The Donkey Strength Doctrine: Initial Thoughts and Principles

When I first started training, I remember how hard it was to find training information for events that included both strength and distance running. I pored through all the information I could find (living next door to the library helped) and finally found a way to put them together… right about the time that OCR-specific training books and plans started to come out.

Now, I see that the problem has morphed over the years. There are hundreds of training plans for specific types of athletes, and it gets very difficult for a beginning or non-elite athlete to find what training style works for their goals and their current physical condition. This often leads to doing nothing, paralysis by analysis.

The unlikely catalyst for putting together some thoughts for athletes in this space (the space where I lived for some time) was jokes surrounding an online meme:


I commented that Donkeystregth sounded like a ruck training program, then realized it was a fitting metaphor for this sort of athlete. Lacking both the speed and endurance of the race horses and the strength and stamina of the work horses, we get through training and events more on sheer stubbornness than anything else. Working toward being able to keep up with both of them (maybe call that state mule strong?), just not quite there yet.

I may write more on this at a later time, but for now, here are the key principles that I have learned so far:

1: Start now.


Do what you can with what you have now. You can change up how you go about it as you learn more and get stronger (there are things I did five years ago that I would not do now, and there are plans I have waiting for when I am strong enough to keep up with them), but doing nothing isn’t going to get you anywhere.

2: No Yeah Buts.

Hey I should start working out. Yeah, but I’m not sure if this plan is right.

I should eat more vegetables. Yeah, but the fresh is too expensive and the frozen has added sodium.

Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. Frozen veggies are better for you than McDonald’s. You don’t need to do things perfectly, just do a little better than you are doing right now. Later you can try to do a little better than that.

3: Pick a plan.

I like to pick a training plan lasting from three to fifteen weeks, complete it, then switch it up. This counters the two problems I often find: over-specialization and the shiny object syndrome.

Many goals require a certain amount of specificity in training, and that is all well and good. If you are training for a 100 miler, you need to devote a good deal of your training time to long runs. Just don’t get so focused on only one skill that all of your other abilities decrease. No one wants to be the guy that can run 200 miles but can’t carry his suitcase in from the car, or the guy who can pick up the car but can’t run around the block. Devote the training time to whatever event you have, then change up the next plan you use.

The shiny object syndrome was a problem for me for years. I like this plan, use it for a week. OOOH SHINY! That plan is better, I will switch to that one. OOOH MORE SHINY. Totally changing everything because this one is cooler! Other trainers have described this as chasing many rabbits and catching none. Pick one plan and stick with it for a month or three, then change things out.

4: Fit the plan to your abilities.

We have all tried a plan that looks easy on paper but absolutely flattens you when you go to do it. A lot of plans for events I want to do are written for people considerably fitter than I am. While a little of this is good, too much of it will lead to injury. If you find yourself on a plan that requires way more fitness than you have, you have three options, which fit different types of workouts.

First is to switch to an easier plan.Doing this too often leads to the shiny object syndrome, but doing it when you recognize you are out of your league is okay.

Second option is to break it into pieces. If you are beaten down at the halfway point of your workout, do half in the morning and half at night, or half today and half tomorrow. Next week try to do a little more, and build up to doing it all in one go.

Third, and most common, is to scale the weights, reps and paces. Plan calls for ten pullups and you can only do five? Okay, do five. You can’t keep the 8-minute-per-mile pace called for? Pick a pace that is challenging for you and go with it. Don’t make it easy on yourself, but make it doable.

5: PACE 

We all have things to do other than training, and life can get in the way. Having a PACE plan (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency) for your workouts can help keep you moving forward on days that would otherwise prevent getting any form of workout in.

Primary is what you originally planned to do.

Alternate is for small bumps in the road that may screw up your workout. If someone is hogging the squat rack, I can switch to a run or some dumbbell work (depending on what I did yesterday, etc.).  The alternate can be for the entire workout, or for a particular exercise that requires particular gear.

Contingency is for when logistics prevent you from getting to the gym or outside or wherever you usually workout. I like workout DVDs for this.

Emergency is when time and logistics have gone to crap and you just want to get something in. I keep a kettlebell behind my desk, will do 5-10 minutes of swings when I can’t get anything else in. Any available exercise can fill the bill. A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing.

6: Don’t overthink diet.

There are eleventy billion diet plans on the market, and every last one of them is convinced that they are the only way to eat properly, and you will likely hate being on at least 80% of them.

Make sure you are getting enough nutrients and are somewhere close to the amount of food that keeps you at the same weight (slow gain or loss depending on your goals). Take care of those two things and you have 80% of it figured out. Don’t look for the perfect diet, just something good enough that you can follow without hating life.

7: Learn proper form, and keep learning.

Learning how to exercise correctly will often mean doing it wrong for awhile until you figure it out, but you should always be trying to get as close to correct as possible. Various trainers will have various little tricks to check if your form is correct. Pick those up where you can and use them. (I tend to use little tricks from Pavel’s books pretty frequently.) While you are working through a plan, see what info you can dig up on what plan you might do next, try to understand the logic behind them and see if it matches your goals.


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