by Steph Creaturo
I’m a much better runner on a training plan. I know this. My body feels this. With the strict structure of a spreadsheet comes a buoyant freedom. It feels nice to have someone else – in this case, my coach – tell me what to do. I show up, I do the work, and her structure provides the container for the work to happen.
But does a training plan make me a smarter runner? A runner who actually learns things? That’s a different question.
On the heels of two terrible half-marathons in 2012, where I battled injuries, over-training, and poor mental focus, I learned that total discipline is the only way for this 42 year-old body – and mind – to keep running healthy. My two half-marathons this year, I’m happy to say, were polar opposite experiences. I’m way too superstitious to say anything else other than I had great runs on those days. Despite the omnipresence of the purple KT tape on my knee, I was injury-free. My mind and were body in total sync. As I crossed the finish line at the Brooklyn Half-Marathon, I was elated with my race and my time – the absolute opposite experience of last year’s Brooklyn Half. I also knew there was no training plan for the next day – the first time in months I wouldn’t look at a Google Doc first thing upon waking. “Take a week or so off,” my coach instructed. “And we’ll work on recovery.”
I missed the recovery part of the conversation and just stopped listening at “off.” So I took about 10 days off. As in, I did absolutely nothing at all.
It was the worst 10 day stretch I had in a long time. Dude, it just sucked. Everyone in my life will back me up on that statement.
My body, in theory, needed time to recover from the intense training cycle of the spring. The less I did, the more everything hurt. My anxieties skyrocketed and a perma-furrow formed between my eyebrows. I was not a good mom, wife, teacher, daughter, friend, teacher, or colleague during this time. At one point, husband looked at me and asked “Please tell me, when do you start running again?” And he wasn’t the only one.
When I finally laced up my shoes again, I had lost strength of body and mind. I could feel where my body was weak, despite all my efforts during the spring to shore up those hot spots. I ran a race about 10 days after the half and went all out, thinking I could rely on my most recent training.
So wrong was I.
You can’t race all-out after perfecting couch-asana and eating your weight in popcorn for over a week. I feel like an idiot even typing that, but hey, that’s the lesson I had to learn. Even though the time on the clock and the final standings said I had a great race, my body and heart could not have agreed less. As I schlepped home on the A train that very hot and humid night, looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost because sweat had moved my sunscreen everywhere, I remembered one of my favorite quotes:
“As the great athlete or the concert pianist or the successful actor if they arrived at the place where they need no further practice. They will tell you that the higher you climb in proficiency … the greater the need for a practice,” wrote Eric Butterworth in Spiritual Economics.
Gosh darn it. I had forgotten to practice. I trained and practiced, and practiced and trained and, instead of easing into recovery, I just slammed on the breaks. No wonder my body and mind were screaming at me. You know, it wasn’t that I stopped training when the plan was over. It was that I stopped practicing. I can run without a goal or a training plan, just as I can get on my mat and have a good practice without a “peak” pose — and once again, I got schooled that practice time remains the most valuable piece of the process.
And, like the end of every yoga class needs savasana, and every training cycle must end, it then starts all over again – which is why we have to keep practicing. It’s a must. The down time preps us for the uptime, the process creates the hard skills and inner wellspring of strength and purpose on which to set and reach goals.
These days, I’m off the couch and back on the road, back on my mat, with no training plan or peak pose in sight. I’m waiting for my marathon training plan to start. And while I’m itching to start, I’m also grateful to learn that time off doesn’t mean I have to stop what I’m doing, but just challenges me to practice that much harder.