Running Archaeology: Analyzing a Training Cycle

Marathon #14 and Boston #3 in the books!

Here at Salty many of our writers publish our training logs for everyone to see. We may not put every detail in them, but it allows other Salties and you to get a better idea of how we train. One of the beneficial aspects of keeping training logs is being able to look back at a training cycle to compare workout paces, long run progressions, mileage consistency, and how you felt throughout the weeks of training compared to previous seasons. The lessons we learn from this analysis can help us make adjustments and gain the self-awareness we need to make big progress from training cycle to training cycle.

Yesterday, I finished marathon number 14 and, like so many runners out there, I fell considerably short of my goal. However, I know better than to judge the entire training cycle based solely on how a marathon went. Much of yesterday’s performance was due to the weather and wasn’t helped by a last-minute case of the stomach flu. But even if I simply had an off-day or overestimated my abilities, no matter the result in the goal race, there is still much to be learned by analyzing a training cycle.

Now that we’re in the thick of spring marathon season, it is the perfect time to learn how to effectively analyze a training cycle.

Before we get started, I have two caveats.

First, even though I just finished my race, I personally prefer analyzing my training cycle before my goal race. The 2016 Boston Marathon perfectly demonstrates why this is. There are so many variables out of our control, like unexpected heat, illness, etc., that allowing the race outcome to dictate how a training cycle went isn’t fair to all of the work you did for the months leading up to that one day. If a race doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, it’s natural to blame your entire training cycle for it, but your training may have actually been spot on. If you analyze your training before your judgment of it is clouded by your race outcome, you might be more objective in discovering the lessons within that training.

Second, be careful when comparing your most recent training cycle to past training cycles. It’s a little like apples to oranges. I get it; it’s easy to want to compare every cycle to that cycle that produced your BIG PR! But remember, cycles are months long and a lot can change from one to the next: family situations, work situations, seasons change, we age, and life in general changes. So many things we might not even realize are different from one cycle to the next. Don’t get too wrapped up in judging elements of a cycle as better or worse than past cycles; different doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here are some questions that will enable you to glean information from your most recent training cycle, along with an explanation for how each question will help you find the nuggets of wisdom. I recommend taking a notebook or a journal and writing out each of the bolded questions below, along with your answers for each. This will help you analyze your training cycles.

What were the best workouts?

“Best” here is subjective. Think about which workouts gave you the most confidence. Which workouts did you feel like you nailed or which ones made you surprise yourself with your badassery? Was there a workout or long run that stands out to you? Honestly, when I look back and see the workouts I did over the months of training it helps remind me HOW MUCH WORK I did.

What did you learn from the workouts that didn’t go so well?

Like anything in life, some things just don’t go as well as others. Workouts are no different. That tempo run that felt like death? Ask yourself what might have made it go so poorly? Did you eat something different beforehand? Were you not sleeping enough that week? Did you notice that you started too fast and weren’t able to maintain pace? Or maybe there is a type of workout that you consistently struggle with. Maybe you need more recovery time in between hard days. Look for any patterns in your bad workouts for ideas in ways to improve your next cycle.

How did you handle your weekly mileage?

Everyone has a different approach to weekly mileage, and not everyone thrives on a set number or even on whether they take cut-back weeks or not. So this is really less about the number and more about the consistency. Did you put in work each week? Were you consistent, did you have gradual builds and a peak? Did you have some down weeks to allow your body to recover for the bigger ones? How do you think the approach you took helped or hindered your progress?

The analysis of the training I did for my previous two Bostons helped me get to where I am today.
The analysis of the training I did for my previous two Bostons helped me get to where I am today.

Do you need to adjust your goals?

This is a tricky question, but one you always need to consider. Being honest with yourself, do you still think your goal time is feasible? If you ask yourself this near the end of the cycle, but before your race, this can help you tweak your race goal to better ensure a good outcome. However, even if you do the analysis after the big race, answering this question can help you make sense of a race that did not go well and also help you to see how realistic your ultimate running goals are.

Did you do the work you needed to do to realistically have a shot at the time you want? What if it was one of those cycles where life really got in the way or your long runs just never got where you needed them to be. Did this cycle set you up to go for the bigger goal you have for your next cycle? Adjusting your goal time a little slower for this or next cycle’s race might hurt your ego, but doing so might prevent you from one incredibly frustrating race or an entire frustrating training cycle next time.

What moments from this training cycle can you put in your mental bank to remember you’re a badass? 

For me, this is one of the biggest reasons I analyze my training cycles before the race, but it’s equally valuable if you do it after the race too. I want to know what I can use to help me on race day or any day when I need a reminder that I am capable of reaching my goals. As Tea told us, visualizing is a powerful tool. During training I’ll often visualize race scenarios during my workouts and during races I often find myself visualizing those same workouts, especially the ones in which I was kicking ass. Let yourself feel that runner’s high after a particular crazy good workout and use it on race day. Even those workouts that hurt and were a grind, remember how bad it was and that you got through it. You can do hard things, you have before and you can do it again.

Other things to consider.

While these might not need an explanation, there are so many other questions you could ask yourself about your training. What would you do differently next cycle? What do you think helped prepare you the most for the race (workouts, long runs, strength for the hills)? How was your racing plan and pacing? The important thing is to honestly reflect on your training cycle so you can learn from this plan to build an even better training plan next time.

Have you ever analyzed your training plans? If so, what have you learned about yourself that has helped you grow as a runner?

A new mom and Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Maneuvering through motherhood and postpartum running!

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  1. This is a timely post for me… coming off of a really long training cycle (literally, 9 months due to a cancelled marathon plan in January), I feel like I have been training for ever, and my run in Boston yesterday was 25 minutes slower than last year. It would be very easy to get down about this, after so much training! But instead I’m fighting the urge to jump into another race a month from now, and focusing on how great of a base I’ll have when I start my training for a fall race (after a nice long break).Thank you!

  2. I normally look back over my training log before a marathon. I don’t really analyze it, but more look at the work done (and hopefully the progression), to give me mental confidence before a big race.
    Congrats on running yesterday in a tough race!

  3. One thing I love about you Barley is you’re always so eager to learn more about yourself and you’re always striving to be better. I love this and plan to use this method of analysis next time I complete a training cycle. Thanks for sharing and recover well!