Don't Be A Running Lemming

Hey, Coach...I have heard you say to "run with a purpose" when I am training for a race.  What do you mean? Can't I just join up with a running group and do whatever they're doing while I follow a simple training plan from a book or online source?

The folk stories about lemmings (small rodents) jumping off cliffs in some sort of bizarre mass suicide are just that - folk stories.  However, lemmings often migrate in huge packs, and the Norway lemmings in Scandinavia sometimes do reach cliffs, stop, and then leap into the sea to continue their innate urge to migrate.  As they swim across the sea, some drown as they mindlessly swim onward.

So what’s a “running lemming,” you ask?  That is a runner who mindlessly runs with a group for a workout, sometimes pushing himself or herself much too hard, just because “that’s what the group is doing today.”  While there are certainly many benefits to running with groups -- and definitely that is true with a group that has a common training objective -- runners should consider several factors before jumping into a training group.

What Are You Training For?

Unless you are running “just to run,” you are probably training for a specific race, or a series of races.  In that case, every workout in your training schedule should have a certain purpose.  If you are in the beginning stages of your “base” period, there really is no room for track intervals or high-intensity hill repeats.  Likewise, if you are in the “building” weeks before a marathon, your training should have a good amount of threshold training, or “stamina” work, instead of short bursts of speed that are favored by many running groups on a track.

Many runners don’t follow any specific training plan at all, but merely design their training – for whatever distance they are targeting – based on these targets:

• weekly mileage

• weekend long run

• “intensity” work once or twice a week

Although this kind of training can help runners complete a goal race, it usually is not focused enough to yield optimal results.

The better method - and one that is “tried and true” in the running world - is to follow a training plan that (1) specifically targets a goal race, (2) sets key periods for different types of workouts, and (3) lays out very focused workouts that are designed with you and your optimal training pace in mind.  With that type of training plan in hand, a runner who shows up for group workouts just to "do what the group is doing" will quickly realize that those workouts don’t fit into the schedule.

Listen To The Experts.

If you are a runner who is training for a specific race, and you’ve never consulted any of the materials written by Pfitzinger, Daniels, McMillan, Higdon, Lydiard, or any of the other experts out there - do it soon.  Although the methods advanced by each of these experts sometimes vary, you will no doubt learn something important from their writings.

Take a look at the training plans that the experts have developed.  Do you see high intensity work (track/speed work and hill repeats) twice a week for 10, 15 or 20 weeks in any of them?  No.  What you will see are very specific plans that are deeply focused on proper training pace, the corresponding training “zone” on the calendar, and the overall goal of getting the runner prepared for the particular race – and pace – for which the training plan has been designed.

There are reasons why the experts don’t recommend seriously fast speed work followed by very hard hill repeats two or three days later.  Rest assured that the experts would advise against that sort of training.

Don’t Forget About Injury Risks.

Training plans do include intensity work, but usually the overall volume decreases (meaning the total number of weekly miles drops) or else remains flat in comparison to the linear or stair-stepped increases in mileage that are common in the base periods.

Also, the training periods that contain very high intensity work are typically much shorter than the base period.  For example, a 16-week base period might be followed by a 5-week period that includes a lot of speed or hill work, but overall less mileage.  In addition, the frequency of workouts might decrease slightly, meaning that you will run fewer days each week than during your base phase. 

The reason for this is simple - your body needs more time to recover from the demands of high intensity workouts.  If you go out without direction into a training group week after week, month after month, “hitting it hard” two or more times a week, your chances of injury increase with every workout.

So, Am I Supposed to Quit My Running Group?

Absolutely not.  Running groups provide terrific support, offer many sources of shared information and wisdom, and create opportunities to meet and learn from other runners.  However, it is important not to fall into a “pack” mentality where you “do what the group is doing” just because that’s what everyone else is doing. 

If you are “running just to run,” and you like the security and social offerings of a group, then by all means lace up your shoes and go run.  Just remember to give yourself some recovery time on a regular basis, especially if the group tends to “go hard” more than once a week.

On the other hand, if you are training for a specific race, make sure that your workouts are consistent with your training phase.  More importantly, keep on eye on your intensity level during workouts.  “Hitting it hard” and trying to beat your training partners at every workout is probably not what you need.  If you find yourself mindlessly pushing yourself harder and harder, without any sort of direction or purpose, stop and ask yourself if you feel like one of those Norway lemmings that are swimming into the sea.  If the answer is yes, then it is time to find a coach or consult one or more training books to get yourself into an appropriate training regimen.

Paul Carmona is the head coach for Twenty-Six Two Marathon Club in Austin, Texas.