Thursday, September 03, 2015

Strava McMillan Training Plans - A Review and Test at the 2015 Tamalpa Headlands 50k

Many of you know (or in my case, obsess with) Strava, the online service that tracks your runs/rides and allows you to share them with fellow overachieving athletes. For myself and many in the endurance community, it is the go-to social app, more so than Facebook, Instagram, or the proletariat calorie- and step-counting nonsense of Fitbit. As a good friend likes to say, "Strava keeps you connected with the people who actually get out and make the most of the day, rather than complain about it while posting cat videos."

So it was no surprise to see that when they added free training plans this summer, they partnered with McMillan Running, one of the best in the business. Coach Greg McMillan and his team are known for their thoughtful coaching and planning tools (his running pace calculator and book, You (Only Faster), are two favorites) and a willingness to extend to the ultra and trail community. I was excited to see what an online training plan could do, so I picked the Tamalpa Headlands 50k/USATF Championships on Aug 29th as my goal race and let it build a 12-week plan for me. The daily emails would keep me on track, and ensure I ramping up and tapering down as needed.
(A snapshot of a typical week of the plan)
I am a good candidate for the "light coaching" that comes with an online service like this. I don't have trouble motivating to run daily, nor do I stress a lot about my finish times/places most of the time, so a dedicated full-time coach isn't quite the right fit. But if I don't structure my season, I'm prone to taking far too many long runs, with not enough rest or speed work, meaning way too many lackluster results and skipped races from overuse injuries. What I really need is some structure around a goal race, some daily reminders, and a few pats on the back if I actually take a rest day. This should be just about right.

Configuring the 12-week plan was really simple. You just pick the date of your race and distance (up to a marathon), and it does the rest. I was a few weeks short of the full plan, and it adjusted nicely. It would have been great to also set my rest days (Tuesdays work best for my work schedule, but the McMillan plan likes Mondays), but it was close.

The daily emails were simple instructions, complete with some context and a few words of motivation. I liked how it would tell me why I was resting (big workout tomorrow, get those gains from yesterday, you've got an easy week to recoup after last weekend, etc.) and presented a light run option if I didn't want to park on the couch. I could also see the whole week laid out so I knew what was coming. I found it particularly helpful to get those daily emails as I was traveling - no longer could jet lag stop me from sticking to the plan!

(A typical daily email reminder)

In general, I found myself shifting from my typical workouts. McMillan likes his "long runs with fast finish" and fartleks, but there wasn't a lot of hill repeats or 400/800 intervals. There also wasn't any weights, stretching, core, or balance work - it pretty much focused on your miles. I would have liked to see those incorporated, but honestly, I would be leaning into a full coaching service at that point. After the first six weeks, I noticed that my overall mileage was down from 55-60 miles/week to 45-50 miles/week, much in thanks to more rest days. This included extending my long runs a bit to account for my goal race being a 50k vs. a marathon. I certainly wasn't struggling with days where I was too tired or had nagging injuries - perhaps I had been doing too much!

The Headlands 50k turned out to be a perfect goal race. Race Directors Tim and Diane Fitzpatrick have turned this into an epic event, and now as the USATF 50k Trail National Championships it was attracting a world class field. Even as a Masters runner, I had to be ready to go up against Jean Pommier (age 50, but likely a Top 10 finisher), the incredible Mark Richtman (age 60 and still in Top 20 shape), Mark McManus (local sub-4:30 runner here) and quite frankly just hoped I could make the top 50 runners. The race conditions were wet and muddy, but much of the hilly trails were runnable.

(At the start!)
By the time I reached the starting line, I was juggling a few issues that weren't in the Strava/McMillan training plan. Mainly, I had less than 5 hours sleep in the 48 hours before the race (a serious no-no) due to traveling, work, kids, wining and dining, and a lot of other ill-advised habits that Strava couldn't keep me from. When I fell asleep in my car 20 minutes before race time, it was clear I had not made the most of that crucial 72 hours before the race. It only took 10 miles to realize my body was fit, but my mind and energy levels were not ready to compete. My bad. But as I ran along with Brendan Donahoe (5:02, even after having a fourth kid two months ago) he reminded me it's all about the smiles-per-mile, and this course was full of them. It feels good to be fit!

