As a coach, the one fundamental principle I look to communicate to athletes is that of purpose. Purpose is something every training plan should be built upon and consistently referenced week to week. A training plan full of sessions with no specific purpose is like a complex cake recipe with no set order. The end result may look something like a cake, but the details and intricacies you come to expect are either non-existent or add no value to the overall piece.
So how do you add value and purpose to your sessions?
Define the goal of your session.
Are you recovering from your weekend long run? Are you working on your running economy? Are you looking to stress your V0 ?max? Are you stressing your lactate threshold? Establishing the priorities within the session will allow you to structure the workout and the rest of your runs throughout the week.
Assessing priorities also means time thinking about where you may run. If your upcoming race is on a trail and you're unfamiliar with trail running it may be a good time to include one or two sessions a week where you are working on your trail running skills. This can include time spent negotiating technical terrain, learning how to run and hike uphill and becoming comfortable running downhill.
There is little point being super fit if you don't have the necessary trail skills to maximise your fitness during your run.
2. Once you've defined the goal of the session, look to maximise the time spent targeting that goal.
Remember that the purpose of many workouts is to accumulate as much time running at the required intensity. The goal is not to hurt. If the workout becomes immediately about hurting then chances are you are missing the purpose of the workout and failing to accumulate load at the desired intensity.
E.g: going too hard in the first 20 seconds of the first 3-minute hill rep of a V0? max session will do nothing but fatigue your skeletal muscles and subsequently ensure you're not able to produce an effort in the remaining intervals capable of maxing out your cardiovascular system. Remember the goal was not to hurt, the goal was to accumulate time at V0? max.
Do all my runs have to have a purpose?
The short answer is no, but even an unstructured run serves a purpose. Keeping easy days easy will ensure you're giving yourself adequate recovery between workouts. It will also ensure you're able to produce the desired effort during your workout days. Some of the best runs happen when you're exploring a new trail with no pressures of time or intensity. So if you're popping out for a run for the sake of getting out the door, prioritise easy running and leave the workouts for a different day with a dedicated plan. This will ensure you're able to monitor load during the week and reduce the likelihood of overtraining or injury.
4. All this talk about intensity, but how do I know I'm running at the correct intensity?
A simple way of managing intensity is referencing your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and your breathing rate. RPE (out of 10) is a great tool to embrace across all areas of running and particularly trail running as much of a session can be spent on variable terrain and variable grade. RPE and trail running work so well as you are often running in places with limited satellite reception, receiving inconsistent feedback in terms of pace and distance and it also accounts for the off chance your watch runs out of battery during your run and you have to rely on self-management.
Managing your running with RPE teaches you to develop the metric between your ears, which is very beneficial on race day and during training as watches and other gadgets are essentially trying to quantify what we already know within our brain and body. Of course, specific races with time goals require specific pace targets, so manage your output accordingly by using the tools you have available. Here's a guide to how RPE may apply to you and your running.
Talk test: Able to tell a story
Breathing: Rhythmic, non-laboured
Talk test: Comfortable conversation
Purpose: High end aerobic
Breathing: Deep and laboured
Talk test: 2 - 3 sentences
Purpose: Lactate threshold
Breathing: Deep and laboured - faster than high end
Talk test: 5 word sentence
Purpose: V0? max
Breathing: Short and rapid
Talk test: F@$k.
Next time you lace up, have a think about what you're trying to achieve with your session and how the session may help or hinder your training. Assess each session on its merit and establish the why (purpose) and your intent before you commence.