I’ve been told for years by coaches to “train your weaknesses.” There’s some logic to the philosophy that training the weakness out of your body will make you stronger or faster and to some extent that’s true. But what often happens is that in the process of training that weakness out of the system, we neglect what actually got us to that point in the first place—our strengths—and we end up with a net zero fitness improvement.
As runners, we usually have a pretty good idea of what our strengths are and when our weaknesses bring us down. Back in 2008, I moved to Eugene, Ore., to pursue my dream of being a full-time athlete with the Oregon Track Club training group. At the time I had a whole lot of endurance and a huge aerobic base, but not a lot of speed. I always knew that my aerobic base was what could get me through a grueling workout, but when it came down to the 3,000-meter steeplechase I figured I needed more speed. After all, it was less than 2 miles.
So I trained that speed, with the thinking that the more I did the faster I would be. The problem was that physiologically that speed work, or anaerobic work, was slowly degrading my aerobic ability and I was also more intently focused on those workouts and less on my long runs and hills. So in the end I ended up at the same point that I began, or at least with the same performance in a 3K. I was faster, but I began to lag later in the race when I needed that aerobic capacity. A net-zero fitness improvement. The point is that while we always hear, “train your weaknesses”, what you should do is train your weakness, but not to the detriment of your strengths.
During a trail race, the terrain can magnify many of those strengths and weaknesses.
Feeling a little apprehensive about a technical section, whoosh, there goes someone with nimble feet right by you. Your strength may be climbing, in which case you’ll pass them right back on the next hill. If you then focus on your technical ability you may gain a few seconds through that techy section but in the process neglect your climbing ability, you won’t be passing anyone back when you hit the next hill.
Think about hills for a minute. For me, my uphill climbing ability is both a strength and a weakness, depending on who I’m running against and what kind of race I’m racing. In a road race with rolling hills, it’s a huge strength but getting into a pure mountain race with great climbers, it’s been a weakness. Working on my climbing ability as a weakness by including more runs with easy elevation gain, finding longer mellow climbs that I can settle into and find a good sustainable rhythm, has been a huge benefit to not only my climbing ability during races but also my overall strength for racing shorter, flat races as well. Not to neglect my strength however, I still use short hill workouts for that VO2max, power and explosiveness I need for shorter distance races.
3 Ways to Improve Your Weaknesses without Neglecting Your Strengths
But how will you get better by just working on something you’re already good at? It’s a catch-22 and a fine balance to be sure. We need to spend time on our weaknesses, and when we’re time-crunched we can’t just add that training on the top of everything else. Last month I talked about how to get more out of your training by being more specific to the race you have on the calendar. You can also work on your weaknesses by including it into your regular training, thus saving time and continuing to work your strengths. Combine a technical downhill workout into a lung-busting VO2 max hill session. That’s the first way.
Second solution: Periodization. Periodize your training cycle so that you spend a certain amount of time training your weakness, then come back to your strengths. Just like a marathoner periodizes their training block into a base phase, strength/endurance phase, speed, and finally a taper, taking a deep dive into how to make one of your weaknesses a strength may take more than just small additions to workouts. Make sure you always come back to training your strengths well ahead of your key races so that you’re at peak fitness and as strong, mentally and physically, as possible.
And finally, some of us just don’t spend enough time training our bodies to do what we expect them to do. Sometimes the best way to get better is to put in a little hard work and time. We may not have much of the latter, but I’m betting most of us can all squeeze a few more minutes of training into our week if we want it bad enough.
I know it’s pretty simple, but sometimes it takes some reminding that our strengths are usually what got us to where we are in the first place. They’re the reason you enjoy certain workouts, races or trails. Take some time to focus on the weaknesses, but remember, the fun often lies in where we’re strongest.
About The Author:
Salomon Running athlete Max King has won numerous USATF trail running national titles, as well as the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships and the 2014 IAU 100K World Championships. He’s still working on his weaknesses from his home base in Bend, Ore., but he gave up on being a professional arm wrestler a long time ago. Check out his adventures around the running world at maxiumus.runnerspace.com or on twitter @MaxKingOR.