Behind the Scenes of Your Running Program

In a sea of options, which plan is right for you?

There are hundreds, if not thousands of running training plans out there. There are plans for every event from the 40-yard dash to ultramarathons, and all of them, to some degree, are effective.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of running training plans out there. There are plans for every event from the 40-yard dash to ultramarathons, and all of them, to some degree, are effective.

You can choose from plans that include three days of running per week or six; plans that include track work, trail runs, barefoot sessions, and every imaginable type of cross-training and drills. There are almost more training plans than runners to follow them, and thanks to the nature of the digital age, most of them are available for free.

But this leads to more consternation than enlightenment for most runners. In a sea of options, which plan is right for you? It’s all fine and well for a coach to tell you to “just pick one and stick with it,” but sometimes that means investing six months of your life and not a few dollars into something that might blow up in your face (or your shins, knees, or hips).

Then there’s the part where life gets in the way. Helmuth von Moltke, a 19th century Prussian general, famously observed that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Likewise, no training program survives first contact with cancelled babysitters, unexpected business trips, and minor injuries. The shiny new plan you started off with in the spring will be a tattered, marked-up, charred shell of itself by the time you toe the line in the fall, no matter how noble your intentions.

All of this means that the best running program is the one that’s built for you. It will adapt to your lifestyle, your goals, your previous experience, your injury history, and the dozens of other variables that make your training life unique. It will bend without breaking, have room for error and recovery, and allow you to do things for fun, without throwing the whole plan off the rails.

That all sounds like I just made a complicated task even more complicated, but this is something that I do for every runner who comes to me asking for a training plan.

Today I want to share the general principles I use to construct those plans, so you can use them to build your own, or adapt an existing plan to better fit between your goals and your life.

Work Backwards

Start by defining your start and end points. If you want to run a marathon (and you should), pick the event you’d like to do, and set that date as your endpoint.

This is the first of several reality checks: if you currently can’t run from your door to the car if it’s storming, and the marathon is in two months, pick a different marathon.

Your start point has two important elements: your current level of fitness, and the number of weeks until the endpoint. A lot of people ask me how long it would take me to train them for a marathon, but that answer is different for everyone.

If you’re already comfortable running half marathons in a reasonable time, I will probably feel good sending you a 12-week plan to get you to the finish line. If you’ve never run before and you’re 80lb overweight, we might take a couple years.

For most busy adults with a little running experience, who can currently trot out a 5k without undue suffering, I like to take about six months to build to a full marathon.

We can often get it done faster, but the purpose is to allow you to get to the starting line prepared, healthy, rested, and confident, and with plenty of slop time built into the overall plan for the curveballs life throws. That means if you’re eyeballing an October marathon, you should start putting your plan together in March, so you can roll in hot in April.

Once you’ve picked your race, study it and take notes. Learn about the course conditions, typical weather, and any hills you might encounter. These are the things you’ll need to simulate in your training in order to be as prepared as possible.

I can always tell the runners who’ve trained for hills from the ones who haven’t by how quickly I pass them once the climbing starts. Don’t be that guy.

The last step before I start building the training plan itself is to map out your life between your start and end dates. This will include travel (for work or pleasure), weddings, other races or events, birthdays, family gatherings, the works.

Your training shouldn’t make you an intractable jerk, so I’m not going to schedule a 10k time trial for the morning of your daughter’s birthday party.

Accumulated Fatigue

There are dozens of complex physiological mechanisms at work when you create a large change in your overall fitness.

But as an endurance coach, the one I pay the most attention to is accumulated fatigue. Going for a 10-mile run when your legs are fresh from four days of rest is a whole lot different than, say, going out for 10 miles in the evening after work, when you’ve already run three days this week.

Accumulated fatigue is a very handy concept if you have a full schedule and lots of training to get done. If I need 14 miles out of you on a given day, the training effect is similar if you run six in the morning and eight at night, as if you’d run all 14 together.

You’ll spend some additional time in the shower that day (pro-tip: hang two towels for yourself), but you’ll also be around to put the kids on the bus in the morning and make them dinner at night.

The plans that I write are, in essence, the careful manipulation of certain types and levels of fatigue to produce a desired physical adaptation.

I want to push your body enough to make it think that this is the new normal, but not so hard that it starts to break down. The variable I watch when creating the plan is overall volume, which can be measured in either distance or time.

It’s Not the Miles, It’s the Time

I prefer to mediate volume by time since there is such a huge variation in training paces and levels of difficulty.

If I ask you to go run five miles at your marathon pace +30sec, that’s a whole different animal than five miles of hill repeats or track intervals. An even better metric would be time in specific levels of exertion, but that gets too convoluted to track, for most people.

Tracking by time also allows me to create realistic workouts for the work week, and then vary the long runs (usually on a weekend) to modulate the overall volume.

If I write a workout that’s two hours long for a Tuesday night, chances are you won’t finish it. So I write workouts that you can reasonably accomplish in the time you have, and clean up loose ends if you can find time elsewhere.

All that said, writing your training plans according to time makes picking routes a little finicky. If I have you scheduled for a 90-minute long run at an easy pace, you have to figure out ahead of time what that easy pace is going to be, then how many miles you could cover in that time, then find a route that is that many miles. It’s a couple steps more work than just saying “go run 10 miles at an easy pace,” but I’ve found it produces more reliable outcomes.

Programming for time also allows you to adapt to circumstances like the weather. If you get a freakishly hot morning and you have 14 miles on the schedule, you’re likely to slog it out until it’s a death march, or else push yourself into a higher level of exertion than I prescribed.

Either way, the desired training stimulus is compromised. If I told you to go run for 120 minutes, as soon as that watch beeps you can knock it off.

Step Up, Step Back

Deload weeks are common in many training environments, and I find them particularly useful for runners.

