As a coach, it would be great if there was a right way to train someone for a marathon or a 5k, but our sport is much more complex than that. Can accepting we don’t have all the answers help us improve?

We all want the perfect training plan or coach, but even the best-laid plans can be ground to a halt by injury, illness or just not improving as hoped.

Looking at studies into injury rates shows that for many it is just par for the course. One looking at rear and front foot strikers from Harvard university found a 74% injury rate for the athletes in their study in the past year.

Other studies aren’t as high but it’s certainly very common for runners to pick up niggles and pains.

Is it always a clear cause and effect?

Yes, there are a lot of common factors that lead to injuries. Ramping up training too quickly, not recovering between sessions or doing your easy runs too hard are but a few. Even when athletes stick to ‘the plan’, injury and illness can strike.

This has led some to describe running coaching as an art form, rather than a science. Yes, we know a lot about our sport and the scientific knowledge is ever increasing, but will it ever become an exact science? Doubtful.

Accepting Complexity

So should we just accept that running is just luck and go out and run however we want? Of course not. Whilst it may be an extremely complex matter, it doesn’t mean we should give up hope.

Imagine a ship in a storm. At times it might feel pointless trying to steer with the rudder, but that doesn’t mean we stop altogether. We do what we can to keep the ship going in the right direction or just staying upright.

Rather than dismaying at the complexity, we need to embrace it.

Everyone is different

Everyone has a different context to their training. A plan that works for one runner won’t necessarily work for another. Even the Robertson twins don’t have identical training, and their lifestyles and genetics are about as closely linked as you could get.

Our jobs, family, genetics, past experience, mental strength, shoes, diet and a whole host of other factors can affect how we react to training. Accepting how complex the situation is can lead to a greater understanding. Accepting that we are essentially “orchestrating chaos” can help us guide our athletes or our own training to a higher standard.

Experts and experience

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respect the expert coaches and those with a lot more experience than us. They generally have a much better understanding of how to guide that ship through the storm.

Listening to your coach means there’s a better chance of avoiding injury and reaching your true potential.

Whether you work with a coach or not, appreciating that even with the best intentions, something can go wrong. Accepting that will put you in a better mindset for dealing with any eventualities.

Not all that glitters is gold

In this internet age, there is an abundance of running advice available. Yet not all that glitters is gold and some is just dog shit covered in glitter. A large percentage of advice online is linked to a product, company or with an agenda. Sifting through and finding what is actually good advice is just the first step though.

Once you’re discovered good advice on the internet, you need to understand if that works for you. Looking at training articles of the likes of Aly Dixon, Tracy Barlow or Kieran Clements you will not only see different sessions working for each of those athletes, but also find that they don’t work for you either.

Your own individual context is so important. Yes, there are underlying principles and physiological facts that nearly all runners can benefit from, but there are also always exceptions too.

Understanding, or discovering, what works for you as an individual is a big part of training.

Orchestrating chaos

So what can we learn or take from this waffling article? Do not give up hope due to the complexity of our sport but take it into account when planning training and reflecting on your own development.

If you plan with ‘chaos’ in mind then it just means having some flexibility for the unexpected. We must adapt when conditions changed and not get too dismayed when there isn’t a linear improvement in your training.

The periodisation paradigm

John Kiely, senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancaster and former head of S & C for UK Athletics has done some really interesting articles on whether periodisation, as we know it, might not be the only answer. Periodisation, a stable of endurance training, assumes linear improvement. The reality is often different.

If you spend X amount of time improving Y, then you can move onto Z. If only the world worked so well. Kiely argues that periodisation has only ever been tested against repeated training, doing the same thing every day, all week.

Is it possible that periodisation works because it is varied, rather than the linear pathway it follows?

No one has all the answers

Is endurance running theory developing to the extent that we’re realising we understand less than we thought?

In reality, the complexity of each individual situation can open doors and provide more opportunity for improvement, if we accept that at times we don’t really know what’s going to happen.

RELATED: The importance of self reflection 

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