Adaptability in Training

Let’s be frank here. You’re training for a race, whether it’s an ‘A’ race or a stepping stone to a bigger goal. Maybe you are the type who follows a set training schedule, or maybe you just have an idea of the long runs and workouts you want to do leading up to the race (I fall into the latter category). How often does your training actually go according to plan? I can honestly say that, in over 15 years of marathon training and three years of ultra training, I’ve only had a handful of races where my training block leading up to them has been smooth. The rest of the time, some unexpected wrench has been thrown into the mix, and I’ve had to adapt my training and/or race goals accordingly. While this can be extremely frustrating, that ability to adapt is necessary to success, however you define success.

In evolutionary biology, after all, it is adaptability – not strength, or intelligence – that separates species that survive and thrive from those who do not. So what does it mean to apply adaptability to your training?

Training through this winter. PC: Starr McLachlan

Training, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “the process of learning the skills you need to do a particular job or activity”. There are obviously some running-specific skills that you need to learn while training for an ultra (being comfortable with longer and longer distances; running technical trails; running uphill/downhill; fueling on the run, etc.), but there are also lots of important skills that can be gained from needing to adapt your training when something doesn’t go according to plan.

Take some of my experiences for example. I was training for the 2014 Squamish 50k when I was stunned by a breast cancer diagnosis four months before the race. I had to take about six weeks off of running in order to have surgery, right when I should have been peaking in mileage. It never once crossed my mind that I would not run the race; I just started back running when I could, and modified my goals from trying to run a fast time to simply having a good experience. Training for the subsequent year’s Squamish 50k, I broke my wrist in a bike crash five weeks before the race. I ran it anyway, with my wrist in a splint. Last summer, I lost my beloved father to cancer – and instead of running my original goal race, I ran Whistler Alpine Meadows 50k a month later, and dedicated every step of that run to my dad. Most recently, I was training for four months for Chuckanut 50k, working hard toward achieving a PB on the course – but we ended up having the world’s snowiest winter, and I only managed two runs in the entire training block not on slippery, deep snow. My long runs were nowhere near as long as I wanted them to be, and my legs were quite beat up from the off-camber, stumbling winter running. I did not get a PB – but I ran the 50k with a smile on my face the whole (longer than anticipated) time.

2015 Squamish 50k (note wrist in a splint). PC: Brian McCurdy

The point is: in having to be adaptable, I have learned a lot of skills; tools that complement the running-specific skills needed to run ultras. Here are some of the most important ones:

  • Perseverance. In ultras, you need to just keep going; even when you are feeling like you can’t possibly continue to put one foot in front of the other. Learning how to persevere through obstacles that come up in training puts you in the right mindset to keep moving forward in the race. This past winter, my trail sisters and I had some truly awful (though admittedly beautiful) runs, where we were literally pushing through deep snow for mile after mile. At Chuckanut this year, the course was full of crazy mud, which seemed like nothing to get through after all the snow.
  • Trusting your training. You sometimes need to be able to trust that, even if you’ve had a training setback and have had to take some time off running, your base training will carry you through the race. Look back over your training log; what you have done over the months and years leading up to the race is more important that when you’ve done in the weeks before. When I broke my wrist, I worried that not running for a couple weeks while it started to heal would be the end of my race – but I had run over 1000 miles that year already. Relatively, those two weeks off did not make a difference.
2017 Chuckanut 50k. PC: Glenn Tahiyama
  • Perspective. Losing a month of training and my ‘A’ race of the year was nothing compared to losing my dad. I spent that month with my family at his bedside, sharing invaluable time together. When he was gone, mountain running became my solace and place to heal: running that extremely difficult race a month after his death was a beautiful, emotional experience. Dedicating the race to my dad and knowing he was smiling down on me gave me the perspective I needed to stay strong, and gave me a positive outlet for coping with his loss.
  • To draw strength from many different places. In that first Squamish 50k, I was very undertrained, and my legs were freaking out on me after about five hours. My strength that day did not come from my muscles; it came from my brain and heart. There was no way I was going to let cancer take that finish away from me. You have the strength in you to keep going. Sometimes you just need to find it.

No matter what happens in training, we need to take things in stride and figure out how to apply those adaptability skills moving forward. If we can adapt, we can succeed – and we just might end up with an experience richer than we were expecting.

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” – Douglas Adams

Feature Photo: Brian McCurdy

Tara Holland

Tara has been running since high school cross-country, and is still going strong as a Masters runner. Since moving to Squamish in 2013, she has fallen in love with trail and ultra running and can usually be found gleefully galloping through the forest and up and down mountains with her amazing pack of trail sisters. She runs for the Distance Runwear Project team. In her off-trail life, she has a Ph.D. in Geography and teaches environmental science at the University of British Columbia.

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2 thoughts on “Adaptability in Training”

  1. This is such a good way of putting it (“it” = that thing where stuff just happens and the little calendar you drew up or whatever completely goes to hell). I’m no marathoner or ultramarathoner. Yet. But this makes me feel like I could do it some day. Anyway, great post, very motivating. I’m gonna go run now 🙂

    • Hi Paul, thanks for your comment! Rolling with the punches is all part of it, for sure. Hope you continue to enjoy your running journey, wherever it takes you 🙂


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