(David Roche paces through the puddles on his way to a 3rd place finish, photo courtesy of David Roche)
I still had a great time running, making new friends, catching up with the locals, letting my inov-8's rip through the mud with ease, and watching Caitlin Smith (4:31) win the Women's title just ahead of 50k World Champ Emily Harrison (Andy Whacker was 1st dude in a new 3:37 course record, with Patrick Smith, David Roche and Mario Mendoza all doing amazingly well). Jean Pommier and Mark Richtman picked up wins in their age groups well ahead of me (all results). My body felt great the whole time despite the sleep-deprived energy levels, and when 45-year-old Duncan Seay caught me in the last four miles, we hauled ass together to the finish line and clocked our fastest section on the course. He out-kicked me by one second, and we later found out it was just enough for him to take the last podium spot for our age group. Well done, Duncan! When we compared notes, we both cited solid training leading up to the race. And it was a good reminder that a plan is not enough when the competition is good - you have to cross all those t's and dot the i's.

(Another finisher comes out of the clouds)
(Caitlin Smith back in form, and now the 50k National Champion!)
(The reason I have to train - Mark Richtman [4:47, AGCR] and Jean Pommier [4:29],  two of the fastest Masters in the sport)

So despite my less-than-stellar result, I give the Strava Training Plan a big thumbs up. I've already set it up for the next race in October. If you need just a little bit of structure, check it out. And the Tamalpias Headlands 50k gets the double thumbs up - an amazing race!

See ya on the trails...


  1. Thanks Scott. Thats a positive review. I would like to have a more structured training plan. though, I'm not up front with you all. it is helpful to know that even the uoper class man can benefit from a true structured plan. PS Brendan D is a darn good runner and has the best ultra-beard.

    1. It still amazes me how even a little bit of structure can help. For example, holding back every 21 days to capture those gains. I always forget that.

      And yes, Rob Krar has nothing on Brendan's beard. It's a work of art! He said it took two years to get it that long, and it's wifey approved. Pretty awesome. And a totally solid dude...I kept up as long as I could. ;-)

  2. great report Scott and result. Do you feel you could adapt the plan to a longer ultra e.g 50/100 miler?

    1. Good point, I should have detailed that. My only modification to the marathon plan for a 50k was to make the long runs a bit longer (which made those fast finish runs total ball busters). I think you could do the same for 50m/100m...just push those long runs into the 30-35 mile range. That being said, I sure felt good cutting back the mileage - perhaps not all long runs should be extended that far out.

  3. I'm famous! Thanks for the shared miles Scott - it was great meeting you :)

    1. I will quote your "most smiles per mile" for eternity! Awesome running with you, and congrats on the 3rd AG finish! Well deserved.

  4. Scott - would you ever use a personal coach?

    1. Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I will likely use one if I get into States this year (96% odds thanks to my 7-time loser status, but that's still not 100%!). If I want the goal enough, it's worth it, and at this rate I get a shot at states once a decade.

      Just think of all the things a standard plan doesn't give you, and how many of those could mess up your goal race. Heat training, strength training, how to back off a plan if an injury comes up, nutrition, hydration, core work, weights, creating a build up plan of races that test you but don't take you out, night training, stretching and flexibility, when to get massages, encouragement, extra confidence from those who have been there before, fine tuning when life gets in the way....easily pays for itself.

  5. Thanks for the plugs, Scott, you are such a globe trotter, it was great to see you again at one of our local ultra races! You are also such an experienced ultra runner, I was intrigued to see you going with a canned marathon training plan so you triggered a few comments on the topic on my blog. Maybe with all the personal data that Strava is collecting, they are going to run some smart analytics to create course and race-specific training plans which they can customize at the individual level (IBM can surely help with that! ;-). See you again soon!

  6. I notice the plans are no longer free, but require Premium. That means I can't really experiment without upgrading.

    I'm coming from Runkeeper which has very structured training that integrates deeply with their app. While you're doing intervals, it will measure your distance for you and tell you when to go fast and slow. I have no idea when I'm out for a run what 400m is. How do you accomplish that with Strava?


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