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I had a brief flirtation with running in seventh grade. That dalliance culminated at a local 5K, where I ran a relatively impressive race. After the awards ceremony, a spectator came up to me and offered congratulations. He looked a bit like Gandalf, so even though he talked a bit like Elmer Fudd, I listened to what he said next. And it was a training tip! Score!
Only it was total crap, a formula for calculating body weight based on height that he indicated would help me when I went to high school a couple years later. Country Gandalf couldn’t be wrong in my impressionable eyes, nor could numbers. I was on the school trivia team after all, a born mathlete. So I tried to solve that equation.
Over the next few months, I lost some weight. I also lost a solid chunk of hair from underfueling. I eventually quit running, moved to football, and later realized that what I thought was wisdom was actually bullshit.
The training tip that sent me astray as a kid could be summed up as “you need to weigh a certain amount to reach your potential.” This type of horrid advice misses the nuance of individual variation: what works in moderation for some people could cause a physiological shitstorm for others. Everything that goes into training is complicated, from workout design to weekly structure to every physical and mental input imaginable. It can be easy to summarize that complication into a formula that is pseudoscience or superstition wrapped up in a coating of certainty that makes it feel helpful.
This article points out 10 of those types of tips, with each of them usually starting at a place of well-meaning associations, and sometimes ending at a place of actively unhelpful misinformation. Let’s start with the bad tip that I heard as a kid.
Bad Tip One: Your body needs to look a certain way or weigh a certain amount.
Being an athlete is all about finding your strong. Every runner that has long-term growth and success fuels their body adequately. For some athletes, that leads to complying with that formula espoused by Mr. Crap-Face. For other athletes, it means a body that looks different and weighs more or less. All are equally valid. And here’s the biggest point of all: all are optimizing what they are capable of given their unique genetics and backgrounds.
The problem is that a formula might be interpolated from an outlier, a person that won an Olympic medal or Western States. Interpolating from outliers is crap science, and it’s crap physiology. Athletes that try to fight against their unique genetics and backgrounds will not adapt to training stimuli efficiently, and will almost always get slower with time. That time might not be tomorrow, but trying to fit into someone else’s clothes or onto their scale is a ticking time bomb for athletic growth.
Three years ago, the New Zealand rowing team had a reckoning. A survey indicated that all but one athlete was at risk of low energy availability. Doctors, nutritionists, and coaches worked with athletes to change the culture and approach to fueling. Rower Brooke Donoghue summarized the wisdom that they applied leading up to the Olympics: “Now I understand being lean isn’t a priority, being strong is,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what I sit at on the scales. It’s opened us up to understand it’s not about a number but more about a good feeling, knowing we’re fuelling well.”
In Tokyo, Donoghue won a silver medal, and the whole team had breakthrough successes. Low energy availability from a focus on body weight can hurt the endocrine system and overall health. The New Zealand rowing team learned something else. Eating enough can fuel better performance, recovery, and adaptation. Food can act as a natural, legal, fun PED.
Move, eat, love, repeat. You found your strong. And your strong is perfect.
Bad Tip Two: Easy runs need to be at a certain heart rate all the time.
The body does not work in cordoned-off physiological zones, where exceeding aerobic threshold is a crime scene for athletic growth. When you feel good, your easy runs can be a bit faster. When you feel tired or are not recovering rapidly, your easy runs can put snails to shame. The art and science of easy running require that an athlete listens to their body, not to a calculator.
This tip is grounded in the truth that easy runs can be very easy, and often should be very easy. The aerobic system should be built from the ground up. Just make sure that focusing on the aerobic system doesn’t neglect the musculoskeletal, biomechanical, and neuromuscular systems. You have to go faster to get faster, in moderation.
Bad Tip Three: To be a pro, you have to do doubles/100 miles a week/complicated workouts
This is the general catch-all heading for tips that you might hear from an elite athlete talking about their own training. The problem is that all of these tips are overwhelmed by confounding variables, and sometimes people get the lines of causation mixed up. Doubles are an important feature of some pro athlete training, but also coincide with athletes that have the time and physiology to handle them. High-volume weeks can be a proxy variable for stress and adaptation, but the cells don’t give a single frick about a week, and only care about a mile in association with the chemical context that goes along with it (we went into detail on our podcast here). Big double-threshold workouts or supercompensation hill sessions could help growth, but are also just a part of training for athletes that are tough as nails and have big dreams.
Successful athletes can likely be successful using multiple approaches, but we can’t prove a negative. So we are left adding up a bunch of N=1 experiments. Don’t feel obligated to mimic the specific approach that works for someone else. General principles are your friend (doubles/100-mile weeks = consistent and frequent chronic stress, workout design = efficient and strategic acute stress). Specific rules can just be dogma.
