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Consistency Is King

This is an excerpt from Personal Best Running by Mark Coogan & Scott M. Douglas.

Overall consistency is the big-picture equivalent of 10 weeks of B+ workouts being better than four weeks of A+ workouts. You’re better off regularly running five or six days a week with some quality than fluctuating between nailing a few weeks of great training and barely running the next few weeks.

Think of building fitness like making small but regular investments that compound over time. That doesn’t necessarily mean running every day. In my pro career, I probably never went more than three months without taking a day off. I often took off the day after a big race, even a 5K, partly to mark the end of one phase, and partly because it was time to let loose a bit and celebrate. After a marathon, I might take the next two weeks off, depending on how beat up I was. I encourage the runners I coach to take downtime after their season is over, even if their longest race is a mile. They’ve sacrificed a lot in other parts of their lives. A little time off gives them the opportunity to indulge in activities and interests they may have put aside during intense training and racing.

During a prerace buildup, I occasionally took a day off if I’d put together a solid month of training and could honestly tell myself, “I’m good, I’m just going to take tomorrow off.” The days I missed were usually what would have been a short recovery run. Making a few of them a year into no-run days gave me a little mental recharge for the next block of training.

So what I mean by consistency is following your training program the best you can and not taking days off unless they’re scheduled, you’re injured or sick, or a personal emergency or extreme weather is a true impediment to running that day. You’ll see this principle reflected in the training schedules in the second half of the book. Especially in the higher-mileage programs, I don’t prescribe a lot of off days. I assume you’ve committed to training more seriously for the six or 12 or 16 weeks of the schedule you’re following. Sticking to the schedule the best you can means that if some brief interruption does arise, you’ll feel okay with skipping a day if need be. One missed workout or long run isn’t going to ruin your race. (But if you blow off most of your long runs, we have a problem. “I didn’t feel like it” doesn’t count as a personal emergency.)

Consistency during a prerace buildup also means taking extra care of yourself—regularly getting enough sleep, eating well, and doing your supplementary exercises. These were the periods where I would most often treat myself to sports massage. Being a little more dedicated about tending to your body means you’ll feel better running, and that makes it easier to train consistently.

The biggest benefit from training consistently is improved race performance. There are others. You might look at some of the recovery days in your training schedule and think, “Two to four miles—why bother? Won’t I be better able to consistently do the really important workouts with a little more rest?” With enough experience, most runners find the opposite to be true. Say you did a long run on Sunday and have an interval session coming up on Tuesday. A few easy miles on Monday will help you feel better on Tuesday. Almost nobody feels better on a hard workout if they didn’t run at least a little the day before. That’s why in the marathon schedules, you’ll see I advise an optional day off two days before the race but a short jog the day before.

Overall, if you’ve never gotten into a routine of running almost every day, you might not realize that once you hit that rhythm, most runs feel better than when you’re more sporadic. Consistency also takes away some of the mental stress of training. If you know you’re going to run most days, you don’t waste energy deciding whether to go on any given day; you just have to figure out when and where.

I also recommend being consistent with your running even when you’re not pointing toward a specific race. Many runners have great swings in mileage and intensity as they shift from maintenance running to gearing up for a big race. That’s a bigger stress on your body than starting a dedicated training block from a baseline of decent fitness. If you never feel out of shape, then you can get race-ready surprisingly quickly. That idea underlies the shorter schedules, such as the six-week 5K schedules, later in this book.

My team used this benefit of never starting from scratch during the Covid pandemic. When it became obvious that most of the 2020 racing schedule would be canceled, we switched to sustainable basic training—long runs, tempo runs, and occasional shorter, faster repeats. We trained consistently like this for more than a year. We had short notice late in 2020 that a few indoor track meets would be held. We were able to sharpen up quickly, highlighted by Elle St. Pierre setting the U.S. indoor record for two miles in February 2021.

More Excerpts From Personal Best Running