The day I decided to run my first marathon back in 2009, I had no idea how to do it. Then I did what most runners around me at that time did. I bought a book. It was “Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide” from Hal Higdon. Because I knew absolutely nothing about running so for me it was like when I was first told that the earth was not flat. At the end of the book there were several training plans, depending on your experience. So I picked a plan, 24 weeks plan and decided to follow it at all cost. I did follow the plan to the letter and finished my first marathon according to plan. Perfect. That made me super confident, I felt invincible. But that’s an extremely boring story (just wait for what’s coming). 

The reality is that I was blessed (or cursed) with the beginner’s luck. It was not the norm and I learned it the hard way.

I tried to reproduce this feat a couple of years later by trying to follow Jack Daniel’s training plan (a very difficult plan by the way). 10 weeks into the 18 weeks plan, I started to feel some unusual pain in my shin. Because I was very smart, I ignored the pain and kept on following the plan ! Because … well that’s the plan right? If I miss a key workout, it’s gonna be the end of the world, what if I miss that tempo? What happens for the following workouts? Etc etc.. Then the inevitable happened. I got injured. The idea of missing a workout stressed me to the point of getting injured. It is very hard to take the decision to skip a “planned workout”, especially if you fall into the category of a type-A person, or task-oriented person.

The reality is that following a training plan does not take into account one crucial parameter: Chaos

Imagine that on week 15/24 of the training plan, there is a 28k long run. But you receive an email from your friend asking you to be part of a 5km relay race on that weekend. You’re tempted. Alone in a long 28km tunnel or a 5km blast with my running buddies? Duty or fun? Then on week 20/24 suddenly your mum from the other side of the planet comes to visit on a weekend. She asks you to show her around. Are you going to do the 32k long run initially planned and let your mum alone?

The reality is that the longer the plan the bigger the chances are to meet with Chaos. 

You get sick, one week is gone. You get injured, maybe 6 weeks are gone (most likely more). Actually during a build up, if you stop training for X number of weeks, it will take you about the same number of weeks to get back where you were. So if you skip one week of training due to a flu for example, you’ve actually lost 2 weeks ! But wait…. I might have forgotten something…

What about the taper?

If you’re training for a marathon or an ultramarathon, chances are that you might need a 3 weeks taper. Let’s get back to where we were: training plan. Shall we?

Say you’re aiming for a marathon. You look at the calendar: “Ah, I’m 12 weeks out, I have a good base, plenty of time, I’m going to follow a 12 weeks program”. Remove the taper, and it’s actually only 9 weeks. Say you get the flu, catch a cold (nobody is superman), 2 weeks lost. You’re left with 7 weeks. Say you’ve decided to skip the long run to have fun with the relay race: another long run gone. 6.5 weeks left. 

What you thought of a 12 weeks training plan ends up being 6.5 weeks. This when you start to get nervous about it.

So how do we go around that? We plan for Chaos. By planning Chaos, you are left with much less stress, you don’t feel so nervous about skipping week of training because you know what? It’s now part of the plan!! It might sound ridiculous and overly simple, but just planning for Chaos frees up the mind.

How to accomodate for Chaos on an online/book training plan

Eris, Greek Goddess of Chaos. There is no way around her

Just add (at least) 1 week of Chaos per 5 weeks of training plan. Yeah that’s it. Let me explain:

For example, let’s say you see a 16 weeks training plan. Then don’t start 16 weeks out of the race day. Start at least 16 + 3 = 19 weeks out. And you have 3 joker cards you can use, that are part of the plan. Say you complete week 6, you get sick, you take a week off. Then you can restart from the beginning of week 6 (i.e. you do it again). So you are using two joker cards, which is part of the plan. You still have 1 joker card left. You could use it to take a very easy week to recharge (say 70% of the previous week’s volume with only easy runs for example ). Bottom line: start earlier !

“I’ve just finished marathon and I want to run another one in 8 weeks”

You might think you have 8 weeks of training…. Wrong.

If you raced all out your marathon. You need at least 2 weeks before going back into serious training, then another 3 weeks of taper. Assuming (and that’s a big assumption), nothing goes wrong (I said NOTHING goes wrong), you only have 3 weeks left of “training”. What can you build up in 3 weeks? … nothing much. Not saying it is impossible, simply that the risk reward is low.

So if you are contemplating a race 16 weeks out, you have in reality 10 weeks of build up realistically speaking (3 weeks of taper and 3 weeks of chaos planning). 

There is still one more scenario to take into account.

All your preparation went well, according to plan. It is race day, you’re having your usual breakfast then…. your stomach hurts, big rain, snow, super strong headwind, or the race gets cancelled due to a super typhoon:

Chaos happens to hit on race day.