Bad Tip Four: It’s all about time on feet.
This tip is mostly for the ultra crowd. Time on feet may be helpful if it involves moving efficiently on trails, including hiking, with plenty of time for recovery and adaptation. But there is no evidence and little physiological theory that chronic weekly totals of dozens of hours on feet will help an athlete move more efficiently (or be healthier). While that stuff may work for some people, you can be fast and healthy by spending time in the morning doing your activity, then living your life normally (periodically mixing in some bigger acute stresses along the way), even when training for races that take 12-24+ hours.
Bad Tip Five: The more training volume and/or vert, the better.
Connected to the last two points, volume and vert totals are proxy variables for stress. But they are not actual stress as experienced by the cells and body systems that drive performance. A 10-mile run might just be a 10-mile run. Or it might act a bit like a 20-mile run if you’ve been up all night with a kid, are dealing with a mental health lull, or are preparing a work presentation. One of the hardests things to internalize for an athlete is that the body can actually adapt to the lower volume just as well as higher volume as long as stress is calibrated appropriately for their unique context.
The body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. And more stress is not always better, particularly when some champions are specifically chosen due to being genetic anomalies when it comes to managing chronic training stress.
Bad Tip Six: You should hike a hill in training if you’d hike it in racing
Specificity is important sometimes, just don’t go overboard with it. I see so many athletes sell themselves short by hiking every uphill because they read that tip in an ultra running article, or heard it from a friend. The problem is that it’s very hard to level up if your brain is constraining you in advance of your body saying it needs constraints.
If you hike all of the time, that is awesome and valid. But if you are healthy enough to run, try to run a couple steps more on your next run. It can be so freaking exciting to see where this athletic journey goes when we take off the constraints that were holding us back.
Bad Tip Seven: You can always get all of the nutrition you need from food and sunlight
Maybe you can! But through coaching and research, my wife/co-coach Megan and I see a lot of bloodwork, and there are many athletes that can’t. Pay special attention to ferritin and vitamin D. Sometimes, leafy greens and UV rays don’t cut it, and that’s OK. If you’re unsure, get blood tests from your doctor or a company like Inside Tracker.
Bad Tip Eight: You can’t lose fitness in a taper
True, your aerobic system won’t undergo a fundamental remodeling in a couple weeks. But blood volume, VO2 max, cardiac output, and neuromuscular efficiency all can detrain rather quickly. It’s important to rest more, but don’t shut down like you’re a bear in November. Most of our athletes maintain their normal frequency at 30-50% lower training volume, with a rest day or two more for ultras, plus a bit of intensity too.
Bonus Tip: Minimal shoes are better for health and/or performance
I don’t think people say this piece of advice anymore, but it’s worth addressing just in case someone went into a coma after reading Born To Run. First, to that coma person, did you like The Apprentice? You won’t now.
Second, for the love of all that is good in this world, wear shoes that are comfortable for you, not shoes that are comfortable for someone who may or may not have a functioning achilles tendon in a few years. Different things work for everyone.
Bad Tip Nine: Death before DNF
Running is not a test, it’s a celebration.
As Dani Rojas said in Ted Lasso, “[The sports psychologist] helped me remember that even though futbol is life, futbol is also death. And that futbol is futbol too. But mostly that futbol is life!”
Whether you get to the finish line or not, you find out that you are just carrying what you brought with you during the journey. Throughout the process, you are awesome and you are enough just as you are. Races celebrate that awesomeness. They will never prove anything, because you have nothing to prove in the first place. Running is running, not a verdict on self-worth.
As an amazing podcast told me, it often takes courage to DNF. Let’s celebrate those “failures” too, because running is also death.
BUT MOSTLY RUNNING IS LIFE!
Bad Tip 10: Don’t fuel your long runs.
I’d argue that fasted training is looking at the wrong side of the equation to improve performance. Yes, it may improve energy efficiency in moderation for some male athletes. But instead of that, how about we train to crank up output so damn high that an athlete can get faster and faster without messing with sensitive metabolic pathways. Touching that upper-end output unequivocally requires fueling in longer runs.
But more importantly, energy deficits and low energy availability can set off endocrine and nervous system cascades that cause major health issues. Female athletes are especially at risk, with studies showing no adaptation benefit to fasted training, but major risk to bone health and sex hormone balance.
My takeaway: At its best, indiscriminate fasted running risks making athletes more efficient at being slightly inefficient. At its worst, fasted running can cause health crises.
This article just points out that what works for you might be different than what works for someone else. That individual variation can make running training nerve wracking, uncertain, and difficult. But I also think that not being 100% sure of the right answers all the time is what makes training incredibly freaking cool.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.