The End of the Training Plan

Mar 22, 2024

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How often have you prepared for a major running goal, where everything went exactly according to plan? Similarly, how many projects were successfully finished at work without changing course?

Let’s admit it: Plans are a work of fiction. They give us an (illusional) sense of control. The best project managers I worked with were not the ones who could draw the best-looking detailed plans but who instead could improvise on changing circumstances and were deeply aware of their team’s capabilities and stakeholder priorities.

Back to running: Our ambitions to participate in (big) running events and achieving our goals are in essence similar to finishing a project at work. And just as with our projects at work, detailed plans are a work of fiction! The whole environment within which we prepare for our goal is constantly changing:

  • How does our body respond to training?

  • Do we catch any short-term illnesses?

  • What are the demands of our social environment? Is there suddenly a (pet) friend or family member who needs more of our attention and care?

  • How stressful is our day job?

Barely any of these challenges can be predicted or controlled. Successfully navigating these “obstacles” requires skill and effort in improvising and awareness of the reality regarding our fitness, fatigue, injury risk, etc. Therefore, self-coaching for recreational and amateur athletes is often hard!

Here’s an example illustrating why fixed, detailed training plans are not working in real-life situations. The chart below shows the training progression of an individual Vortza user towards their half marathon goal. The dark line shows their progress in predicted race pace, and the bars represent the trained days with the cumulative seven-day running distance.


Let’s assume this person received a perfect “personalized” (based on an assessment of this person’s fitness and ambitions) training plan at the start of the training period. The difficulties with such a fixed plan are immediately visible:

  • After a few weeks, this person’s predicted race pace went up from around 5:30 to 5:10. Should they, at that moment, train at the same pace or heart rate zone after dramatically improving their fitness? Alternatively, should they do a demanding fitness test every few weeks to re-calibrate their training intensities?

  • We see two periods of at least a week of non-running (absence of bars in the chart). After such a period, should this person stick to the plan and pretend all workouts were done? If not, how should training be resumed?

  • What if this person replaced a suggested easy endurance run with an intense interval workout or a soccer match? How should the plan continue after such a deviation? Can we expect a recreational runner to perform all prescribed workouts exactly?

So, how can we abandon detailed, fixed training plans without causing utter chaos and arbitrariness? How can we progress towards our goals without a complete route drawn out in advance? At Vortza, we accomplish this by using the following (interrelated) principles:

Sticking to strategy over sticking to a plan.

Our goals should determine the training strategy instead of a detailed plan. Our goal distance and ambition, as well as the number of days left before the event, should be used to create short-term sub-goals, such as the desired amount of training load increase (or decrease in case of tapering or periodic rest weeks) and the desired mix of training intensities.

Being in the present over fantasizing about the future.

Because long-term plans are fiction, planning detailed workouts for more than the next seven days doesn't make sense. The volume and intensity of the workouts for this next week should be based primarily on our current fitness and fatigue, regardless of how ambitious our goal is. The goal only serves as a general direction to follow but doesn’t impact the speed with which we move in that direction. This makes sure our workouts will always be achievable and minimizes the risk of overtraining or injuries.

Continuous field testing over one-off (lab) tests.

To best match our workouts to our current capabilities, we must know, for example, how fast we can run at given heart rates and how these heart rates and paces relate to subjective levels of effort. Such assessments are done after every workout or even when not training.

Signal over noise.

While GPS – and heart rate measuring technology has advanced and become more accessible to consumers, there are still many issues regarding their accuracy. To prevent false sensor readings from incorrectly influencing training suggestions, there needs to be a deep understanding of the current “normal” range of any combination of heart rate, pace, grade, and other variables. Another aspect of this principle is that runners should only be presented with metrics that directly assist decision-making or motivation, instead of being overwhelmed with meaningless metrics and charts.

We are continuously improving each of these principles in our app and are always curious about your experience with it. Please give it a try and let us know what you think!

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