It can be easy to turn running into another job or obligation depending on how you approach the sport. If you are the type of person who is a bit of a perfectionist, there is nothing wrong with following a rigid training plan and always striving to hit your goals. However, if you tend to get a bit more burned out than other runners who approach the sport in a more relaxed manner, you might want to try to find the joy in simply making movement a part of your day.
Training plans can be extremely effective in motivating runners as well as avoiding injuries, but it’s also good to run for the sake of running. There is a time and a place for a training plan and we talked to one coach to find out when to ditch the plan and just get out there and run.
WHEN YOU NEED A PLAN
While runners don’t always need to follow a strict training plan, they are definitely useful. If you are signing up for a specific race or setting a different goal for yourself — such as pursuing a new personal best — tackling it with a training plan is almost always recommended. Whether you get this plan from an app or a coach — and even if you adapt it a bit depending on your schedule and base — a training plan takes you to the next level.
“A training plan is like a formal roadmap to get you from where you are now to where you’d like to be in the future,” explains Jason Fitzgerald, head coach of Strength Running and host of the Strength Running podcast. “It progresses in difficulty and should be defined as ‘training’ rather than simply ‘exercise.’ For that reason, training [with a plan] is more challenging than running for fun or general fitness.”
This distinction is a good indicator of whether or not you need to follow a plan. If you are simply running for the sake of moving or using it as a way to warm up for a larger workout, you probably don’t need a plan. Fitzgerald likens a training plan to driving directions to a new restaurant. A lot of it depends on your prior knowledge and familiarity with the running landscape.
“If you know what to do, then you don’t need those directions,” he illustrates. “But if you’re attempting to drive to a new restaurant you’ve never been to before, then you’ll need directions.”
If you’re looking to improve or run faster, a training plan is most likely for you. If you are a new runner, the idea of a training plan may seem daunting. However, even the most basic plan helps you build a strong base, while avoiding injury and taking on too many miles, too fast. In this case, you are looking to progress similar to an experienced runner looking to take on longer distances.
WHEN TO RUN FOR THE SAKE OF IT
Of course, just because you don’t start with a training plan doesn’t mean you can’t jump into one — or vice versa. In fact, Fitzgerald says the best time to ditch the plan and just run is after a big race or once you’ve met a goal. Also, if you are feeling worn out by the sport and need a way to rekindle your love of running, getting out there for the sake of moving can be a great way to take a step back without losing your fitness.
“You don’t always want to be progressing or engaging in challenging training,” confirms Fitzgerald. “For example, after a big race is a good time to run with less structure and formality. For a few weeks — or even a month or two — runners can focus on having fun without stressing on training metrics like pace and distance.”
Though you shouldn’t expect too many gains without controlled workouts and set distances, most runners won’t lose the base they’ve built. This type of running is great for someone who sporadically has openings through the day to get in a workout; throwing your shoes on and going for a run even if you only have 30 minutes still means getting in miles.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Even if you have one goal race per year, you can still switch things up and take a few months to run for fun without stressing about hitting a certain pace or mileage. The great thing about running is there is no one way to approach the sport that makes you more or less of a runner. If your only goal is to lace up and get moving for a half hour a day, you are doing just as well as someone following a strict plan and training for a marathon. Understanding your motivation and current outlook is key when deciding whether or not you need a training plan. Checking in with yourself every few months is a great way to make sure you are getting what you need as a runner and set yourself up for success — whether that success looks like setting a new PR or simply striving to enjoy every run you take.