The most common posts I see in our Facebook group  and the HCS online Run Club are workout posts. We’ve all done them- snapped a screenshot of our data with some motivational phrase or hashtag. These are great as they are proof of what we have done. It’s the new way to held accountable for sticking to the plan. However, as much as a picture can say a 1000 words, are they the right words. After all, it is just a snap shot- a small look at one day or workout. Often we are left wondering what’s beyond the borders of the picture frame?

I can picture your faces now (pun intended).

“Coach, WTF are you talking about?”

Well, it’s simple- the basic message of today is to keep everything in context. Or, see the whole picture. After seeing thousands of said posts, I can tell you that in the captions, there’s one of two responses.One is, “I am so ready. I crushed it!” The other is, “I am devastated. I missed this workout and all my fitness is gone.” The truth is, we don’t know. As soon as people comment and ask questions, the surrounding details usually emerge and like everything else in life- the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In other words, a single workout doesn’t typically make or break an entire training block.

The beginning of this training segment is a perfect example. I have gradually been dipping my toes into the ocean of instagram (@lukehumphreyhmm) and been trying to chronicle my buildup for the CIM marathon/US Championships in December. I had a series of SOS days that I thought about how to specifically show how I take a look at my own training and how 25 years of running has allowed me to know when it’s a bad workout and when it’s time to freak out.

First SOS:

20 mile long run. This was done on a hilly route and we got after it pretty good. The backdrop to this workout is that it’s one I had circled on the calendar. It was early in the buildup and I have only does a couple “easy” workouts. This was one I could start to see where I was at, in terms of fitness.

As you can see, we weren’t messing around! It was a good one, but I circled it as a big workout and treated it with importance. Plus I was pretty fresh, with not any real fatigue in my legs. The other note I should make is that the weather was perfect. It was about 50 degrees and cloudy with no real wind.

Fast forward a few days to our next workout days. This was a 10 mile cutdown, where we start roughly 45 seconds slower than goal marathon pace and progressively cut down to goal Marathon pace. This sounds like an easy workout and it can definitely be a trap workout. By that I mean it’s not a workout that you put a ton of thought into and may overlook.

Then all of a sudden you are halfway through the workout and struggling!

Now since this is still early in my build up and I am running more and more miles, i had planned on taking the next two days pretty easy. So after two recovery days, we tied the line and the results are below.

Now looking at the workout from afar, it looks pretty good. In fact if you add up the total time, I’m within 10 seconds of what I should have been. However, when you take a look at the splits, things in the last couple miles didn’t go well at all! My last two miles were supposed to be at 5:15 per mile, but the 9th mile was 5:23 and the 10th mile was even slower!

Not how you want to finish the workout!

This this is the point where I see a lot of people lose all sense of the big picture. All they focus on is that snapshot into this one particular workout. Right now, some people have completely forgotten about the workout they crushed a few days ago and focused solely on that last two miles that went rough.

So, is my fitness suddenly taking a nosedive?

Of course not. I ran a really hard long run a few days before and simply didn’t recover enough from it. Looking back at my log, my morning runs of 12 miles were just too fast. Instead of staying at 7:00 per mile like I had originally planned, I let the high of hitting a big workout inflate my ego (I know, hard to believe!) and I ended up hammering away at 6:15-30 pace for the next two days. Couple that with overlooking this workout, I simply just wasn’t prepared to have a good workout. Now, is that a bad thing? Of course not, as long as you learn from the mistakes you make and don’t hit the panic button at every split that’s not exactly on!

Ok, so what happened next?

Well, I looked at the situation and are some humble pie. I realized I wasn’t as fit as thought I was. On the other hand, I didn’t panic, either. At the time, I still had over 8 weeks to go before the marathon. This can be an eternity. So, instead of doubling down on my mistake, I realized I really needed to make sure I was recovering between workouts. That meant the basics- hydration, refueling, and rest. Then, I took my next two easy days, believe it or not, easy. I was probably averaging 20 seconds slower overall than I was before the cutdown.

After two days of this, we had another SOS day. This time it was a 3×3 Miles at goal marathon pace with one mile jog recovery. This is a pretty big workout. Where I found myself in the approach was somewhere between my mindset going into the long run and the cutdown. I didn’t want to crush it, rather just hit the paces as smooth as possible. I didn’t need to prove anything, just execute the paces. My fitness was on the right trajectory and I just needed to keep it that way.

You can see the results below. Ultimately, I found my rhythm for the “snapshot”- the workout, but I also figured out landscape mode to get more of the big picture.

Since then, as I have approached everything with more of an even keel, everything has been smoother. Its incredibly easy to just look at the right here and now. I’ve done it and will continue to catch myself doing it. Sometimes, I think runners feel like they are making excuses- like even though the weather was 20 degrees above normal, I should have just been tougher. The problem with that is that it’s an awful thin line between being tough and foolish. When you are looking at the variables, they aren’t excuses and they don’t mean you are weak.

They are simply variables that were involved.

The problem with ignoring those variables is that you’ll always come to the conclusion that “I’m not tough enough” or I’m not fit. When we do that, we just try to grind it out even more and we multiply the mistakes we were already making. This just leads to more frustration, a negative mindset, and eventually a physical breakdown.

With that I want you to take the following tidbits:

  1. regardless of a great workout or a tough workout, keep note of all the surrounding factors, not just the workout itself. Replicate the things that made for a great workout (what you can) and take note of the things that you didn’t do so well leading up to rough workouts. Be honest with yourself and learn from the mistakes. It’s the only way you will grow and become a better runner.
  2. Factors are not excuses. They are variables. They are part of what makes us either successful or frustrated.
  3. Make the changes ASAP. Continuing to make the same mistakes is just stubbornness on your part.
  4. If you have a coach, keep the notes in your log so a coach can see them. Just seeing splits is like telling you what the stock market will do next week. At the very least, keep a log with meaningful details for yourself.
  5. With all that said, don’t over analyze. The problem with all the technology is that it gives us so much data. Even though something can be measured, it doesn’t mean that it’s worth keeping track off. Sometimes bad workouts just happen. Those are just as important as the good ones. What do I look at
  6. One workout is one thing, but 3, 4, 5 in a row is cause for concern. If you find yourself in a rut, then something has got to change.
  7. If you have a workout circled on your schedule as one you just gotta crush, that’s fine. Just don’t have two or three in a row circled. Many of you put your heart and soul into the 10 mile tempo. That’s great, but that means your preceding strength work is simply putting it in as efficiently as possible and the long run that weekend isn’t a barn burner. It’s just too much stress over a 6 day period. Pick and choose the workouts you know you can get after is key.