that is being discussed and not the land. Well, “the land” represents the principles metaphorically. One of our priorities for 2013 is to get people back “understanding the land” instead of just “reading the map”, or, to dispense with metaphor, to learn principles before you learn methods and begin to draw up plans. This is as essential as learning to crawl before you walk.

The coaches who are unaware of this distinction are those that become, as Tony Riddle would refer to them “rep counters” or in running terminology simply “mile counters”.

Training principles first, then programmes

Percy Wells Cerutty
Percy Cerutty – a man of principle. He had a plan, but needed no plans…

Over 60 years ago, Percy Cerutty, in his wisdom, seems to have realised the pit-falls presented by providing schedules in publications. Cerutty being Cerutty, simply didn’t include them in his books – rather he had lengthy dissertations of principles, philosophy and general thoughts on training – especially as it related to the stoic philosophy that he felt his champions needed to adopt.  How many modern athletes are asked by their coach to look deep into themselves and reflect on whether their values and beliefs are consistent with what they want to achieve?

What are principles anyway that we should care about them? I prefer Stephen Covey’s, author of “7 habits of effective people”, definition that principles are external natural laws. No matter how we behave we cannot change these rules and that means they determine the consequences. Violate the laws of nature, by moving poorly, and you can have all the good intentions you want and meticulously laid-out training programme – but you will still fall foul along the way.

To Covey success is determined by how closely you can match your values, habits and actions to these natural laws. For success in running you need to take the same path – you need to understand the overlying natural laws, what we call “principles”, and learn to live and train in accordance with them. You can believe fervently that the best way to train is to develop superb technique first – but if you don’t have enough desire, skill and knowledge to adopt the habits you need to succeed, you will fail. You may view yourself as a champion, but your actions will belie that fact. You may view yourself as a great trainer, but in reality you may be training foolishly and ignorantly.

How ChampionsEverywhere teach principles

We use our “Running Form” workshops as a vehicle to embed the principles of “old school” and, more broadly, a natural way of running and living to athletes. This is why it is always our preferred choice that athletes undergo this weekend before committing to a long-term programme with us.

Once you have spent two days being instructed on real practical ways of applying our “ten principles of old school running” , you can suddenly do more than just “read the map” (i.e. your training schedule), you understand the “lay of the land” and how to interact with it. Powered by a knowledge of principles you can make the right decisions, amend planned training and use our insights to control all the other things the influence training aside from the workouts themselves. If the principles seem “easy” to you, then be warned that the devil is in the detail and the principles don’t necessarily mean what they have come to mean today – but more on that in a future article.

More can be done on educating people about the nitty-gritty details of how to follow old school principles, answering questions such as:

  1. What exactly do I need to do to follow the principles?
  2. What does it mean to “Run by feel” etc.
  3. What habits are necessary to adopt to make the most of it
  4. Give me examples of how others employed the principles in difficult situations
  5. Tell me some horror stories of those who did not follow them right and so on…

Rest assured we will answer all these questions – ideally every runner who wants to pursue running as a fundamental part of their life, should be able to learn easily how to master the principles.

What is in it for you?

We said in an earlier article that we do not really believe in New Year’s resolutions – but we’ll give you one anyway – we’ll make it easier than ever for you to learn the principles necessary to achieve success, health and joy with your running. Armed with these principles you’ll stop being a servant, or even a slave, of your training schedule. Rather you will become its master and commander. But putting principles first you will already stand apart from other runners, and be at an advantage long-term over your competitors.

The principles you adopt in the end will guide your behaviour. If you think “it’s all about logging miles”, then you’ve adopted a simplistic principle that will lead you astray. If you believe in “no pain, no gain” instead of Lydiard’s “train, don’t strain”, then likewise a faulty principle is likely to ruin any training programme you undertake. So: first learn the correct principles, then get a good plan (and treat it as such – “just a plan”).

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.