You’re Not a Cookie Cutter Runner, So Stop Using a Cookie Cutter Plan

You're not a cookie cutter runner, so why are you still using a cookie cutter training plan?

You are not a cookie cutter runner: so why are you training like one?

Let me ask you a question: have you ever found a training plan from a website or a book that promised to make you faster or get you to the finish line free of injury, followed the training plan down to the most minute of details, and then still missed your goal?

I have.

You're not a cookie cutter runner, so why are you still using a cookie cutter training plan?


After my first marathon a few months ago, I was fatigued, slightly burn out, and disappointed. I had logged several 60 mile weeks, with each week including a hard speed workout covering 3-6 miles, a tempo run in the range of 8-10 miles, and a long run at a moderate pace. In return, the cumulative fatigue overwhelmed me, even up until race day.

I had given everything I had into following the Hansons Marathon Method, and I started race day with lingering fatigue in my legs. My stomach, which I realize in retrospect needed training as much as my legs and my lungs, rebelled against me at mile 16. While my stomach problems came from not taking in enough electrolytes, which can cause cramping, a small part of me began, right or wrong, to question if I had chosen the right training plan for me.

As I studied for my RRCA coaching certification exam, I realized the error I had made: I followed a cookie cutter training plan that wasn’t right for my individual physiology, training preferences, or level of experience. 

Eager to test my new coaching skills on myself, I took my knowledge from RRCA and dove into as many training philosophies as I could get my hands on: Daniels, Pfitzinger, Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running, and Hudson. A good coach knows just how each training philosophy progresses and how to fit that to an individual athlete, so why not practice that on myself? I eventually selected Hudson’s nonlinear periodized plan with an effort-focused approach (there’s not a single pace chart in his book) to the half marathon.

I didn’t want to continue to attempt to mold myself to fit popular training philosophies, hoping they would work for me; that would be like buying a certain running shoe just because Runner’s World gave it good reviews, even though it feels awful on your feet. Instead, I wanted a training philosophy that worked for my preferences, physiology, schedule, and goals.

Because that’s the thing about race training: you shouldn’t change to fit a certain method of training. Instead, the training plan you select should fit you.

While very few of us are elite athletes, that doesn’t mean that any of us are a cookie cutter runner without individual strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Everything about running, from your recovery rate to your ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fibers, is unique. So stop training as if it isn’t!

Whether or not you want to hire a coach, you don’t have to settle for a plan that doesn’t work for you. These four guidelines will help you avoid the cookie cutter training plan trap and find a coach or training philosophy that will help you train free of injury and burnout, run your personal best, and—most of all—enjoy your running.

You're not a cookie cutter runner, so why are you still using a cookie cutter training plan?

What else is going on in your life?

I sometimes read training plans that call for mid-week 15 mile runs and think, who actually has the time to do this? A cookie cutter training plan does not take into account your family, career, commute, and other hobbies.

Even if you can make time for a demanding training plan on top of everything else, doesn’t mean you should. Overtraining happens when you do not recover appropriately for your level of training. Non-running aspects of life such as a big project at work or a hectic semester at school add stress to your life. That additional mental, emotional, and physical stress makes it even harder for your body to recover from the physical stress of running.

Ditch the comparison trap

Why did I try Hansons in the first place? In part, because I had read that it worked for other runners. The other reason? I was in that tricky place of being new to the marathon but at an intermediate level of running and was unsure of what plan to choose.

Hansons is fantastic for some runners, while it leads to burnout and injury for other runners. The same can go for the Hudson plan I’m currently adapting; the time-based and effort-based tempo runs are fartleks may stress out some runners who need data feedback, while I’m enjoying the more intuitive feel of this style of training.

Just because a certain style of training helped your friend or favorite running blogger run a 5 minute PR in the marathon doesn’t mean it will have the same effect on you. Even if you run the same race times as someone else, you likely still need a different training method because of any variable from different recovery rates to different limits on weekly mileage.

