The Goldilocks Principle: How to Plan Training that’s “Just Right”

by Jason Fitzgerald

How do you know when you should be running easy, hard, or resting completely?How Do You Know

That’s the million dollar question! If we knew the answer, injury rates would plummet and runners could accurately peak for their goal race, every time.

Alas, it’s not easy. Each of us are individuals and respond differently to the many stimuli we subject ourselves to during training: weekly volume, individual workout intensity, density of workouts, overall life stress, sleep, running surface, and so on.

These aspects of training are all pieces of the running puzzle and impact your ability to recover, run fast, and feel good.

Some runners bounce back quickly from long runs but experience lasting soreness after interval workouts. For others, the opposite is true. It all depends on your particular physiological profile and history as a runner.

Because of this, I get frustrated when I can’t answer questions like:

How much should I run every day?

Should I run 3 days or 5 days per week?

How do I feel less tired when I’m running fast?

Can you break down exactly what runners should do every day by age group?

These are incredibly complex questions that can only be answered after a thorough look into a runner’s background: race history, injury profile, schedule, past training, favorite workouts, and more variables.

This is why when I write a custom training plan for any runner, I ask over 20 questions in my Runner Questionnaire about their training. It’s essential to get the best possible snapshot of their fitness level, history, goals, strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.

Without that information, I can’t answer the tough questions.

But even without a detailed questionnaire, you can still follow a set of principles to help plan your training if you’re up to the task.

The Goldilocks Principle

In an ideal world, we’d all do training that’s “just right” – the right intensities, mileage, recovery, and density of workouts (how many you do per week). But most runners have trouble figuring that out.

Run too much, too fast and you’ll get hurt or over-trained.

Run too little, too slow and your fitness won’t improve.

The Goldilocks Principle encourages you to train at the right level (more on how to do that soon) so your fitness is progressing and you’re getting faster – without dramatic increases in mileage or workout intensity.

It’s a key concept that was brought up over and over again while I was getting my USA Track & Field coaching certification (though their terminology wasn’t as fun).

Goldilocks Principle

Every time you run a long run or do a key workout, you’re subjecting your body to fatigue and muscle damage. You actually reduce your fitness right after a workout because of this! But if you allow adequate recovery, your body supercompensates and gets faster and stronger.

That boost in fitness doesn’t last forever, though – if your running doesn’t follow proper progression, you’ll experience negative adaptation and you’ll lose your fitness.

The green line in the custom illustration above shows ideal training. The stimulus provides an appropriate amount of fatigue and allows the body to supercompensate (in other words, get faster!).

Many runners don’t train hard enough so their gains are few and far between. That’s what the yellow line shows – training that just doesn’t cut it. If you only run 2-3 days per week or don’t do any structured workouts, you probably fall into this category.

Then there’s the red line, which illustrates over-training because of the treacherous “three too’s:” doing too much, too fast, too soon. The level of fatigue is beyond what the body can handle and it takes a long time to recover. Supercompensation is blunted, there are no fitness gains, and many runners will develop an overuse injury.

Think back to your training over the last six months – has it adhered to the Goldilocks Principle? Are you running too much or too little?

Answering that question can be difficult for many runners who don’t know how much they should running or what workouts to do. But there are a few guidelines to help you plan training that’s “just right.”

How to Plan Training that’s “Just Right”

If you want your running to be appropriately challenging, you first have to figure out your baseline workload. This is simply the total volume of work that you’re currently comfortable with per week.

It’s a combination of mileage, intensity, and ancillary work. A typical runner might feel good doing:

  • 20 miles per week in 4 runs, with a 9 mile long run
  • 1 fast workout (i.e., a 20 minute tempo run)
  • Two core workouts and one strength workout

For this amount of work to be your baseline, you should feel totally comfortable doing it – it’s not very challenging, you’re not overly fatigued, and you don’t feel like you’re risking an injury.

