In the past, when I trained for marathons I followed highly structured long-term training plans. This time I'm sort of winging it. I have not actually written down a single workout in advance of doing it. My planning has consisted in mentally making a fairly specific agenda for each week of training while engaging in the previous week's workouts. I have also had some "milestone workouts" in mind since the beginning. Milestone workouts are challenging workouts that are important at various stages of the training process as fitness boosters and fitness barometers. For example, since day one of my marathon preparations I have intended to do a 20-mile run with the last 10 miles at marathon pace (6 minutes per mile) three weeks before race day. My only other planning has consisted in scheduling a few tune-up races and aiming for a peak miles per week target (80, which I hit last week).
So far this approach has worked very well for me. My fitness has increased steadily, I am on track to achieve my race goal, and I'm uninjured. Two factors have allowed this approach to work as well as it has. First, I have a solid understanding of a few core principles of effective training that enable me to guide my training confidently and effectively without a lot of detailed pre-planning. These principles include the principle of specificity (I try to make my hard workouts increasingly race-specific as race day draws nearer) and the hard-easy rule (alternating hard workouts with easy workouts and hard weeks with easy weeks). Second, I listen to my body, and use the information my body gives me each day to determine my most immediate training needs. This practice is itself one of my core training principles.
I believe I have mentioned previously in this blog that I am writing a book with elite running coach Brad Hudson entitled Run Faster from The 5K to The Marathon. Brad's coaching philosophy is very much a "winging it" type of approach. In the book we use the term "adaptive running" to describe this philosophy. I was inspired to try a self-directed version of adaptive training in preparing for my next marathon by my work with Brad, who is a genius.
It really boils down to letting intuitive hunches guide your training instead of only consciously held beliefs. If you're an experienced runner, these intuitive hunches will be informed by your conscious knowledge and remembered experience anyway. Recently psychologists have gained a much greater appreciation for the power and effectiveness of hunches, because they come from very clever subconscious parts of our minds that aggregate more information and move faster than our conscious intellects ever will. There's a great book about the power and effectiveness of hunches called Blink, by Malcom Gladwell. But if you're a runner looking to harness this aptitude you can skip Blink and just read Run Faster when it is published next July!