In my own training, I’ve found a 4:1 ratio of build weeks to deload weeks to work pretty well. This pattern is also called a microcycle. I’ve also written programs that included 2:1 microcycles, or even 6:1 microcycles, based on the athlete’s schedule, needs, and natural tolerance for accumulated fatigue.

To go back to our 5k-to-marathon runner above, the long runs in their program might follow a pattern like this, in their first couple cycles:

Week Minutes Miles
1 30 4
2 30 4
3 40 5
4 50 6
5 30 4
6 40 5
7 50 6
8 60 7
9 60 7
10 40 5

There are two critical things happening here. First, the volume builds gradually, so it doesn’t overwhelm the runner. Second, the step-back (or deload) weeks allow them to recover physically and mentally.

That five-mile run in week 10 is going to feel a lot easier than the one in week three, and that’s an important piece of positive feedback. I think deload weeks are so important that I’m much more likely if the plan becomes compromised, to accelerate the increase in mileage, rather than eliminate a deload week.

Tangent to this concept is the taper. I like to taper runners about 10 days out from a half marathon, and 2-3 weeks out from a full marathon—shorter races require a week or less.

Theories abound on what a proper taper should include, but the general concept is to sharply reduce the overall weekly volume to allow your body to recover and consolidate the gains of your last training cycle.

The most important part of the taper is simply to not screw it up by trying to squeeze in a few last-chance workouts. When the taper comes, let off the throttle, no matter how nervous you are about the upcoming race.

Hit the Track

Crafting track workouts is an art unto itself, but the most important thing is that you’re doing them. The simple truth is that running slow will not teach you to run faster, and I’ve never met a runner who wasn’t interested in going faster.

No matter what distance your eventual goal race is, you’ll benefit from spending at least one day per week on the track.

In general, I keep track intervals to a mile (1600m, or four laps of a standard track) or less. Any more than that and they start to feel like drudgery, and frankly, I have a hard time counting past four while sucking wind at the same time.

The track is the place to work on your running mechanics and efficiency (also called running economy), increase cardiovascular capacity (VO2 max), and test new, more minimal footwear.

I adore doing track workouts in spikes, because they’re impossibly light, make me feel much faster than I probably am and most important, help strengthen my feet, calves, and ankles.

There are dozens of different ways to build a track workout. If you’re new to the track, to get your feet wet, I suggest picking a reasonable 5k goal time, then running sets of 200m repeats at just under that goal pace, with 50m recovery.

When you can do a dozen of them without your form starting to break down, move to 300m repeats with 100m recovery. Then move to 10 sets of 400m/100m, 9 sets of 600m/100m, and 8 sets of 800m/200m.

If you can finish that last workout at goal pace, go get your new 5k PR! In the meantime, every other distance you want to run just got easier.

Hit the Trails

This is one area where I sometimes get pushback from my road runners. For reasons I don’t quite understand, the risk-averse among them are intimidated by running trails, even while they continually suffer injuries pounding out road miles.

Trail running is one of the secret weapons in my training program arsenal. They teach your body to handle varying surfaces, relieve boredom, reconnect you with nature, and remind you that running is supposed to be fun, or even beautiful.

Regularly putting in an hour or so of trail running, once every week or so, will make you more resistant to injury, improve your stride and foot-strike mechanics, and make you a better person.

The trails are one area that I encourage athletes to leave their watches in the car, or at least in their back pocket. The pace you run on the trails matters very little. Go out there, find some flow, run happy, and let your body and nature do the work.

Most trails are too variable to stay in a certain physiological zone anyway, so just don’t sweat it. Run by feel. There’s no reason to ruin a perfectly good trail run with meaningless data.

Get Under a Barbell

There’s a whole lot of science out there to back this up, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Runners who start lifting weights with purpose and intensity get faster, last longer, and suffer fewer injuries.

It’s happened for every single athlete that I’ve managed to convince to get under a heavy barbell. Squats, deadlifts, cleans, loaded carries, and kettlebell work are all your friends, especially in the offseason.

Most runners are also tragically misinformed about lifting technique, so I encourage you to find a coach to teach you. Lift hard, lift heavy, and don’t sweat all that 1970s nonsense about weights making you slow. All it will make you is stronger, more resilient, and better looking.

Less Is More

You will not successfully run a half or full marathon without running quite a lot of miles in training.

That much is fact. But there are diminishing returns to just pounding out miles, and your risk of injury increases as the miles stack up. I have become a huge proponent of plans that include only 3-4 days a week of focused running, coupled with 2-3 days of rigorous cross-training.

This approach often results in longer training programs before a goal race, but I don’t view that as a drawback. Gradual progress is more sustainable, and less taxing psychologically and physically.

Speaking of diminishing returns, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests training efforts longer than about 2 ½ hours aren’t really worth it. Past that duration, you get very little in the way of adaptation, and your risk of repetitive stress injury goes way up.

With that in mind, your last few long runs in a marathon training program might not exceed 16 or 18 miles, depending on your pace. Don’t let that worry you on race day, though. The adrenaline of the event and the fresh legs from your taper weeks will give you the extra gas you need to make it to the finish.

All of this comes together in a plan that has you doing a long run on the weekend and at least one track workout during the week.

Your third run is a “wildcard,” and will be either trail, hills, or tempo, depending on your goal race and where we are in the overall program. I tend to use hills to build strength in the earlier portion of the program, and tempo (or race-pace) runs in the latter stages to build confidence running at speed.

Employ the Principles

Those are the general principles I use when I build plans for myself or my runners.

I encourage you to try them out for yourself in your next training cycle or discuss them with your coach. If you find all that overwhelming and would rather somebody else do the engineering for you, I’d be happy to work with you.

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