Coach and Athlete must pay attention to how you are feeling. From Coach Greg McMillan


Two conversations. Two reminders that driven athletes can be their own worst enemies. (And sometimes us coaches aren’t helping that either.)

In both cases, the runners were driven to succeed but were, in fact, not succeeding. What they needed was a lesson we all can use from time to time and it’s all about empowering the runner to coach themselves.

In other words, the athlete is the one actually feeling the running so she’s in the best position to make on the fly adjustments to her training plan. From my experience, this openness to adjusting based on how you feel provides a big “aha” moment for many runners and that’s when I see big breakthroughs in training and racing results.

A quick note from two interactions I had with runners recently.

In the first case, Trisha was concerned about running too much on her longest long run because in previous marathon plans, she had become so fatigued from the longest run that by the time the race came around, she was spent. That is very valuable information that should inform future training.

I said, “No problem. My plans have a range for each long run, so you can just run the lower end of the range and you’ll be good to go. And, if you ever feel you need a bit less than the plan says, that’s okay too because the main thing is that you are healthy and excited for the race. You’ll do enough long runs across the plan that one or two that are shorter won’t be a big deal.”

Her response was that she couldn’t do that because it was her nature to “follow the plan to a T.”

Adjusting just wasn’t in her DNA. So, what I learned is that she would “muscle through” her longest long runs just to follow the plan even though she always ended up too tired for the race.

She just really had a hard time wrapping her head around the idea that she could (and should) adjust the training based on how she felt because to her that would mean she wasn’t following the plan. We were stuck in an endless loop.

Does this ring true for you sometimes? It’s a hard thing for most of us. We want to succeed and complete the plan “to a T” but we must be open to adjusting based on our results.

Become open and the quality of your training and racing will take a big leap forward.

I convinced Trisha to give it a try and once she actually did adjust the plan (one of her long runs), she was so excited (and I think a little bit relieved). She felt so much better because she didn’t dig herself into a hole by overtraining on the long run and now is more motivated for training.

In the second case, Charles was a member of my Run Team but then left to work with a personal on-site coach (not a McMillan coach). The new training system Charles used was a bit more data driven. Run X miles at Y pace and we’ll score you on a chart that shows whether you are being successful in the training or not. No range in distance based on how you feel that day. And no range in paces either. Just a firm “X miles at Y pace.”

The problem is that runners are not robots. So some days, you may be tired from work or your child was up sick all night so doing that X-mile run at Y pace would really be more of a stressful workout than when you were fresh for the run. Sound familiar?

But, the chart doesn’t know that. It just says, success or failure. And a “success” might actually be a failure. You might hit those splits but it took a Herculean effort to do so. This is completely different than hitting the splits with the correct effort.

Unfortunately for Charles, he often couldn’t hit the times because he was fatigued (mostly from a very busy life) so this left him feeling like he was constantly failing (per the charts). Not very motivating. So, then his natural response is to run harder to hit the times and thus have a “successful” run by his chart but he would really have a failed run because he was overtraining. The young coach wasn’t able to tease this out because he was fixated on the charts and not on how the athlete was feeling.

Charles is back on the Run Team and we had a great conversation about the need to have training flow with his demanding life schedule. Immediately, he had his “aha” moment where he knew one of workout was a success, even though the numbers suggested otherwise. He simply knew he was “dog tired” (his words) so just getting in a shorter run at a slower pace was a big win. And by adjusting the run (shorter and slower), he was able to recover faster and then had a great workout two days later.

Both of these athletes provided an impetus to put together this list of what runners must do to better coach themselves, so the training can be optimized on an ongoing basis.

The Runner Must:

✅ Be disciplined but use common sense when it comes to a training plan. The plan is the road map but every runner – from beginner to Olympian – ends up needing to adjust the plan.

✅ Be attentive and adaptive to how you are feeling. Too many times, runners compartmentalize training and don’t pay attention to how they are feeling before and after (immediately, a few hours and a day or two after). They simply check off the completed workout. But, it’s this attentiveness to how you constantly feel and how that relates to your running that provides the information you should use to adapt your plan for better results.

✅ Be a better evaluator. A run is NOT just about X miles at Y pace. It’s about the effort required to do that run and how that compares to the expected effort. The same pace but a higher effort is a red flag and may require adjustments going forward. Likewise, the same pace but a lower effort is also instructive. The point is that no chart or points system can tease out how the run felt or was executed. Only the runner knows this.

✅ Be ready to move and modify. A great training system provides a way for the runner to pre-plan for situations where training will be compromised. (For example, the McMillan training system allows you to simply drag and drop workouts so it’s easy to move them around.) This helps avoid situations where the run is set up for failure from the start. Next, the runner must be empowered to modify the planned training based on how she feels, the weather, terrain, etc. It’s an ongoing evaluation of what is ideal and what is reality.

✅ Be successful by learning to flow. Life is unpredictable, so your plan must be too. I have coached National Champions and Olympians, and, in every case, we had to skip workouts in order for the training to flow with how they were feeling. It’s just natural that a runner will not complete each and every workout across 3-4 months. Be open to this instead of being so rigid that you “muscle through” when you really need to back off to gather steam for a better result later.

✅ Be open to learning and enjoy a lifetime of success. One of the most satisfying parts of my work with athletes is when they begin to see that the training process is not an equation but a dance. It’s about matching the training to what’s happening in your life and how you are feeling. Once you get it. Once you are open to making smart adjustments based on how you feel and what life is throwing at you, then you’ll see the quality of your training increase and your motivation soar.

As a runner and coach, I feel like I’m always learning and then re-learning these ideas that make training and racing more successful. Trisha and Charles reminded me that this lesson is a key one and we should all (runners and coaches alike) take note of it from time to time so we stay on track for our goals.


About TriCoachDara

I have been a multi-sport coach since 2001 and during that time I have trained hundreds of athletes for whom triathlon, running, biking, fitness and health must fit into very busy lives. My clientele includes lawyers, doctors, full time mothers, office workers, school teachers, nurses, and entrepreneurs – and every one of them has a jam packed schedule. My goal is to help each athlete strike a balance between training to their maximum potential and balancing the various other aspects of their lives, as well as to provide all the information they need to perform at their best and stay healthy and injury free.
This entry was posted in Blog Entries. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s