10 common running training mistakes – and how to fix them

With few (or no) races on the calendar, this month-long challenge will boost your speed and give you the opportunity to focus on a plan.

Are you making these training missteps? Here’s a coach on how to make sure you’re not sabotaging yourself

‘If you are not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,’ said the legendary basketball coach John Wooden. I agree. So this piece is not about criticism or giving you a template for constant smooth progress, without picking up so much as a niggle. It’s a reflection on some of the recurring training mistakes I have seen over the last 10 years or so of coaching, along with some simple solutions.

1. Not learning from your mistakes

I want to preface the nine that follow by saying that making mistakes as a runner isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We generally learn in life through trial and error. Your perfect training plan probably won’t be a boilerplate one that you download – it’ll be one you tinker with and adapt, learning as you go.

The fix: Have a growth mindset. Keep a reflective diary. Note down your training but also anything you observe from your overall lifestyle. If you’ve picked up a niggle or had a race that didn’t go according to plan, note down why this might have happened, then make changes.

2. The terrible ‘toos’

No article on running mistakes could miss this one. Too much training, building it too soon, running too hard or too often – ‘too soon’ is a big, red, flashing light with ‘injury’ written on it.

The fix: Focus on FITT. When building your training, there are several variables you can control – how often you train (frequency), how hard each session is (intensity), how long each session is (time) and what type of exercise you choose (type). Be careful when changing several variables all at once.

3. Copycat training

It’s so easy to trawl through Strava, read blog posts and adopt wholesale what worked for someone else. The truth is there are many factors that influence performance. You see a series of training sessions on Strava but you don’t see the genetics, the lifestyle, the conditioning and the background of a particular individual.

The fix: Be individual. Try to recognise that there is no ‘right’ way to train. As coaches, and as runners, we always steal from other people. By all means, learn from the success of others, but remember to trust what works for you.

4. Taking short cuts

In a world of life hacks and instant gratification, it is all too easy to get caught up taking the shortest route possible to get to a goal, such as reducing training to the bare minimum, doing four-minute workouts or zero-to-hero marathon plans. The reality is that over the longer term, these short cuts could set you up for the frustration of reaching a plateau in your fitness level or, worse, picking up an injury that sidelines you for weeks or months.

The fix: Build a firm foundation. Endurance training takes patience. Give yourself sufficient time to train for a key goal race such as a marathon and don’t be rushed into upping your race distances too soon. You will probably find it takes several years of consistent, injury-free training before you start to see just how good you can be. As such, your process and training goals should be just as important as those final race times.

5. Trying to cram too much in

Trying to cram too much into a week and rushing back too soon after goal races is a common cause of injury and loss of motivation. Trying to add hills, tempo runs, interval training, long runs and marathon-pace work into a limited window is a big injury risk.

The fix: Give yourself room to breathe. Many training plans follow a pattern
of hard day, easy day, hard day, easy day etc. But if you are training for a marathon or know you struggle to recover, it’s sensible to give yourself more easy days between those quality sessions. After a key goal race, don’t feel the need to rush back to training. After a marathon, for example, take a week or two off and then do a period of relaxed, less-structured training. This will leave you better able to attack your new training with energy and renewed motivation.

6. Being too rigid

For any runner, a training plan is a key part of progressing in a planned, specific and sustainable way. However, by treating a training plan as a sacred stone tablet, some runners may end up trying to force square pegs into round holes. Getting obsessive about completing a plan to the letter can lead you to ignore the fact that things aren’t working or that you are heading towards injury.

The fix: Be flexible. Take an adaptive approach to your planning. Of course, have a longer term overview, but consider planning the detail of your training two to three weeks at a time to allow you to apply what you are learning to your plan. Adapt to how you feel and to broader life stresses.

7. Failing to use your nonsense detector

In a world of self-appointed experts, runners need to have a finely tuned ‘nonsense’ filter. Treat ‘expert’ or ‘influencer’ advice – and that includes mine! – with an open mind but a healthy scepticism. This is especially true when it relates to the ‘marginal gains’ or the one per cent of training – the special pillow, new foam roller or compression fabric that promises to lift your performance. It’s not that these things can’t help, but for the vast majority of us, the fundamentals of training need to be in place first.

The fix: Get critical. Apply critical-thinking skills and be wary of advice from influencers, experts or coaches who offer instant fixes or black-and-white solutions, use scientific-sounding but ambiguous, woolly terms, or try to sell you a training system or a reductionist diet. Where is their evidence? What’s the validity and reliability of their claims? How do they relate to you and your life? Always ask the questions.

8. Neglecting your overall health

It is natural to focus solely on the exercise to get fitter and faster. We know that we need the stress of training in order to improve. Often, though, we fail to ask ourselves whether we are healthy enough to adapt to all the miles we log. After
all, we build fitness as we recover.

The fix: Balance the triangle. Give your recovery strategies (eg improving the quality or duration of your sleep) and your nutrition the same attention as you give to your training to ensure you keep adapting to the hard work.

9. Believing it’s all in the body

The language of running is all about the body – heart, lungs and muscles. Many runners are familiar with terms such as ‘threshold’, ‘VO2 max’, ‘aerobic’ and ‘anaerobic’. However, separating mind from body doesn’t make sense. No matter how well trained you are, a lack of focus on the psychology of training and racing can lead you to fall short of your physical potential.

The fix: Build an athletic mind. Spend time focusing on mental-skills training such as self-talk, affirmations, clear goal setting or building a pre-competition routine. And remember that enjoyment should continue to be central to your training if you want it to be sustainable and fulfilling.

10. Lack of variety

Routine is important for building commitment and habit. However, the most common thing I see in the training of new and experienced runners alike is a lack of variety. Most of us do our training in too narrow a range of paces, with our easy running too hard and our hard training often not hard enough, or we repeat our favourite sessions and runs over and over. Our bodies are highly adaptable, and we can plateau quickly without a change in stimulus.

The fix: Polarise it. Without getting deep into the specifics of training sessions, many runners would see improvements simply by slowing down their easy running a bit and by aiming to push some regular harder sessions up to 90-95 per cent of their maximum heart rate (think 3-10km race pace). Try to avoid repeating the same sessions every week and ensure you include strength training and running drills in your training mix. Familiarity breeds boredom, if not contempt.

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