Top 3 Reasons Runners Fail


After coaching so many runners – from new runners just getting started to Olympians and every thing in between – you start to see patterns and tendencies. Patterns of successful runners and tendencies of those that fail to hit their goal.

In coaching, my #1 job is to help runners avoid the tendencies that keep them from their goals so they get to the starting line healthy and the finish line faster. Let’s review the top three reasons runners fail to hit their goal. I’ll also provide the fixes you can add to your next training cycle to give yourself a better chance at meeting or exceeding your goal.


Raise your hand if you’ve had an injury that kept you from racing your best (or getting to the race at all!)? You are not alone. The injury rate in running is astonishing. Surveys show that between 60 and 80% of all runners get injured to the point that it compromises their training and racing. Sixty to 80% each year!

It’s clear that too many runners lack optimal training due to injuries and are left limping to the starting line, if they can get there at all. Obviously, this is not the best scenario for a peak performance.

But, avoiding injury is easy. I know. I know. That’s a bold statement but in my coaching, I’ve seen that I’ve been able to reduce the injury rate from the usual 60-80% to less than 10. That’s right. If you do it correctly, you can virtually eliminate running injuries. Here’s how:

A Smart Training Plan

First, get on a smart training plan for YOU. I highlight YOU because all training plans can be good but all training plans might not be good for you and your individual needs and life schedule. That’s why I break my plans into different levels and runner types, so you slot into the plan that best fits you. (You can try my plans for free here.)

I believe there are four key elements to a smart training plan:

First, you should be able to “spread the stress” when necessary. In other words, you need the ability (and should feel empowered) to move workouts around so you can add more recovery. That’s why our system allows you to drag and drop workouts to different days in your calendar.

Second, a smart plan gives you ranges so you can modify the training load based on how you are feeling from day to day. Feeling tired? Do the lower end of the volume range. Feeling great? You can do the higher end of the range. You’ll see ranges in all of my plans.

Third, a smart plan includes “down” weeks. Down weeks are reductions in training volume every few weeks to give you body time to recover from the few previous training weeks. And not only do down weeks help physically but the reduction in volume also helps refresh your mind so you are more excited for the upcoming training.

Lastly, a smart plan has lots of “wiggle room.” We must accept that life happens and it happens a lot so a smart plan should be very, very doable on a “normal” week, meaning a week where there are other life commitments. Too often, runners try plans with no wiggle room so unless they have a perfect life week, they can’t get in the training. This leads to inconsistency and I’d rather have you in a plan that you can complete even if the kids get sick, work gets busy or something else pops up.

Prehab Routines

The second way to avoid injury is through prehab training – non-running activities that keep you healthy. These are things like pre-run prep, core training, mobility work, running form drills and runner-specific strength training. (I even put together the McMillan Prehab Bundle to make it easy for you.) You’ll be amazed at how a little prehab keeps the injuries at bay and helps improve the quality of your training.

The key here is to do a few little things but to do them frequently to keep your body healthy. Running injuries are repetitive motion injuries so if the tissues are left untreated; you could be on the road to injury instead of victory. It doesn’t take much, which is why each of my training programs is designed to easily fit within your running and life schedule but a good prehab program can help you beat the injury bug.

Common Sense

The third way to avoid injury is to simply apply common sense when it comes to your training. I say, “simply apply common sense” but we all know that runners can get a bit crazy. Objectively, we know that little voice in our heads that says we need to take an extra day off, slow down on a recovery day or move the workout to another day but emotionally, we are often so driven that we ignore the warning signs and push on. This is what great coaches mean when they say, “Listen to your body.” What they really mean is that there is a little voice in your head that provides good guidance. Heed the advice and while your training calendar may not look like you originally intended, you will stay injury free and more consistent and I bet you’ll race faster in the end. (And it’s why I provide coaching access in my training club called Run Team – free trial available – so you can even consult with me and stay on track for your goals.)

I’ll sum up this final point with the opinion that what too many runners forget is that no runner missed her goal from taking an extra day of recovery now and then but many missed the goal because they didn’t rest enough and got injured.


