Coach Tip Tuesday: Self-Coached Athlete Mistakes: Scheduling Workouts
This week we’re continuing the conversation about the most common mistakes I observe self-coached athletes making. This week’s topic is related to last week’s, but is a little more nuanced, which is why it’s getting its own post.
Workout planning is a challenging undertaking. Even the best-laid plans need to be altered for one reason or another. Almost all athletes - whether they are self-coached or not - don’t like the idea of missing workouts. With that comes an extremely common behavior: Moving workouts around in a training plan.
I’ve written about the “double up to make up” fallacy that many athletes believe; it’s not actually possible to make up a missed workout, so this is a flawed mindset. It’s hard to hear, but it’s true. In any training plan that is written by an experienced coach - whether you are coached and get your workouts week-to-week or if you follow a Pre-Built or Custom-Built Training Plan - workouts are planned specifically. This specificity pertains to more than just the workout on its own; it also refers to when the workout is planned within a week (aka a microcycle), a month (aka a mesocycle), or a training plan as a whole (aka a macrocycle). Rearranging when workouts are scheduled changes the plan; you are no longer following The Plan, you are following your plan. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
Every single athlete (age-group or elite) who I have ever worked with has needed flexibility in how they approach training. How much flexibility is athlete-dependent, but every athlete needs at least some flexibility in their approach. For many athletes, the “easy” flexibility is just to move workouts to different days if - for whatever reason - the original schedule doesn't work for them. This is especially true because platforms like Final Surge have features that enable athletes to drag and drop workouts to different days within seconds.
However, just because this is the “easiest” solution does not mean it is the right solution. More often than not, if the original training schedule doesn’t work, flexibility needs to come in the form of different workouts, not rearranged workouts. It’s both hard to hear and true: Doing a workout on a different day than it was planned is not the same as doing it when it was originally planned. That being said, just because the schedule needs to change doesn’t mean that we abandon ship and don’t do anything. Rather, it’s just that the most appropriate choice is often to do a different something. Altering the workout itself from what was originally planned (not switching it to a different day) is often the best different something.
Over my 10+ years coaching, I have listened to literally hundreds of athletes rationalize schedule swaps. I’ve heard everything from “It needed to happen” to “I think it’s fine” to “I’ll be okay.” And because I care, I’m here to tell you the hard thing: You may get away with schedule swaps for a bit, but this behavior will snowball into an issue one day. For some athletes, it happens more quickly than it does for others, but it always catches up to the athlete. When the issue happens (the most common issues are injuries or impaired performance), a self-coached athlete usually can’t identify that the root cause is this behavior. From my own experience coaching athletes, I can tell you that even coached athletes don’t always accept this as a root cause if it’s pointed out to them as a possibility by their coach.
Here’s why this is so tough for athletes to hear and accept: If an athlete moves workouts around in their training plan and it then causes an issue, the athlete’s behavior and choices are the problem. Not the workout itself, not the coach, not the weather, not their running shoes, not the temperature of the water, not their bicycle fit. Their own choices are to blame for their current predicament. That’s a tough pill to swallow. And it’s also good news: If the athlete is the problem, it correspondingly means that the athlete is also the solution. We can learn, change behavior, and deploy different tactics moving forward.
For 100% self-coached athletes (100% self-coached athletes are those who aren’t following a Pre-Built Training Plan, Custom-Built Training Plan, or working with a coach in any capacity), this issue is compounded; they are responsible for planning their own training schedule, which means that the initial schedule and corresponding sequencing may not have been sound in the first place. 100% self-coached athletes don’t have the benefit of having wide and varied experience working with many athletes and seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what common best practices in training plan design are; in general, their perspective is limited to their own experience and/or the experience that they can see online or hear about from a small group of friends.
Here are some common examples of mistakes when scheduling workouts:
Incorrect sequencing within a microcycle. Some examples:
A long run before a long bike for triathletes
Too many workouts with intensity on consecutive days
Too many workouts of the same discipline in a row on consecutive days (this applies to single sport and multisport athletes alike)
An imbalance across the disciplines for multisport athletes (such as too much running and not enough cycling for triathletes)
Improperly timed rest days.
This could be lumped in under “incorrect sequencing within a microcycle”, but it’s significant enough to warrant its own bullet point.
Most athletes benefit (significantly) from a rest day in between sets of long workouts or in between sets of similar higher-intensity workouts.
A day that is stressful for the athlete outside of sport doesn’t count the same as a true rest day. This means that if your schedule is busy or you have something stressful going on that necessitates taking a day off from training, it doesn’t count the same as a day off from training when you didn’t have that additional stress. In situations like this, an additional rest day is generally best, not just swapping the rest day to the stressful day.
Not accounting for the amount of time in between workouts.
For example, doing a workout later on one day and another workout early in the morning on the following day. This can be done, but duration and intensity variables must be carefully managed.
There are so many factors that go into proper training plan design. While an experienced coach may make the process of writing a training plan look easy, it only appears easy because they have so much additional information and experience in their minds working for them as they make choices in training plan design. It’s actually a complicated and nuanced process that takes many years to learn to do proficiently.
Thus, if you are a self-coached athlete, it’s important to be extremely thoughtful and intentional about the choices you make when you plan and schedule workouts for yourself. If you need to change things, don’t automatically default to the easy solution of swapping things around; pause and evaluate whether a modification to the workout is now the best choice. When training - whether you’re training for a specific goal or just training for the love of endurance sports - the workout schedule is what sets the foundation for longevity in sport by keeping you healthy and safe over the long haul, not just today or this week. Give it the thoughtfulness and respect it deserves.
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.