A lot is made of the intent behind someone's training programme (or lack thereof) and their approach to exercise by influencers, trainers and coaches alike. Based, insofar as I can tell, on the fact that we fitness professionals like to view what we do in the gym, or have clients do, as just a small component of a much larger, holistic journey towards health, there is a narrative emerging that much of what people do in the gym (or outside jogging around the streets, for example) is wasted and pointless, because there is no intent behind it. Sometimes this is a direct judgement of those who train without a plan, other times it's the inadvertent byproduct of glorifying the idea of a masterplan. For clarification, before I go further, I make my living by planning people's workout routine and often other parts of their life, such as sleep, nutrition, non-exercise activity, mindset and other useful habits. I am most definitely one of those coaches who views the gym as small part of a bigger healthful lifestyle. But the great thing about really viewing someone's health holistically, is that you begin to understand that no singular component exists within a vacuum. Eating less calories may reduce energy levels. Reduced energy levels may reduce motivation, concentration and willpower. The reduction of these things may reduce adherence to a workout plan. Not working out may adversely impact overall routine and sense of wellbeing. Cutting calories may not have been the best first intervention. All just an example, of course. So how does this relate to aimless, unplanned exercise? Well, I think considerations for how much of a plan you need, fall into 4 categories.
Your goals. If your goals are modest, as so many people's are, you may not need a plan, or a less strict and all encompassing one. Sure, if you want to wind medals at the world level in any sport, or break record, you're probably going to need a detailed plan, and to stick to it pretty closely. If you want to lose a few pounds, feel better in a certain pair of jeans, and not get so out of breath climbing the stairs, your plan needs to be much lass detailed, and may not, cue the outrage, need to exist at all.
Your training age and body awareness. Plans can be very useful for those who are newcomers to working out and eating well etc, but may hold less value to those more experienced. Equally, those who have been training, eating a certain way and so forth for quite some time are usually better in tune with the feedback their bodies give them. They know when to back off the intensity a little, they know when they feel their best, and they know when eating something has changed the way they feel for better or for worse. Step by step plans can be great for getting people started, but longer term, self-efficacy should be a goal, at least to some degree.
Ability to motivate and discipline oneself. Some people have a high degree of self-discipline and can motivate themselves to do what's required, even when they're struggling. Other people struggle with this. While it is a trainable trait, while you work on it, a plan might be great to hold you accountable. If you're great at holding yourself accountable, you may be able to plan as you go, or have a looser plan provided for you to adapt as you go.
Your training knowledge. If your goals exceed your knowledge, it makes sense to follow a programme. It makes sense to have someone guide you, and to take and act on feedback. Sticking to the intent of the programme will matter, and will affect its efficacy. If you have the knowledge to train for your own goals, then you might be fine without a plan, or adapting a generic one to suit.
So how does all of this affect your intent each session? If you're following a plan, especially one tailored to you, the intent should be to complete each session as close to the prescription as possible. This is because there is a plan behind the plan. Things are designed to compliment one another, to interact in certain ways, and to progress at certain rates. Paying for a plan, and not having purpose to your training, excepting the odd time you legitimately need to adapt or deviate, is a waste of money. But, as you read above, not everyone needs to spend money or time on a plan. Some people have modest goals, and are capable of achieving them on their own. In this instance, some sessions may be planned on the fly, based on how you feel in the moment, and may not have any goal other than to move because you feel like it. This is where we step back and look at the whole picture. Sure, that 5k run may have been better with a structure, a purpose, maybe some breathing protocols to follow, a target cadence, or varying pace according to gradient, but maybe the 5k with no goals, not even timed, that allowed the runner to go and socialise with friends afterwards, and laugh all evening led to a healthier human climbing out of her bed the next morning. Maybe the structured 5k would have led to a lonely evening reflecting on aches and pains and a woman less willing to spring out of bed and start the next day. There is value to almost everything I have ever seen written in a training programme. Pace, load, rest periods, heights or distances, breathing patterns, effort levels, warm-ups and cool-downs, mindfulness practices, intra-workout hydration and nutrition, and anything else you can dream up. But everything's value is limited by context, and much of that context is unknown and unknowable, even sometimes to the athlete themselves. It can quite often be reduced to "something is better than nothing". A training plan, or an individual session plan might look optimal on paper, but in reality may be far from it. I've witnessed and worked with many people now whose greatest progress has been learning to just turn up and do something, on a consistent basis. No grand plan, no session-specific intent and often not even a record of what they have done. These people overwhelmingly achieve things beyond their wildest dreams over a period of 1-3 years, just by turning up and doing something. I'm a huge fan of detailed planning, tweaking the details based on results, methodically recording and tracking everything done, and having clear goals and intentions every time a workout starts or a meal is prepared, but I'm also a huge fan of understanding it's not essential. So next time you workout, if you have the energy and the presence of mind to dig into the details, do, and you will be rewarded, but if your only purpose is to workout because you want to workout, that's great too. That's exactly enough purpose to succeed.