Common Mistakes Runners Make
by Shannon McGinn, MS, USATF, RRCA, ISSA Certified Coach
Creating Momentum Coaching Revised January 2020
New runners often contact me for help with pacing, breathing, and managing shin pain. However, most really need help with the same thing: creating a balanced training plan. I build my plans around four main factors: (1) Intensity, (2) Volume, (3) Frequency, and (4) Response. When I help runners (whether they are new or experienced) avoid common mistakes in each of these areas, their problems tend to resolve, their enjoyment while running increases, and their performance improves.
(1) The Intensity Mistake: Ambitious Runners Often Train Too Fast. Intensity describes effort or pace. If your effort is “moderately hard” to “very challenging” every time you run, you are running fast too often. New runners should allow their bodies time to adapt to their running program by initially training at an easy pace while building their endurance. The simplest way to estimate an appropriate easy pace is to use the Talk Test. If you can not talk comfortably in complete sentences while running, you are running too fast for easy-paced running. If necessary, consider using a run/walk method to avoid becoming too winded. I aim to see my runners reach at least 15 miles per week at an easy pace before I will add any faster training per week. When adding 1-2 faster workouts per week, remember only 10-20% of weekly mileage should be run at a faster pace than the rest of your training. This is not a lot of fast miles.
(2) The Frequency Mistake: Ambitious Runners Often Train Too Often. Frequency describes how often a runner trains. The American College of Sports Medicine recommend adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Although this is the recommended minimum, it does not mean new runners with limited running experience should start running for 30 minutes 5 days per week. Instead, assess how much running you currently do and work up from there. If you do not run at all, start with 10-20 minutes 3 times per week. Again, run/walk if you need to. Be sure to alternate days off with training days. Build up your run time over several weeks, then add more training days per week. If you are already an active person, realize that even a generally fit person who does not run will not be acclimated to the specific demands of running and will need time to adapt. Less is more at the start of any new program. I often start my newest runners with 3 days per week of run/walk training and build up gradually to reach 5-6 days per week or more.
(3) The Volume Mistake: Ambitious Runners Often Train Too Far. Volume describes how much a runner trains. New runners often attempt too much for their fitness. This leads to disappointment as runs get cut short due to reasons like shortness breath or shin pain. Start with short training sessions. As your fitness improves, build up your volume by running one longer run per week. Most new runners attempt a long run that is too long in comparison to their total weekly mileage. As a general guide, your long run should represent about 30% of your total weekly mileage.
When ready to increase weekly mileage, a 10% increase per week is considered safe and reasonable. However, many find that an increase of up to 20% in mileage per week is tolerable. Don’t forget to include rest weeks, where weekly mileage drops back down by 10-20% percent before building up again. I have found that that new runners respond well when there is a rest week every other week. More advanced runners can build longer (2-3 weeks in a row of building up) before dropping back down to rest.
Finally, the race distance you are training for will help you determine how many weekly miles you should target before tapering for your event. I aim to see my runners reach a peak week of at least 20 miles for a 5k, at least 25-30 miles a 10k, at least 35-40 miles for a half marathon, and at least 45 miles for the marathon if they just want to finish their race. If a runner is aiming to run a personal best time, they usually will need more mileage than these minimums to unlock their best performances. If my runners cannot reach these minimum mileage goals, I will recommend that they drop down to a shorter race distance or significantly revise any time goal they may have been hoping to achieve.
(4) The Response Mistake: Ambitious Runners Often Train Through Pain.
None of the above matters if the body is in pain. Pain is a signal that the body is not ready for more work. I believe we are either training (by exposing ourselves to stressors) or adapting (to those stressors during recovery), but we are not able to train and recover at the same time. Pain cannot be ignored. Rest and recovery is required before training can resume. I feel it is a big mistake to stick to a pre-fabricated training plan at all costs. A good training program is dynamic and should be adjusted based upon your response to the workouts and other stressors.
New runners often have some difficulty differentiating between normal discomfort and pain. Discomfort often accompanies hard work. Fatigue during workouts and after training is part of the process. Sore muscles are to be expected. But pain is a signal that too much damage is being done. Discomfort can turn into pain. If you cannot sit or walk without pain, then you should not run. If running is so uncomfortable that you need to modify your form in order to proceed, then it is time to stop. When pain lingers into the next day, the body is not yet ready to train again. It takes just as much discipline to rest when necessary as it does to train when not feeling fully motivated.
If you find that you are having difficulty training, ask yourself if you are making any of the four common mistakes most new (and experienced) runners make. By avoiding these common mistakes you will create a more balanced training plan that will allow you to run with more enjoyment, with lower injury risk, and with better results along the way.
Shannon McGinn earned her MS degree in Kinesiology with dual concentrations in sports performance and sports psychology as well as her MA degree in creative arts therapy and her EdS degree systems therapy. She is the owner of Creating Momentum Coaching, LLC where she provides endurance and whole-person health coaching for optimal performance. Shannon is a regionally competitive endurance athlete, a USATF, RRCA, and NFHS Certified Distance Running Coach, and an ISSA Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist. She is currently pursuing a National Board Certification in Health and Wellness Coaching. She is a life-long runner, becoming more involved in racing after surviving cancer. She considers herself a marathon and ultramarathon specialist, achieving the USATF Master’s Elite Marathon standard (sub-3 for women over 40), USATF National Championship top 10 place finishes 50k and 50M distances over many years. She set an Age Group American Record for 40-44-year-old women for the 6-hour duration race by completing 43.16 Mile in that time.