How to train iteratively

When it comes to training as a runner, the “waterfall” approach is in widespread use. But what if you prioritized everyday joy rather than deferring it toward a single moment that may or may not arrive?
Jan. 17, 2022

If you ask me, the “standard” model for training for a road race looks like this: pick a race distance, find a race, follow a training plan, and execute at your chosen race. But what if you’re like me, and you don’t want your training to be dictated by a lofty, far-off end goal? If you already intrinsically enjoy running, the pressure of a looming race can make things unenjoyable in the meantime. And even if you aren’t sure how you feel about running, signing up for a race is not the ideal move for everyone.

In this post I will present a training model for runners who prioritize everyday enjoyment more highly than a perfect race time. The end goal is infinitely redefinable. The “point” of training is up to you. Your goal race is just a sketch on the horizon until you feel confident that you want to go through with it. As you get closer to a race, the entry fees get higher, but so does your confidence that you’ve selected the right one for you in the moment. It’s called the decision-making process, not the decision-making moment, after all.

Case study: Me

This is an extremely general approach, so I’ll use my current planning process as an example. For me, intuitive thinking leads the way, checked by a powerful compulsion toward second-guessing. Your process might look different.

Identify a reason to race in the first place

You aren’t required to have a race scheduled - ever. If you are planning on signing up for one, step number zero is to ask yourself whether you want to run it at all. You aren’t signing a binding agreement to show up on race day, you’re just saying that, as of today, you are committed to moving in that direction for a few weeks.

Most of my training (if you can call it that) takes place without any races on the horizon. I just go and run, with a vague goal of maintaining consistency while gradually increasing mileage.

But last fall, I found the idea of running a spring race appealing. When I felt the cold air bearing down on me and daylight was leaking from the days like water between my fingers, I vowed not to fall into a slump like I typically do. I have no qualms with taking some serious time off to give my training a hard reset, but the time between September and New Year’s typically sees me falling off the horse and staying on the ground, facedown in the mud. I am one to embrace my seasonal proclivities when they feel natural and necessary, but this can be debilitating. I’ll sit and ruminate for weeks and at some point I’ll show up for holiday festivities with a black cloud circling my head having forgotten what running ever meant to me. And then the new year dawns and I vow to climb out of the emotional hole in which I find myself.

Well Fall 2021 would be different! I just needed to be like Spider-Man and shoot a web at the solid support of a big race looming in the future, then swing through the fall and the holidays and make it to the new year without ever bottoming out. Whether I would actually toe the line on race day was not the question at this juncture, but I wanted to train like I would.

Settle on a goal race that fits the general timeline

I scoured Colorado’s understandably meager winter-spring race schedule and picked a nearby half marathon that fit my training timeline. Good enough, I said. All I was looking for here was confirmation that there was a race I’d hypothetically be willing to do at the end of the 12-16 week training cycle I had sketched out. Any more planning would be counterproductive; training always has setbacks or unexpected changes, and I wanted to be able to accommodate them. In the standard paradigm, where the race is set in stone at the beginning of the training cycle, the training plan has to bend and yield to the race date. There’s a lot to be said for doing things that way, but I have found that I prefer to take training as it comes and see where it naturally leads me. The initial race choice just allowed me to start training tentatively and see what I liked and what I wanted to change.

Build a plan

There are many ways to decide how much mileage to run each week, how to break that mileage up between days, and how to run each day’s mileage. It helps to start from a framework, whether that is your own philosophy or an established plan.

To make things interesting, I decided to enlist a coach of sorts: Jack Daniels, in the form of his training bible Daniels Running Formula (3rd edition). I built my plan using his half marathon training template, which left me to decide what my weekly mileage progression would look like and how many repetitions I would perform for each of his prescribed workouts. I tend to feel unmotivated to experience the unpleasantness of structured speedwork unless it’s in service of an upcoming race, so I decided it was time to dip my toes back in and see if I could make friends with it.

Training volume spreadsheet

Obey the master spreadsheet

Follow the plan for a while, then re-evaluate

This is a crucial part of my training and planning process. I cannot predict how something will play out, no matter how much I want to and convince myself it’s possible. My reaction to and enjoyment of my training is essential. It’s a matter of knowing what it’s all for. When it comes down to it, I would much rather enjoy my training for 4 months even if it means missing out on a race goal, than suffer and struggle through a training block that isn’t much fun in order to get a PR.

I cannot, however, be constantly re-evaluating the plan - I just have to put my head down for a while and see if I get anywhere good. Otherwise I would quit after one bad run. So I did the stuff Jack Daniels asked of me. I stayed consistent and even started adding workouts. I kept running when I took a trip to San Francisco - and hey - it was rewarding! I got up early and saw the Golden Gate Bridge from Twin Peaks!