Be honest about your personal preferences

In retrospect, the repeated workouts of the Hansons method left me feeling as if I was in a Groundhog’s Day version of marathon training. While I like routine, I also need a bit of variety, both mentally and physically. I found that variety in Hudson’s workouts. I now rarely run the same workout, and if I do, it’s a progression from a previous workout.

Training plans vary on several factors: how many days per week you run, whether you repeat workouts or have variety, how often you do hard workouts, and whether those hard workouts are focused on perceived effort or specified pace.

When you examine training plans or search for the right running coach, be honest about how many days a week you actually want to run, how you want to pace your workouts, and what types of workouts you want to do. There are benefits to pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, but there’s also something to be said in training in a way that works for you.

Hire a coach

A coach removes the guesswork from training and finds a style of training that will fit your personal goals, schedule, preferences, and abilities. You don’t need to contemplate whether to run hill repeats or fartlek workouts or what progression of long runs works best for your abilities; your coach will give your a training survey, talk to you on the phone, and do all of the hard planning work for you.

Best of all, unlike a cookie cutter training plan, if a plan from a coach doesn’t work, they will alter your training plan to find ensure your training is the best it can be for you.

You can learn more about my coaching philosophy and services on my running coach page

All of this post arises from my personal philosophy of how I coach my athletes and why I write this blog. I don’t just see runners as only runners; I see them as individual people, with goals, fears, strengths, and weaknesses, as people who are athletes but are also accomplishing so much more in everyday life than just running. I want to work with runners to help them run a personal best in a manner that doesn’t sacrifice any other area of life, because I don’t believe that you can run your best when your life as a whole is unbalanced.

This is not a post to bash pre-made training plans; they do have value for runners, especially new runners. Rather, whether you hire a coach, create your own plan, or follow a pre-made plan, you should be sure you pick a plan that is the best for you.

Linking up with Jill for Fitness, Health, and Happiness!

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
Hansons Marathon Method Post Race Review 
Create Your Own Running Narrative
Marathon and Half Marathon Training Books

P.S. Be sure to check out the second part of Meredith’s Q&A with me about fueling for your runs! 

Did you ever train using a plan that didn’t work for you? 
How did you find the style of race training that worked for you?
Do you prefer variety or repetition in your training?

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36 Responses

  1. I never really followed a plan and most likely, it’s for these reasons! Everyone is so different, we have to find what works for us individually. I am ok with repetition – to a point. The boredom can sneak up on me suddenly which means I need a change!

    1. Everyone really is so different! Even if the same plan could work for two people’s physiology, chances are then it wouldn’t work for them mentally! And yes, I totally get that boredom – it happens to me all the time in strength training and Pilates, when I love one workout for months and then suddenly can’t stand it anymore!

  2. In all honesty, i have used cookie cutter plans on the past and had success. But like you, when I became certified, I started modifying to fit my needs. Because I’m not a cookie! When I start training for my next race, I’m hiring a coach. I’m quite unique and need some guidance to reach my goals! Great tips Laura!

    1. Thank you, Angela! I had success with cookie cutter plans in the past also – they do have lots of benefits! I know you’re going to crush your running goals, especially with the help of a coach – and I’m so excited to follow as you do that! 🙂

  3. Your point about training your stomach is so incredibly true. Yesterday I did a track workout and sometimes when we push our legs harder than what they’re capable of, a different system will revolt against us (stomachs). Which is exaaaaactly what happened yesterday. I was so dead set on doing Yasso 800s in 3 minutes each and pretty much willed my legs across the line at around 3:01 each time. The result? I nearly pooped my pants, and I had an upset stomach all day and night. 🙁

    1. Stomaches need lots of training! Not just to taking in fuel and water (which they do need to be taught), but to distance and speed. I sometimes feel like it’s really true that our guts are our second brain, and just like our mind tries to get us to stop when we’re pushing hard, so do our guts. Silly survival techniques. I’m sorry you had an upset stomach! 🙁 Hopefully next time your stomach realizes that 800s are ok for it. Also – killer pace on those – great job!! That sub-3 is getting close!

