Some runners are free spirits and find training plans too restrictive. Some are by-the-book training-plan devotees who love the structure of knowing what every mile of a training cycle will entail.
I fall firmly into the first camp. I’ve been known to take a one-size-fits-all training plan and swap days around to fit my needs and body. I’ve gone through weekends (pre-kids, of course) where I essentially rolled out of bed, chugged some coffee, grabbed my keys, and spontaneously ran as far and as fast as I fancied.
But even free spirits want structure sometimes. Enter untraining.
What’s untraining? Instead of either a set-in-stone training plan or completely freeform casual-running, you work out a set of principles or guidelines to shape your week in running using your big-picture goals as a baseline.
How and When to Untrain
A good untraining plan starts with specific long-range goals. It might take some experimentation to settle on the process goals and guidelines that work for you, and they will vary according to what your long-term motivation is.
Say you want to get to a marathon start healthy and race it to the best of your ability. For instance, I’ve cramped in the same muscles for six marathons now, so I know that strength training is worth more than a little extra mileage, for me.
Or, maybe you want to use running to build connections in a new city; you’d start by looking for a group run and go to those workouts, or find a weekend fun-race series where you can show off your costume ingenuity.
Perhaps you’re not training for a specific race, but want to stay in good enough shape that if an impromptu half-marathon came up, you’d have the fitness to enjoy it. You might stick to doing a long run and some speedwork each week, and have a weekly goal of running 30 or 35 miles a week, but besides those general goals, the exact days and distances are flexible.
Or let’s say you’re pregnant and the end-game is to have a healthy mom and baby rather than an outstanding race. You might give yourself an untraining plan of running with a friend every week, stretching and meditating for 10 minutes at night, and doing some other cardio thrice a week.
You could, if you’re experienced, even untrain for a race. In fact, I’m doing that right now to train for a May half marathon, even if what I’m doing is closer to a written plan than not. I have a full-time job and a kid whom I’d like to actually see awake during the day, so I came up with an untraining plan that accommodates those priorities.
My untraining guidelines and weekly process goals for a May half marathon:
- Try to get to Monday night speedwork. (I love the endorphin rush from Monday night speedwork.)
- Do a long run every weekend and a tempo run sometime during the week.
- Do some form of strength or #extrasalt twice a week, whether that’s a Body Sculpt class or MYRTLS.
- If you have time for only two miles, do the two miles. (Three miles used to be my threshold minimum, but I realized that I was skipping too many times because I thought I didn’t have time to run three miles so why run at all?)
- Hit 30 miles per week consistently.
Does Untraining Work?
I’d give untraining a resounding two thumbs up. I stuck to some version of this for two goal half marathons last year and managed to PR both times!
It doesn’t always work out the way I planned, and I don’t always meet all my little goals, but if I miss a day while untraining it gives me less anxiety than if I miss a key workout on a training plan.
To some extent, many runners already run like this anyway. If you have a big event for work or school and a big workout on the same day, you might shuffle things around to fit your schedule. Life gets busy; for most of us, running is supposed to fit comfortably into our lives, not the other way around.
But wait! When should you not use untraining?
You shouldn’t untrain, for instance, if you want to race a totally new, longer distance than you’ve done before. Or if you are prone to Bertha-ing workouts due to anticipatory pain. Or if you prefer a set plan, or working with a trusted coach to come up with your training plans. Those are some of the situations where I’d be more cautious about putting my trust in untraining.
If, however, you are a free spirit like me, and feel like tinkering with untraining, go forth and frolic and have fun!
Have you ever untrained?