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Training: Reverse Engineer Your Way to Success

  • By Kevin Beck
  • Published Nov. 14, 2013
Remember this mantra: “Race your strengths, but train your weaknesses.” Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Learn how to expose those areas of your training that are most in need of nurturing.

Having become involved enough in running to be reading articles like this one, you have probably used at least one published or online training plan, and may have chosen a favorite one. Perhaps you’re confident enough on your grasp of the basics and sufficiently aware of your own quirks to use an existing plan as a template for generating your own custom version; when such a recipe yields good results, the rewards are especially sweet, because you’ve in effect shown your capabilities not only as an athlete but as a coach, physiologist, and even psychologist.

But how would you fare as an engineer?

This article incorporates many of the aforementioned principles of personalization but takes a unique approach to nailing down your specific running goal. Rather than ask you to decide on an optimal marathon or other race time and launch into a strictly pre-cast plan an appropriate number of weeks out from the big day, this scheme has you start from your goal time as if you’ve already achieved it and work backward in such a way as to expose those areas of your training that are most in need of nurturing. In so doing, you’ll create a training program that takes maximal advantage of your natural strong suits while unflinchingly addressing trouble spots.

Now How Does This Thing Work?

Engineering, as you probably know, is a fancy term for “making stuff.” Engineers conceptualize, design, and build things as small as microprocessors and as large as suspension bridges.

“Reverse engineering,” on the other hand, is, in a fundamental sense, what a child does when he takes apart a radio and inspects its elemental components, wondering how these contribute to the function of the whole. It’s the science of examining something intact and whose function is known, breaking it down into its building blocks, and, ideally, tweaking those pieces and reassembling them into something that works better than the original model.

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The role reverse engineering plays in shaping your training is twofold. One, because you begin with the assumption that your ideal race has already been logged into existence, you’ll head into every training session with this scenario fixed in your mind: seeing yourself crossing under a finish-line banner with that magical set of digits splayed across the clock above, wearing an expression — perhaps unique to endurance athletes — blending exhaustion and bliss. Therefore, the notably, beneficial strategy of visualization, while not an aim in itself, is a core element of a reverse-engineered training scheme.

Two, because you’re making an honest assessment of what it “took” to see this scenario to fruition, you’ll be able to reveal and treat those areas of your training and overall preparation you need to work on — things you’ve perhaps known about but managed to sweep under the rug until “later.” In fact, mentally working backward from a successfully executed race through the previous months with the question, “What obstacles and fears did I work hardest to overcome to accomplish what I did?” tends to most brightly highlight those aspects of training that have been chronic bugaboos for you; when we do something we take pride in, we’re naturally more aware of the strongest challenges we had to thwart than we are of the many niceties that helped smooth out the ride. Making things work in the face of some level of adversity adds the most powerful flavoring to any well-done deed.

For example, if you’ve historically been unable to drag yourself out of bed early on weekend mornings, but more recently managed, en route to a Boston Marathon qualifier, to put in your best three or four long runs before 8 a.m. rather than slugging them out in the heat of the afternoon, you’ll recall these runs with far greater clarity than you will your 4 p.m. interval sessions, however gut-busting the latter may have been. Or, if you’ve harbored a longstanding anxiety about lactate-threshold training, you’ll remember the tempo runs that went well along the road to a personal-best 10K more handily than you will other types of intense training. That is, it’s not the bread-and-butter, comparatively enjoyable stuff you see as vital to racing success that you should key in on when hashing out your next plan. As Joan Messick, an ultramarathoner and high-school coach from Delaware, points out, “Race your strengths, but train your weaknesses.”

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So the idea is this: Start with a goal time at a given event some months into the future. Conclude in advance that you’ve reached this goal and ask yourself what the bona fide touchstones along the way were. Fill in your training weeks, or blocks, in reverse chronological order, beginning with those runs or workouts that, for psychological or logistical reasons, come least easily to you. After doing this, return to game day (remember, you scored big!) and again work backward, this time filling in workouts that typically pose less of a challenge for whatever reason.

Finally, go back and seed in those parts of your plan that are essentially dressing: recovery runs, cross-training or ancillary training such as weights or yoga, and possibly even “social” runs that help you focus and keep your spirits up, such as volunteering at one or more of your local running club’s races. As a guide, look to your last successful race and look at the stepping stones that got you there as well as what might have been missing.

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