The second reason runners fail to hit their goal is because their race-specific training is of low quality. When I say, “race-specific training” I mean the period of training (usually the last 6-12 weeks) leading up to your race where you are doing workouts that really get you ready for your goal race.

Obviously, issue #1 – injury – can cause low quality training but I find there are two big causes of low quality training.

First, runners aren’t properly prepared for the race-specific training phase. What I learned from the late, great Arthur Lydiard is that runners need to “do the training so they can do the training so they can really do the training” to get race ready. For example, Lydiard learned that if he had his runners, even his short distance (800 meters and milers) runners, build a big aerobic base, they could perform much better in the race-specific training (in their case the speed and sprint workouts). Further, he learned that if they not only built a big aerobic base first but then developed leg strength and dynamic “springiness” through a hill phase, they performed exceptionally well in the race-specific workouts and would be in peak shape for their peak races. It’s all about being ready to do your best in the most impactful race training and that’s why preparation is so important!

This is why for each of my training plans, I list the preparatory training you should do before your race-specific training. These “preparatory” phases of training help you get ready so you have really high quality race-specific workouts. Think about it. If you are able to perform better in your race-specific training, it just makes sense you’ll perform better in your races. You’ll get fitter so you can race faster.

The second reason for low quality training is poor workout execution. We’ve all done it. We start a workout too fast and then have to stop early because we are too tired to complete the workout. Or, our tempo run progresses to a race as we start competing against instead of training with our running buddies. You get the picture.

In both cases, the training wasn’t executed properly and I’ve found that athletes who consistently perform the best are the ones that execute workouts correctly. That’s why I include my detailed coaches notes along with videos and articles on how to perform each and every run in my training plans. I also include a very clear purpose for each run so you are reminded of what we’re trying to get from each run. Follow these and you’ll end each workout with just the right amount of stimulus to build your body and mind toward your goal fitness.


No. Not apple or lemon meringue pie. I’m talking about your stress pie. I think of daily stress as a pie. One slice is your work life. Another slice is your home life. Still another is your running. And many of us have several more slices as well.

The point of this third reason runners fail to hit their goal is that you can only tolerate so much stress – your full pie. Once you exceed your stress pie for a few days, the body and mind rebels, often resulting in injury or illness. Further, if one slice of the pie gets bigger – say work stress really ramps up – then another slice must get smaller or you will exceed your stress tolerance. I’m going to say that again. When one slice of the stress pie gets bigger then another slice must get smaller.

Here’s the challenge. Most runners are goal-driven people. They are driven in their work life. They are driven in their family life and they are certainly driven in their running. Can you see how this sets up the potential for failure?

It’s easy for runners to become over committed and to get their stress/rest cycle out of balance. But more times than not, I see this lead to sub-optimal running performance. The runners I’ve worked with that have the longest and best running careers are certainly the ones that are yes, determined and disciplined, but they also are the ones that know how to chill out. They knew how to let their training flow with life. (I mentioned this earlier when I spoke about my plans being easy to shift workouts around and offering ranges of distances for each run so you can adjust to keep your stress pie full but not overflowing.)

Think about your stress pie as you train and work to balance additional stress in one area with more rest in another area. It’s an ongoing dance between all your commitments but if you are willing to join in, you’ll have more consistent training and faster racing.


Running your best really is as easy as 1, 2, 3:

  • Get on a smart training plan, do your prehab training and listen to your inner coach (Try them for free here).
  • Be properly prepared for your most important training and then execute each workout as directed.
  • Respect your stress/rest cycle and make sure you modify training so it flows with your life, never exceeding your stress pie.



You can now try McMillan training plans for FREE! For a limited time, I’m offering a 14-day free trial of my training and coaching system called Run Team. Take a plan for a spin. Kick the tires as they say. If you like it, do nothing and your subscription will start. If you don’t like it, just cancel and you owe nothing. It’s a great way to experience training on what has been called, “The best training system on the planet.”

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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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“I got my first Boston Qualifier today with a 21 personal record!”

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