One never forgets their first training plan.

Mine was for a marathon, handed down to me from a friend, who I believe got it from another friend. It had every little detail accounted for — from exactly what pace you should run on every single run, to how to recover, and even what to eat.

The plan was…

Complicated.

And for a long time, I thought that was the only right way to train…

Every last mile detailed, every split exactly on point. Miss a run? Out of the question. Run by feel? Ha! That’s just for the crazies.

Here’s the problem:

A lot of runners feel like training for a race means overly robust training programs.

They think that in order to succeed, they need everything outlined, all the boxes checked, and details on when to eat, sleep, run, and poop. I know, because I’ve coached a lot of runners who feel exactly that way.

Why is that a problem?

Well, three reasons, actually:

  1. Because when you think you need an uber-detailed plan, each one of those details can become an excuse to never start training.
  2. Because when you do start, complicated plans lead to burnout, false-starts, and quitting.
  3. Because for the most part, running (even training) isn’t complicated.

Yeah, I said it. You don’t need to break down every split, or even follow a detailed plan, to hit many of your running goals. And by over-complicating the process, you may actually be keeping yourself from success.

Take me, for example. For many years, I believed success in running meant have a plan or bust. There was no going at it in a relaxed fashion. But as time went on, and I gained more experience, I began to grow comfortable with the go-with-the-flow training attitude.

Then I had a baby… and suddenly a strict plan for an upcoming 100K was out of the question. I had to take a different approach. And for the most part, it worked.

Don’t get hung up on a specific tempo pace, but instead listen to what your body tells you is a “comfortable push.” When it comes to a long run, instead of a certain distance, maybe just spend a few hours on the trails doing what feels good

I’ve been following that more relaxed model ever since, and now, a few days before the Hellbender 100, I’m feeling strong, confident, and relaxed. Even without the textbook training I thought I needed just a few years ago.

So what does un-complicated training look like? It may end up looking a lot like your strict plan, only simpler.

What Even the Loosest Plans Need to Be Successful

There are three main things I believe every distance runner needs to train successfully. Just three.

1. Consistency

Everything boils down to consistently lacing up the shoes and getting out on the road or trail. Inconsistent running means lower strength gains, less power and speed, and a higher likelihood of injury. But consistently running, even if it’s just for a short run several times per week, will keep your momentum going for when it’s time to crank it up.

2. Variety

Any good training plan will have plenty of variety in runs — easy runs, long runs, and speed work. Even if you’re not following a strict plan, adding in these components to mix up the type of running you’re doing is essential to building both speed and endurance.

Generally speaking, each week should include a long run, a recovery effort, and some sort of run that brings you into more intense, lactic-threshold running.

3. General Fitness

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 16 post-baby months, it’s that general, full-body strength goes a long way. Strength training — even just body weight training, which has been my focus — has kept me feeling much stronger than I would have otherwise. I credit that strength to being able to get out for longer, peak days without the typical build-up, and for added power.

It’s also a key to injury prevention.

When You Should Get Specific

But of course, detailed training plans are popular for a reason, and it’s not just because coaches are trying to sell you something.

They’re popular because they work. There are times when a more thorough plan is beneficial.

1. When you have an important time goal.

If hitting a PR, qualifying for Boston, or running a specific time are important to you, a structured plan will give you the focused results you won’t find in a loose plan.

2. When you need the motivation.

Many runners need the structure of a plan to stay motivated, and the thought of going off on their own, or without a plan, feels too overwhelming. So sometimes, it’s best just to have someone on your side, looking out for you and keeping track of your progress.

Even when this is the case, an overly structured plan can still feel overwhelming. Find something that has structure but doesn’t feel too confining.

3. When you’re just starting out.

To me, this is one of the biggest. When you’re just starting out at longer distances — training for you first marathon or ultramarathon, or training up to a new distance like 100 miles — a well-crafted training plan could be the difference between you succeeding or failing.

Because otherwise, you might be lost. Or think you know the best way to train, when in reality what you’re doing is detrimental to your goal.

Runners Don’t Need Complicated Training, They Need Smart Training

There’s a time and place for detailed, structured plans, and when you get to that time (or place), embrace them 100%.

But when time is limited, or you feel burnt out on the details, let loose and allow for some flexibility.

Because it might be the difference between you running a race, or quitting before you hit the starting line.