How to Find Your Training Sweet Spot: March’s Training Journal

by Jason Fitzgerald

Finding your training sweet spot can be the holy grail of training. You’ll always know when to push yourself, when to back off the effort level, and how to enjoy running more than ever.

Be Happy with Your Training Sweet Spot

So what’s a training sweet spot anyways?

Simple: it’s when your workouts and volume are at a comfortable level for your ability. You don’t struggle to finish any grueling workouts and the length and frequency of your runs aren’t too challenging.

It’s the boundary line between hard training and easy training. It’s your sweet spot – your legs don’t protest when you get out of bed in the morning. You start every run refreshed and energized. Aches and pains are almost non-existent. You consistently feel great.

For the month of March, I was in my training sweet spot. My overall mileage was comfortable, my workouts were just the right length for me, and I felt good for almost the whole month (c’mon, nobody feels good all the time).

March by the Numbers

I ran 258 miles in March – slightly more than what I did in February. What set this month apart is that I raced an 8k on the 11th and ran significantly more workouts. Many of them are what I like to call mini-workouts, but they’ve contributed to me feeling pretty fit at this point.

Let’s take a look at the workouts:

  • 11 miler with a 6 x 1′ fartlek @ 5k pace (on the trails)
  • Track workout: 2 x 800m, 2 x 400m, 4 x 200m (Split 2:30, 2:29, 70, 69, all 32’s)
  • 11 miler with 2 x 10′ @ Tempo (on the trails)
  • 14 miler with 4 x 1′ @ 10k pace (on the trails)
  • 11 miler with a 22:46 Tempo (on the trails)
  • Track workout: 8k @ Tempo in 28:27

You might be wondering why I’m keeping my volume slightly lower this month and focusing on more consistent workouts. The answer, of course, is that I’m trying to focus on faster workouts. If I focused on mileage my workouts would have to be dialed back and I don’t want that right now. With a Warrior Dash and duathlon next month, I want to get comfortable running fast and then focus on mileage over the summer (when running fast is more difficult because of the heat).

One way that I’m maintaining my endurance with less volume is through cycling: in March, I cycled over six hours (not bad for starting later in the month and blowing out a tire in the last week!). Not only will this extra cross training help boost my aerobic fitness, but it’ll help me do well in next month’s duathlon.

I’ve found that occasional breaks in running-only training can dramatically increase your fitness. In the past, I’ve used triathlon training to make a breakthrough in my running performances.

Another goal in March was to continue more barefoot and minimalist training. I found a synthetic turf field about a mile from home that I’m using for barefoot strides 1-2 times per week. I can’t recommend barefoot strides enough – if you have the time and ability to do them, do it! After a few weeks you’ll feel great.

I also started wearing my Nike Streak XC flats for workouts. Back in college all of our workouts were done in racing flats which helped us stay healthy and prepare for races. It’s something that most post-collegiate runners inevitably get away from and I’m trying to get back into the groove of running comfortably in very little shoe.

It’s a work in progress as I gradually increase both the distance and intensity of the running that I do in them. They’re very light at only 5.5 ounces and offer virtually no support so safety is my #1 goal.

How to Find Your Own Sweet Spot

There are three things you need to figure out to find your training sweet spot. Once you’re at what I like to call your “baseline” in each category you’ll find you can train very comfortably.

  • Mileage baseline
  • Fast Workout baseline
  • Strength Workout baseline

Your mileage baseline is the level at which you’re comfortable at but not struggling to get in the volume. Some of the runners that I coach have a baseline in the 30-40 miles per week range but as we’re increasing fitness for a marathon we’re gradually approaching the 50 miles per week mark.

My personal mileage baseline is about 60-65 miles per week – which is just about what I averaged for March when you consider I took two days completely off from running.

Determining your workout baseline is a little trickier, especially if you are consistently training for different types of races from the 5k to the marathon. Then your workouts will always be different.

How do you know what’s comfortable if you’re either doing 6 x 800m track intervals at 5k pace or 10 mile marathon-pace runs?

To do this, go back in your training journal and find your workouts during each training cycle. You want to look at those workouts in the middle of your build-up – not the hardest ones at the very end or the easier ones at the beginning. Those workouts will be similar to your workout baseline.

Once you have those “middle” workouts for all your training cycles (5k, half-marathon, marathon, etc.) then you can just average them together.

Need an example? You got it!

For my marathon training, a workout from the middle of my training is a 30 minute tempo run. In late February, I ran an interval workout on the track: 4x800m + 2x400m. Neither of these workouts were the longest or easiest during these training cycles.

Now let’s average them together: A “sweet spot” workout might be a 15 minute tempo + 4x400m. You can see that this likely won’t be too difficult for me based on my past workout history. It will be a small win – an achievable training goal that gives me confidence going into longer and harder workouts.

Finding your strength workout baseline is a little easier. Simply do the same workouts but at a lesser weight. These won’t be “building workouts” – meaning you’re not trying to get stronger like I did in January and February.

If you do body weight strength sessions then you just have to do fewer repetitions. The workouts shouldn’t make you too sore but they’ll keep you at a good fitness baseline that will enable you to jump into a more strenuous strength program if you want.

A Word of Warning…

You can’t stay at your sweet spot long-term because you won’t see continued fitness gains. Training needs to come in cycles and follow a logical progression, so after a period of being comfortable with your workouts and mileage you have to increase the workload.

Depending on your goal, this may mean running more volume while keeping your workouts comfortable, or doing the opposite by intensifying your fast sessions and maintaining your current mileage.

Just ask yourself, “Do I have a race coming up in 1-2 months?” If so, you may want to intensify your workouts. Otherwise, build a solid base and prepare your body for harder workouts by running more. Need help with this? Consider a custom race plan.

My plan is to continue at a slightly higher mileage for the next 6 weeks while still running similar workouts. I’m hoping to find a 5k or 8k race during the beginning of May and then of course there’s the Warrior Dash and duathlon.

After May I’ll take a few days to regroup and build an enormous base of miles over the summer for the fall. Though I’m not sure what my plans are for the end of the year. Stay tuned!

How did your March go? After the first three months of 2012, have you accomplished a stretch goal? What’s holding you back?

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