Plans, and how to change them / by Edmund Milly

Sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you intended. Last time I wrote on this blog, I outlined a bunch of general training principles which could be applied to a plan in more specific ways, and I said that next time, I’d share my training plan geared toward developing speed in shorter distance events (namely, 5K to 10K). But of course, that hasn’t appeared, and the reason why is that I seem to be stuck in this horrible pattern that goes kind of like this: 

  1. Make a really nice, sensible plan that I don’t think is over-ambitious, but which incorporates a few different targeted kinds of training that I think will have a positive effect on my speed.
  2. Attempt to implement said plan, and find that - despite the mileage being much lower than it was all summer, and despite the higher-stress activities being executed in small doses and properly spaced out - I just don’t seem to be recovering properly. My legs feel tired and stiff, and I’m not getting any faster.
  3. Completely redesign the training plan such that it puts lower stress on the body, or spaces the stress out a little more.

The first plan that I made is one that, objectively, I would stand by. It was hardly revolutionary: 42 or 49 miles per week, divided up evenly, in Prospect Park, with about 20% of that mileage in the form of high intensity repetitions and intervals, and a regimen of calisthenics and plyometrics that targeted running muscles. The fact that it wasn’t working for me should have been a wake-up call, after a summer where 80 MPW felt pretty manageable.

But nothing has really felt right in my body these past few weeks. I often wonder if I could pinpoint the start of that to a routine 12-mile run I was doing on September 25, where I suddenly got a very surprising, very clear signal that I was pushing the envelope too far. I was about 6 miles into this run, and suddenly I slowed down dramatically and felt like my effort level went through the roof for no reason. Other than slowing down, I ignored those warnings and finished the 12 miles, because hey, I am a tough guy, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my Baltimore Marathon success by slacking on mileage.

What an idiotic way to respond to a very clear message from my body! And how dearly I’ve paid for it. All Fall I’ve been fighting off illnesses (including the one that sabotaged my Baltimore Marathon finish) and running hasn’t felt right since September 25. Am I experiencing overtraining syndrome? Maybe this is pride talking, but that’s a little hard for me to swallow, given that 80 (mostly very easy) MPW is not even a particularly high training volume for someone who has run 16 straight weeks of 200 MPW. Moreover, Maffetone has led me to believe that if you don’t cross the aerobic threshold (as I really had not in the peak weeks of my marathon training), then your body can handle a much higher training volume.

Or could it be New York’s fault? In the past few months, I have heard an incredible number of anecdotal reports that all agree on one thing: when you move to NYC, you get sick, almost continuously, for a year or two, and after that, your immune system is much stronger. The subway is frequently mentioned as a culprit, overloading your body with strange germs. My own theory, from observing this phenomenon in others, has always been that the immune system of the new New Yorker is taxed by the huge amount of stress/cortisol produced by living in such a place. But I don’t feel too psychologically fazed by New York: I like where I live, I like my job, I have friends and a great domestic partner, so why should I be so stressed? And so I think, well, maybe it really is all the germs.

Whatever the case, it’s been a rough Fall. I went from 50 MPW with workouts every other day, to 40 MPW with workouts every third day, to low impact cross-training every day with lower-impact treadmill incline workouts every third day, to - where am I at again? I don’t even know. I am definitely taking a break from running right now. The purpose of that break is definitely to recover sufficiently to start running again. In the meantime, I am still trying to figure out a good training plan for a runner who does not currently consider it prudent to run much. It may be time to work on my swimming again (ugh, the logistics!)

The consolation prize is one for which I’m grateful: despite all of these challenges to my health, I have felt pretty good about all of my singing performances this Fall. I’ve been sick, but I’ve done what needed to be done (sleep, humidify, neti pot, nyquil, tea, etc.), and, while I have sung with a cold, I haven’t felt that any of my performances were really compromised. Ultimately, we all know I’m a better singer than I am a runner. I’ve faced these challenges as a singer before; my technique is better; my experience runs deeper. It just takes more to mess me up! Thank God for that, because even if it has been a disastrous Fall for my running, it’s been a pretty great one for my singing.

What can be learned from all this? The best you can do when your body just isn’t doing what you want it to do is make a new plan. The more experience you have with injuries and training setbacks, the more likely your new plan is to successfully rehabilitate you and get you back to a more normal routine. One of the best and worst things about my running life has been that I lack experience with injuries… now I’m just catching up.

Hope this Holiday season brings you more health and happiness than stress and illness!