Under-Trained and Over-Prepared

While geeking out over running videos on YouTube, I came across a team of elite runners in the US called the Tinman Elite. They were talking about the concept of being undertrained and over-prepared. The reference came about when they were asked about the training philosophy of the group and their coach Tom ‘Tinman’ Schwartz. It automatically made me think of Bruce Fordyce’s Comrades advice of arriving at the start line overweight and undertrained rather than slightly over-trained and skinny. While his rivals may argue that he never looked remotely overweight or undertrained, the fact remains that few runners have ever been able to prepare and execute a goal race quite like he could. While of course there are other variables at play, the one thing that stands out to me was his focus and discipline and most impressively his ability to execute on one single day of each year. Anyone that has run consistently can appreciate just how difficult a task this is. Executing on one training block is tough enough, but doing so consistently over so many years, without getting injured, sick or just emotionally burnt-out come race day is a feat in and of itself.

Unfortunately, it is still far too common to see athletes give their best performances in training and then wonder why they don’t meet their own expectations come race day. So often as runners we focus all of our efforts on ticking off certain boxes in training, whether it is set times for your 1 mile repeats, a certain feeling during your tempo run or maybe it’s a long run that you have used with success in the past. While these benchmark workouts can be useful in assessing where you are at in terms of your fitness, they can also push you to dip too far into the finite ‘well’ of energy we all have. No two training blocks will ever be the same, and just because you hit certain times last time, doesn’t mean that you should aim to hit them at all cost to your body and mind this time.  Dipping into the well too often in training, leaves you at risk of not having enough reserves to tap into on race day when things get really tough.

Coach Schwartz uses a great analogy when he talks about the need ‘to keep the ball rolling’, in essence what he is saying is that if you do too much today and are therefore unable to complete the session tomorrow then you have let yourself down as an athlete. The goal of any workout is to stress the body just enough so that when combined with sufficient recovery you improve. The goal of a workout should not be too see just how much you can suffer and break yourself down. His advice is always to leave one rep in the tank.

Too often as runners we look to that one magic workout or session to give us confidence and belief. While anyone can train hard, it takes a patient and disciplined runner to train smart. The intelligent athletes’ confidence is not built on one workout, but instead on the body of the work they have managed to produce over the weeks, months and years preceding their goal event.

This leads us into the second element of what it means to over-prepare. Instead of all your focus being on designing the most impressive workouts, work intelligently day in and day out. Combine lots of easy running with some days of intensity, rest and repeat. The time you have saved on designing sessions worthy of Jim Walmsley’s strava account can then be spent on preparing meticulously for your race. Something as simple as looking at the course profile and the terrain you will be racing on can be incredibly beneficial in designing your key harder sessions as well as your long runs. Knowing the range of temperatures you likely to face, where the aid stations are and what they are likely to stock are simple examples of ways to over-prepare. If the race is likely to be hot, then what strategies can you employ to cool yourself down, what colour clothing should you wear and what can you do in training to best prepare for running in the heat. We often spend so much time worrying about things that are out of our control, like what your competitors are doing or what position you want to end up in and forget that there are a lot of variables that you can actually control. The key point to all of this is that once you have built up a solid foundation of general fitness, a period of race specific training and knowledge accumulation will prepare you both physically and mentally to tackle your race feeling fit, fresh and prepared.