Your Training Plan Fell Apart and You’re Not Ready to Race. What Should You Do?

In a little less than four weeks, I’ll line up at the start of the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run in Sacramento, only the second 50-miler I’ve ever attempted.

Three and a half months ago, I outlined a training plan that’s now buried in the wire basket on my desk, ready to mock me if I dig it out. Did I really think I could achieve that ideal mix of long runs, tempo runs, track workouts, gym workouts, physical therapy, visualization, weight loss, and a 50 percent increase in weekly mileage? Yeah, I did. But the best-laid plans of runners oft go awry.

The elevation profile for the American River 50 mirrors my personal life over the past several months: a flat, paved, and relatively easy nice stretch, and then surprise! it turns into a steep, sometimes muddy climb.

The course profile of the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run. Don't ya love the cruel joke of those last three miles?!

Work and volunteer commitments, along with family schedule nuttiness, conspired to sap time and energy. Meanwhile, in January, a foot injury hampered my running, and just as it was feeling better in mid-February, an ankle twist and quad pain from a fall during a 50K made me take an extra week off for recovery. Oh yeah, and our whole household got sick for a week sometime around then.

I adopted a “some is better than none” attitude toward training and did the best I could, which felt OK—until the other day when I studied the American River 50 website for the first time and had a minor freak-out. I felt woefully unprepared, under-trained, and uninformed about this 50-mile test on April 9. Should I even run it?

Then I talked to friends, reviewed some articles, and reflected on what I’ve learned over the years to make the following list of do’s and don’ts to get ready and banish the thought of a DNS. I hope it might also help others whose training plan fell apart and whose confidence is bonking.

Do take comfort in knowing you’re not the only runner who approaches a big event with less-than-optimal training. Lots of us put a lofty race on the calendar and commit to prepare for it, but then life intervenes and we struggle just to maintain a minimum training base. Bryon Powell of iRunFar, for example, survived a 50-miler last fall after a year of injury and bare-bones running. He showed that attitude is everything—that is, just go for it, do the best you can, and try to have fun.

Don’t compare yourself to others. I follow the inspiring and informative blogs of several who run at least twice as far and much, much faster than I—amazing women and guys who are training hard for the Olympic Trials and other championships. But their training level can warp my thinking about what I can and should be doing myself.

Don’t cram in miles in the final weeks in an attempt to make up for lost time. You’ll only set yourself up for injury and deprive your body of the taper it needs. I know it’s tempting to want to run extra long just one to two weeks before race day. For example, I developed a plan to run the Oakland Marathon on March 27, two weeks before American River, but then not stop at the finish line. I thought it’d be a great idea to tack on an extra two hours, all uphill, to simulate the American River course. My friend talked some sense into me; he told me to get out now for a peak-distance training run, and then stop worrying and start tapering. Now I’m going to run—not race—the Oakland Marathon for a final long run, use the event to practice the conservative pace that the first half of American River demands, and stop at the finish line.

Do remember there’s more to training than running lots of miles. Over the next four weeks, I won’t cram in miles, but I will do my best to eat properly, sleep more, stay healthy, and familiarize myself with the course so I can plan better for pacing and refueling.

Do adjust your time goal—or drop the time goal all together. I started training for American River 50 with a strong desire to break 8 hours, which was reasonable, given the course and my past performance at 50Ks. Now I’m reminding myself of the value of a three-tiered time goal: respectable, very good, and pop-the-champagne awesome. Coming up with a range of finishing-time scenarios helps me keep going mid-race when I feel like giving up because I know I’m off pace to reach the ultimate goal. For the American River 50, my “respectable” goal would be to finish, period. “Very good” would be 8:30, which would virtually match the finish time of my one other 50-miler, 8:31 last October. “Awesome” would be 8:15 or better.

Don’t dwell on the shortcomings of the past couple of months. I compared my initial training plan with what I actually did and felt discouraged to see the weeks where my total mileage topped out in the mid-40s instead of 60-plus. I counted only three true long runs (20+ miles, three to six hours long) over a 10-week period when I intended to do twice as many. I felt guilty about the habit-forming, late-night wine-and-cheese-or-chocolate fests I lapsed into with my husband as we watched TV after the kids went to bed.

Do concentrate on what you did well and what went right. I lifted my spirits by mentally ticking off what I had accomplished: I took care of my body—with physical therapy, strength training, cross training, and extra sleep—when I needed to recover from illness or injury. I discovered a once-a-week yoga-for-runners class that helped me mentally and physically (details to come in a future blog post). I managed my foot problem and had a confidence-boosting 35-mile training run two days ago. (Note to self: Do not focus on the fact you wanted to do 40 miles and ran out of time and had to stop at 35 … focus on how that 35 was good and steady, with no major problems.)

Plus, I got a lot of work done and took care of my family when they needed me. And I made progress on most of my new year’s goals (or at least I didn’t forget those resolutions!).

All in all, I’ve done well, and I feel much better now about the April 9 event. In fact, I’m looking forward to it! It’s a classic, big-time, big-name ultra that draws a great crowd. It starts near a place I used to live and follows a river we used to swim and raft in way-back-when we were newlyweds. I can’t wait to conquer the infamous “Dam Wall” at Mile 46.

Thanks for reading all this self-referential self-coaching. Do you have any do’s and don’ts to add? I hope you’ll leave them in a comment if so.




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6 Responses to Your Training Plan Fell Apart and You’re Not Ready to Race. What Should You Do?

  1. Jeffery March 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Adjust your expectations and remember that you can be better than you often give yourself credit for. Simply go out slower, much slower, than you once planned. Be steady and balanced. Save everything for the final 15 miles – and amaze yourself. Run smart and you can run well under 8:30.

    I look forward to hearing how well you enjoyed yourself and your run.


    • Sarah March 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

      Good advice from an AR50 veteran who’s about to run a 100M! Have a great weekend in the Sespe.

  2. Jay March 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    I took so much from this article besides being unprepared. I learned what to focus on during my next race that isn’t going my way. Thanks for all the great info. I look forward to it.


    PS: thanks for the help with the GPS watch. I couldn’t imagine training without it.

    • Sarah March 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

      Sure thing — I’m glad!

  3. Paul March 16, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    Great article. I spend quite a lot of time visualizing my goals too. I find that this helps me.

    Good luck! And i look forward to the run report!

  4. Elinor April 3, 2011 at 5:49 am #

    Great advice, sarah! I think my training plans go haywire just about every time I’m training for a race. It makes me think that some us runners are not programmed to stick to a training plan but do better with less structure.

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