  4. I love this! I am all about personalized training plans and doing what is best for YOU. We are not all the same and all require different ways to reach our best.

    1. Thank you! We really do have different needs for reaching our best! I think that’s why people argue about FIRST vs Hansons vs other plans on which is the best – while there are markers of a good and bad marathon plan, what works for one person may leave another injured.

  5. I definitely agree with what you said, and I think that the experience of using various training plans in the past has helped me to figure out my own strengths and weaknesses as a runner and taught me alot about training styles. I think its even helpful to try some of these plans to experience them for ourselves as coaches, so we know what the workouts feel like. I definitely think its better to have an individualized plan that can be adjusted, and I think even runners who don’t hire a coach can learn about themselves by following plans, at least in the beginning.

    1. I definitely agree about testing coaching workouts on ourselves! I’ve been doing a bit of that lately and even though those types of workouts won’t work for every client, it’s good to know what they’re like.

  6. Honestly, I think you did a great job with your first marathon and it was a bold move using Hansons Marathon Method. With the plan maxing out at a 16 mile long run, it’s a bold move for anyone to use it, but especially a first-time marathoner (btw I’ve read the book and understand why it maxes out at 16, but a lot of people are still skeptical of that).

    I think as people grow as runners, they figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. Imagine following a plan and halfway through, figuring out it just doesn’t work for you, you know? I don’t follow any sort of training plan and just shoot for a couple quality days (intervals, tempo, long) and a few easy days each week. I’ve read a lot of the books and everything from Hansons Marathon Method to Run Less Run Faster have all influenced my training in some way.

    If I trained for a marathon I would hire a coach for that. That’s a LOT of stress on the body and I’d want to at least take the stress of planning my own workouts out of it.

    1. Thank you! The Hansons 16 mile cap does make sense in terms of how they got that idea (they interpreted Jack Daniels’ rule of long runs in relation to overall mileage, although Jack Daniels is heavily geared towards fast runners training at a high volume), but there is so much more to marathon running than being physiologically prepared, as I found out. I definitely agree that knowing what works comes as you gain experience as a runner – and that’s why cookie cutter plans can be useful for new runners, because it helps them learn that in a safe and effective way.

  7. I agree! I think a lot of runners are drawn to the cookie cutter plans because they just don’t know where else to turn, and in this day and age when free content online is becoming more of an expectation than a luxury, people balk at the idea of hiring a coach or buying a more customized plan, especially when they see all their friends just downloaded a free Hal Higdon plan and ran zillion-minute PRs on that.

    I make my own marathon plans now, just based on things I’ve learned and like to do. For my first marathon I bought a Runners World plan and while it “worked” just fine, I walked away feeling like I wasn’t quite challenged enough. I got the same sense looking at Higdon plans, but Hansons seemed too hard, so I finally just decided to split the difference and cherry pick what I liked and, voila! That said, I’d need a lot more guidance on a shorter distance race where I can’t just throw more miles at it and see what happens if I want to get better.

    I want to give you a million high fives for your statement about 15 mile mid week runs. SERIOUSLY. OMG.

    1. Seriously – who has time? I work from home and have a flexible schedule and do my long runs during the week, and still no way am I going to add on another mid-week run over 90 minutes. I guess more power to the people who can!
      And the free content online = so so so true. There are so many plans out there, but they are so generalized. I ran my first 10K on his plan and it was good because I was also planning my wedding and writing my master’s thesis, but then when I actually wanted a plan to challenge me for the half, so many of the free plans just didn’t work. It sounds like you’ve done a great job in crafting marathon plans that work for you!

  8. Love your post! I found that there are so many training plans that focus on distance, and as a slow runner, it just didn’t work for me. I read Greg McMillan’s book You (Only Faster), and I loved his tips for how to take any training plan and customize it. It’s very similar to what you talked about, it really comes down to understanding yourself as a runner. He also talks about identifying which types of workouts will be hard or take more recovery time and to feel free to shift things around within a week or across weeks to make something that works for you.