The novelty of a new training program boils off quickly, and when it does you’d better be willing to tolerate whatever salt is left behind. For me, workout days became an increasingly potent source of dread, but I kept up with them to see if I found anything particularly worthwhile. But the fact remains: I really do not like the sensation of speedwork. I like the feeling of accomplishment when I am cooling down after a tough workout, but it’s a minor and fleeting feeling. And while I fully expect that I would be faster if I did workouts, I am pretty indifferent to that fact.

And then my training was sidetracked when I took a surprisingly nasty fall while turning around (during a Daniels-prescribed tempo run, no less!) and I was shuffling for a couple weeks to recover. I hesitated to test my injury, so I continued to log mileage without workouts. Then back to workouts, and I started feeling crappy for a week or two - energy systems were totally out of whack and I felt like I had the flu by the end of most runs. I held off from running workouts until I could figure out what was going on, and because when in doubt I’ll always scrap a workout.

Soon, it was time to head out of state for the holidays, when in the past I would struggle to even head out for a single run. I had not confronted my vacation inertia when I sketched out my training plan. A goal of plowing through the next couple of weeks without missing a workout suddenly seemed foolishly lofty. It was time to re-evaluate: I would channel all my willpower into just hanging on and running consistently during my vacation.

This wasn’t just a rational decision; I tracked my emotions each day and relied on their guidance as a proxy for the wisdom my body was trying to share with me. I was grumpy and starting to feel burned out after a few months of this approach.

Make a new plan

The reality hit me: I’m not dedicated enough to log consistent, measured, scheduled workouts in winter. That approach worked during Boulder’s anomalously dry and warm end to 2021, but the hurricane-force winds and icy conditions that are so typical of Boulder winters have returned. Maybe some runners would go out and shovel a section of road or an outdoor track, but not I. I flashed back to all my winters in Colorado, and found that what worked best for me was lots of base mileage sprinkled with opportunistic hard training when conditions permitted.

So as it stands, I’ve said goodbye to Daniels Running Formula for the time being, and I am focusing on building mileage - which is a sure thing. As long as I’m injury free and I keep building, there’s almost no way to “mess up” this type of training.

With a new training approach (and a discarded training plan spreadsheet), I was able to re-evaluate my race objective. No longer beholden to a rigid schedule that involved peaking at the correct time, I was afforded the flexibility to search for a more fun race that scratched my itch.

I chose the Horsetooth Half because it features a large field (at least 1500 runners, if previous years are a good indication), and it is run on an interesting course that suits my strengths honed from trail running. What’s more, the course’s undulations are all the more interesting to view through the lenses of analysis goggles; I plan on running the elevation profile through some tools I’ve developed as pet projects while teaching myself to code. Once I can quantify the hills on the course, I can develop some training routes around town in Boulder to prepare.

The Goal

Again, a moving target. One eye is fixed on the uncompromising goal, the other one is scanning the reality each day.

At first, as I mentioned, my goal was simply to endure the late-year doldrums by staying occupied with training towards a sufficiently-interesting goal. Phase I of my training focused on maintaining consistent weekly mileage and introducing some deliberate, prescribed speedwork. I dove into the work and it turned out to be engaging for a while. I kept running through the fall and even through the holidays - it was much easier to keep doing what I was doing than to start something from scratch. When the dust settled and January hit, I took a breath and realized that I had accomplished my intermediate goal of running consistently through the end of the year.

Now that I’m feeling really jazzed about running the Horsetooth Half, a race-specific goal is starting to emerge. I want to blow the dust off my ancient personal record (PR) for the half marathon, now that I’m older and wiser. I may have been capable of a faster time back in the day, but I lacked the insight and the consistency to see it through. I already know this was the case at the marathon distance; in 2019, I improved my nine-year-old PR by 17 minutes to 3:17 in the Colfax Marathon. In a perfect world, I’d do the same thing at Horsetooth, affirming to myself that I have improved as a runner by beating a ten-year old PR I set at City of Oaks in Raleigh. But we’ll see about that. First, I just need to log some consistent mileage and arrive at the starting line healthy. The latter is usually not a problem, so I just need to stay on the horse day-in and day-out. And then there’s the “problem” of Horsetooth Half Marathon’s course: although it is a net-downhill run, there is over 900 feet of climbing in the first half. It’s not exactly designed for a PR, but I am hoping to train well enough to get mine anyway. Honestly though, I move on from races quickly, so most of the joy will come on the front end. I love the “will I-won’t I” thrill of laying down a nice training block and anticipating what race day has in store.


You might feel like an odd duck in running circles for letting your training enjoyment come first with race goals following along or never emerging at all. But for the right type of person, an iterative training plan might just be the key to door of fulfillment. At the end of the day, unless it’s paying your bills, your training should be something that brings you joy.

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