Coach Tip Tuesday: Include Buffers in Your Training
Over the last several weeks, my articles have focused on common themes that athletes experience around this time of the year. As athletes assess how the past year went from a training and racing perspective and as they plan authentic goals for the coming year, it’s important to incorporate buffers into their plan.
The Idealistic Trap
I’ve seen it happen so many times: Looking ahead to the future goals, training, and races, athletes say (quite confidently, I might add) that they are committed, that they are going to stay committed, and that they will be able to handle what comes their way. Or, they choose to leverage a lot of flexibility early in their training, banking on the fact that things will go exactly how they anticipate for the remainder of their training.
In the eternal words of Admiral Akbar, it’s a trap! While certainly well-intentioned, this is a rose-colored lens to view the future with. It is a certainty (literally, 100%) that things will not go exactly as you want or expect. It is important to embrace this truth; doing so more effectively manages expectations, which in turn can help prevent frustration down the line.
Something will happen. You will get sick. Someone in your family will get sick. Your basement will flood. Your car will break down. Your kid will have drama. Your aging parent will need your help. Work will become beastly. You get the idea; something - though we don’t know exactly what that something is - will happen that you do not foresee or expect.
Plan For Adversity & Be Flexible
While you cannot foresee the specific circumstance that will complicate your training and/or your motivation to do your training, you can foresee and expect that there will be adversity and complications that you will need to adapt to. Account for and build flexibility into your training so it’s there when (not if) you need it.
Once you do plan for flexibility, don’t use it up frivolously, justifying it with the (naïve) perspective that everything will go the way you want from there on out. What does using up flexibility frivolously look like? While it manifests in all sorts of different ways, the most common manifestation I see of this with the athletes I coach is when an athlete skips or alters a key workout (or a series of workouts) with the justification that it was “needed” and that they have “plenty” of time to train. Another is that the athlete knows that they have some buffer time in their plan and therefore they aren’t consistent as is prudent earlier on in their training, therefore using up the buffers unnecessarily. Then, when something unexpected happens, they don’t have any buffer time left to “spare” because they already used it up frivolously.
While modifications are a natural part of how a training plan progresses, it’s the athlete’s (false) justification for their decision that is problematic here. In order to make themselves feel better about the alteration, the athlete will tell themselves a (false) story about how this change isn’t as significant as it really is. In short, the athlete doesn’t want to face the reality that altering the plan alters the plan, so they “wrap” up the decision with a rationalization that softens the reality of what has happened.
But altering the plan - no matter how justified the reason - alters the plan. Period, full stop. And an alteration to the plan snowballs into additional alterations down the line; a good and effective training plan is going to account for what you actually did, not what you hope you did. While justifying or rationalizing feels good in the moment, when implemented incorrectly, it creates issues in the future, the worst of which are injuries or unmet goals.
How to Build Buffers
Although it’s an inevitability that something will go differently from how we plan or expect it to and we don’t know exactly what form that adversity will take, we can build a framework that allows for space for that inevitable something. Here are a few tactics:
Plan for a Longer Runway
One of the most common questions I am asked is “How long do I need to train for [insert goal here]?” While I can give standardized recommendations, the reality is that training timelines are unique to each athlete and vary widely.
There are some “standard” recommendations, such as 26 weeks to train for an IRONMAN, IRONMAN 70.3, or a marathon and 16 weeks to train for a half marathon or an Olympic distance triathlon. But just because these are the commonly recommended timelines doesn’t mean that you should think that training for these events only takes this amount of time. Adding at least 6-8 weeks to your minimum “runway” to your goal race is an effective way to allow buffers.
Catch COVID and need to take 14 days off from training? Miss a few days because your basement flooded and you were preoccupied with getting your house back in order? Did work slam you for a week with additional projects that required extra hours? With additional time added to your plan, you can more easily accommodate things like this with less stress and with a reduced chance of feeling like you’re cramming since you know you have either put in a substantial amount of work or you have enough time left to go before your goal.
The reason behind this suggestion is simple: If you have 12 hours to train, and only 12 hours, you will be forced to modify your training the minute something comes up that you didn’t expect. When something unexpected comes up, the time we need to spend dealing with it needs to come from somewhere because time is a zero-based budget. Out of a list of things that you’re doing in your life, training time often becomes the thing that is sacrificed. When training time is available to cut or sacrifice, it is unlikely that you will call off of work, tell your kid they can’t go to soccer practice, or stop cooking dinner for your family in order to carve the time you need to deal with the unexpected happening. You’ll cut training time before you cut any of the other things.
Instead, if you plan for less training than you have time for, you are not maxing out your time resources and you are giving yourself some breathing room. This not only helps your training, it helps your life overall. A system that is constantly pushed to its limits will break over time. Give yourself the space and chance not to break.
The Bottom Line
Most humans are eternally optimistic, and this carries over into endurance training and how athletes approach planning their training. Most athletes plan too “perfectly” when they are outlining a training plan, and then get disoriented or discouraged when something happens that throws that original plan off-course.
A pragmatic strategy for planning training includes accepting the reality that things will never go 100% the way you want or expect and incorporating elements that allow for this inevitability. Experienced coaches will advise athletes to do this when planning a season and will help athletes stick to it along the way, but athletes who are self-coached will need to be very honest with themselves as they navigate this long-term planning. Plan for buffers in your training so your overall training plan has the best chance possible at generating the outcome you desire.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.