    1. Thank you! So many of the training plans are SO distance focused – which doesn’t work for everyone! I’ve never read McMillan’s book but I think it’s pretty similar to Hudson’s Run Faster from the 5K to Marathon – all about adapting your training to you. I should find it and give it a read! I’m glad you found a plan/book that worked for you! 🙂

  9. I’ve always kind of tweaked my training plans around what I can and can’t do with scheduling. I would even plan shorter runs around vacations and such. I’d be curious to see what would make me run a better race– my plan or canned plan! Great points!

    1. Thank you! I do the same thing when it comes to travel or holidays – I always change my runs around those. I always think that our bodies can use those extra little bits of recovery as it is, since recovery is so important for training and racing well.

  10. Hiring a coach is the best thing I have ever done. I trained for my first marathon using Hal Higdon’s Novice 2 plan, and the outcome was a disaster. I don’t think i would have done marathons 2 and 3 without my coach. What a difference she made for me!

  11. I’ve used so many different training plans for half marathons! I think my best one was the one I did with a group of girls training together and a group of 4 coaches helping us meet our goals for speed work and long runs. I had the accountability and the hands-on training from coaches, plus it was time based instead of distance based so I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of miles. I’m nervous when I think about attempting to make a training plan for my first marathon (which, if I continue to keep recovering from my injury, should be this November) because I’ve never done it before! I may need to get a coach for that one. Thanks so much for the tips and for giving me some things to think about!

    1. That sounds like an awesome training model! Training by time is always a good way to make it less stressful and more effort-based, plus it keeps runners from training too hard. You shouldn’t be nervous about a full marathon, especially since you’ve done so many half marathons! I love working with runners transitioning from the half to the full (which I did myself last October), so shoot me an email if you are interested in coaching or have any questions about it!

  12. I completely agree with everything in this post. I’ve always been pretty good at taking online training plans and combining a few to what better first my lifestyle. I know 6 days a week of running would burn me out so I don’t bother trying depiste other people raving about the method. This year I’ve hired a coach and I absolutely love having that personalized advice.

    1. I’m glad to hear you’ve found success with both a coach and your own methods! I definitely concur that the number of days running, along with volume, varies widely from one runner to the next. A training plan is almost like a make your own adventure with how many different variables and options there are!

  13. I have tried to adjust the cookie cutter plans for myself before, yet ended up hardly following my adjusted plan at all. In retrospect, I think I adjusted according to what I liked/didn’t like rather than what worked best for me – which are not always the same thing! So I would start following the plan, see no improvement, then ditch it to run whatever I wanted.

  14. Laura this is awesome. Like I’ve talked about with nutrition and diets there really isn’t a one size fits all for running either. Keep learning but listen to your body and make it your own. Even the best of plans need tweaking for individual needs.

  15. I LOVE this post and hope so many runners read it. I couldn’t agree with you more about runners not being cookie cutter. The challenge for new runners is that they don’t yet know what works for them, which is where a coach can really help as you suggest. I’ve always been a fan of taking the best parts of several training philosophies and combining them. I like some of the workouts and easy runs of Hansons but not the long runs and think the speed workouts are too slow. I love the pacing in Run Less Run Faster based on 5K but think eventually runners need more mileage to break through. Etc etc etc. Your coaching philosophy is going to serve so many runners well! xo

    1. Thank you so much!! I agree that the Hansons speed workouts are a bit too slow. I think I understand why they do that, but there’s so much benefit to running faster than 5K pace, even if it’s for shorter intervals. It’s so fun to learn and read about all these training philosophies!

  16. Great post! I read Brad Hudsons book and used it to train myself for my last marathon and I really liked it. I used his training plans as a general guideline but used my own experience and knowledge of my body to create my weekly training schedule. It worked out great and I had a good race. I have been curious about the Hanson merhis but now that I have a baby, there’s no way that week day volume would work for me.

    1. That’s great to hear that a Hudson inspired plan worked so well for you! The volume of the Hansons method is rough – most days you’re running 10 miles or more, which can be tricky to fit in even without a baby or a busy job!

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