Among the final, and not unpleasant, tasks of the spring track season was having a handful of one-on-one meetings with kids who wanted a plan for running over the summer to prepare them for cross country in the fall. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I never insist that runners follow any specific plan, nor do I require that they check in with me. I say to them — and I mean it — that the summer months belong to them (and their families), not to me. But I also point out, because it would be irresponsible not to mention it, that there is an inexorable law of distance running: to improve, you have to run. A lot. And the best time to do this running is not during the school year when they’re stressed out and not sleeping enough, but during the summer, when (in theory), they have a lot of time on their hands.
And even then, when they buy in to the idea of running during the summer, I offer mostly general advice about how much to run, how often, and how to gradually increase training to give the body time to adapt. If, after all that practical advice, a kid STILL wants a day-by-day plan, I explain that any plan is only a draft, based on many assumptions about their health, their time, the weather, etc., etc., and that they need to be willing to be flexible when those assumptions change. They need to see and use the plan as a guide, and not be a slave to it. And if, after such words of caution, they’re still pestering me, then, finally, I sit down and construct a spreadsheet for them.
Maybe the reason that I don’t encourage day-by-day plans has as much to do with me as with them. Specifically, it is WAY too much fun creating training plans that are more aspirational than practical. Sitting there in the comfort of one’s office, staring at a vast expanse of empty cells and feeling the awesome power of Excel at my fingertips, I can create in a half hour the most detailed, intricate, and gorgeous training spreadsheets you’ve ever seen, complete with automatic calculation of mileage totals, weekly and monthly averages, long run progressions based on a specific rate of increase, and more.
The spreadsheet knows nothing of life, and it doesn’t take into account life’s ups and downs, it’s unexpected wrinkles. The rows and columns don’t account for the unexpected guests, the 24-hour stomach bug, the jar of pickles you dropped on your foot, the poison ivy, the late night followed by the impossibly busy day. All of which makes me think that the more gorgeous the plan, the less useful it will be when the hard carbon outsole hits the road.
And I’m not just blaming technology, here. I’ve always enjoyed sketching out the big training picture, even when it was with pencil and lined paper. In fact, I still do this sometimes. I’ll take a pad of paper and on the top sheet write Week 1, Week 2, etc. down the left side of the sheet, and then M, T, W, etc. across the top. I’ll write the days of every month in the intersections, usually extending it out by three months or more. And then I’ll start writing mileage targets for each day and week. I’ll draw a square around some days to indicate track workouts, draw triangles for long run days, as circle dates of important races. As I fill in the information, I’ll thrill to the thought of the fitness represented by all those numbers. It’s so easy and so exciting to make the runs longer just by changing a number, to make the weekly mileage totals increase without interruption, like a stock market that never experiences recession.
Caught up in the pleasantness of this armchair exercise, it’s all-too-easy to forget that each number on the sheet must be earned with an hour or more of considerable effort, and that there’s no guarantee that when the time comes to put in that effort, I won’t feel like crap.
No, as I begin my own summer of training and construct my own plan like the ones I give to the kids on the team, I won’t forget that the plan is an idealized version of the future. I’ll try not to over-estimate my capabilities or under-estimate the difficulties. But at the same time, I’ll write something that, if achieved, would make me proud. After all, the act of planning is the first step in taking a dream and making it real. That’s probably the real reason I hesitate to write out day-by-day instructions for these kids. I don’t mind brainstorming with them, and I don’t shy away from offering advice, but like I have, I want them to write their own audacious plans. Maybe their plans won’t be terribly sophisticated, but why do they need to be?
The first summer of committed training can change your life. It sure changed mine when, forty years ago, I decided to run seven miles a day every day all summer. I want to have that experience again. I want the runners I coach to have that experience.
I love spreadsheets, I really do. I work with them all day, and flatter myself that I can create spreadsheets that dazzle and impress. And I love plans, too. I love to map out how to get from here to there. I could spend all day creating spreadsheets and plans, and have a great time doing it.
But at some point, you just need to go out and run.