But your baseline isn’t ideal training in the long-term. If you look at the graph above, it’s the yellow line – the stimulus is too small to produce significant gains in fitness.

So you need to increase your total workload from the baseline during your training cycle. In the beginning, start at your baseline workload but gradually run more miles with slightly faster workouts over 4-8 weeks.

Here are a few general rules for increasing your workload:

  • Add one mile to your long run every two weeks.
  • Increase your weekly mileage by 5-15% (you can be more aggressive if you’re below your baseline workload, but be cautious when you’re doing more than your baseline) every two weeks.
  • Faster workouts can increase in length or intensity every two weeks, but not both. Add distance/speed cautiously.

You’ll see that I like using “adaptation weeks” that help your body get used to increased workloads. They are repeated weeks of training where you do nothing different except run the same schedule as the week before.

It’s a strategy I use with Boot Camp members, along with determining your baseline workload, to increase mileage safely and prevent injuries.

For Best Results, Cycle Your Training

Now that you know your approximate baseline workload, it’s simple to add a little bit more mileage and intensity to your training program. You can challenge yourself by doing this for several months during peak training for your goal race to produce fantastic results.

But a word of caution: you can’t train above your baseline all the time. You’ll ultimately need to take some time off to rest and recover (both physically AND mentally).

This is an example of cycling your running: alternating between easy, moderate, and hard training. It looks something like this:

  • 6 weeks of training at your baseline workload (the introductory phase)
  • 8 weeks of training above your baseline workload (the peak phase)
  • 2 weeks of training at or below your baseline workload (the taper phase – right before your goal race)
  • 2 weeks of time off (the recovery phase)

After the recovery phase, you can repeat the process outlined above, varying the details and mileage to get even faster.

Over time, your baseline workload will gradually increase so you can do more mileage and faster workouts – and the effort level will feel the same!

When I was in high school, my baseline workload was about 30 miles and 3 hard workouts per week.

When I was in college, my baseline workload was about 55-60 miles and 3 harder workouts per week.

Now, my baseline workload is about 65-70 miles and two hard, longer workouts per week, with a lot more strength work.

It’s taken me nearly 15 years to build to this level and learn what works for me personally. These lessons have helped me get to where I am today (and I wish I figured them out earlier to prevent a lot of injuries!). They’re a big reason why I haven’t had a significant injury in nearly four years.

I use these same principles to create highly personalized training plans that help runners accomplish more than they ever dreamed possible. Runners like Mark and Amber.

If you’re curious about what you could accomplish with training that’s “just right,” see more details about a custom training plan.

Ultimately, the goal of a macro-training cycle is to push yourself beyond the baseline workload you’re used to to produce adaptations. And the goal of several training cycles is to increase your baseline workload so you can continue improving.

That’s the stuff that consistent improvement is made from.

Do you spend too much time training too little, too much, or right at your baseline workload? Let us know in the comments!

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{ 3 comments }

Trent

Good stuff. After my first marathon last June, one for which I was not prepared, I decided to build gradually. Starting in August I ran 15-20 miles per week with 0-1 hard workouts per week. After a month I went to 20-25 miles with no hard workouts for 2 months. Then I went to 25-30 miles a week for six weeks. Then I went to 30-35 miles per week with either a speed or a tempo run mid-week. I do a “recovery week” once per month–cutting miles and effort. So far it’s worked well. My long runs have gotten easier. My speed has increased substantially. Other than a slight achilles problem after a half marathon in November (I took off a precautionary week), I’ve had no injury problems at all.

This concept works.

Jason Fitzgerald

Great example Trent. It’s hard to do too much, too soon when you know your baseline workload!

Marty Roddy

I especially liked the idea of cycling the training effort levels. If a clear and open plan is developed and reviewed in conjunction with your LIFE then injuries can be thwarted.
The Charlottesville Marathon is my next target so I train on rolling hills and take it easy much more than any “training” Stay fit and get in shape to go the distance at http://www.charlottesvillemarathon.com and have a lot of fun

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