That’s the most difficult situation that can happen with a probability far enough from zero to trigger anxiousness (to say the least). For that situation, when possible I sign up for 2 races. The A-race for which I am training for and the plan B / A-race which should take place in 2~3 weeks after the main A-race. In that case, if for example, the weather is extremely bad for the main A-race, you can choose to DNS from it and run the plan B instead.  But if Chaos shows up again on the day of plan B… Then you’re stuck, しょうがない。

“What if all goes according to plans, no chaos during the training period?”

Even though the probability is low, it can happen. Every 5 weeks or so you would use your joker card. How to use “your trump card”? You can just for example repeat the same previous training week. Or you can take an easy week (e.g. repeat the easiest week from the past 5~6 weeks).

“But am I going to slow down my improvement or even detrain by taking more time than the plan?”

No. Fitness maintenance takes much less effort than fitness gain. Reduced training for a week will not impact your fitness. And we are not talking about doing nothing, just easier weeks.

Summary

  • Lots of things can happen during a marathon. So is the case for a multiple weeks / months training plan. The longer the plan, the higher the probability for something unexpected – aka Chaos – to happen. Chaos is uncontrollable so it is not realistic to just “hope for the best”.
  • Instead planning for Chaos alleviates mental and emotional stress when something unexpected happens. It also reduces the risk of injury by allowing more room for recovery.
  • When counting the number of weeks until a target race, remember to subtract the taper period and about 1 week per 5 weeks to make room for Chaos, and make a decision whether to enter the race or not accordingly
  • If possible, sign up for a plan B race as well in case things Chaos hit on race day.

I hope this helps your future races planning  !!

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Tangent borderline off-topic

I think it is fair to say that we can observe this phenomena everywhere. We humans hate when things don’t happen according to plan. Whenever that happens, things blow out of proportion. Let’s take a current example: the infamous Coronavirus. The old school Influenza causes many more casualties in comparison. However, when we see the reaction over the world towards this new virus, it is almost like we’re going to enter into an apocalyptic era, or that the Walking Dead TV show is going to come true. 

In the US alone, there were 10,000 deaths from the Influenza. But nobody panics, it almost feels like nobody really cares. Why? Because it is “part of the plan”, it has become a norm that every year, about the same number of people will die from this old virus. But Coronavirus… it has become a global massive panic… why? Because that was NOT “part of the plan”, it is unknown. Unknown threat triggers enormous fear.

We hate the unexpected, things that can’t be controlled

And instead of pretending everything is under control, or that the unexpected, Chaos, will not happen, I believe if we let room for it, we can manage our stress much better. 
There is nothing we can do on a macro level (e.g. new viruses etc), but on a micro level, we can surely do (e.g. you spilled your cup of coffee on your shirt). Chaos has been there, is there and will always be there.

So instead of making plans by pretending it doesn’t exist, I think planning for Chaos is a better way to manage time and expectations.

Of course controlling Chaos is impossible by definition, but I believe we can reduce the impact on our lives from a psychological perspective if we plan for it.

Note: I wrote this article BEFORE the Tokyo marathon got cancelled.


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Harrisson

Otaku Ultramarathoner - Strength & Conditioning NASM Certified Personal Trainer - NAASFP certified Running Coach - Pn1 Nutrition Coach

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How to reduce the mental stress of a training plan
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6 thoughts on “How to reduce the mental stress of a training plan

  • Avatar
    2020-03-03 at 00:16
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    Given you wrote this very informative article before Tokyo Marathon was cancelled, I’d say your sense of timing is impeccable!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    2020-03-03 at 12:31
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    Interesting article Harrisson. I am more inclined to live without a plan as I get older.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      2020-03-03 at 19:31
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      Thanks Padraig
      Live without plan, “by feel” is certainly free way of living 🙂
      But I personally believe making plans helps me choosing a direction and staying on that path and also to stay focus.
      That’s just my opinion
      Thanks for reading

      Reply
  • Avatar
    2020-03-04 at 14:12
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    Thank you for sharing the very useful technique to handle “chaos” stuff. I actually put “chaos” into my office outlook calendar and it helps me to reduce the stress from work. My colleagues tried to arrange the meeting ahead and made it shorter (because my calendar is so full). I have been learning how to use this for my training and races but I have improved a lot I believe! 2019 was well organized, I believe 🙂

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    • Avatar
      2020-03-05 at 10:09
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      Haha, thanks for your comment Rika, I thought I was the only one to plan “chaos” in my daily schedule but happy to see that I’m not the only one 😀

      Reply

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