Improving your running performance requires you to set goals and develop plans to achieve those goals. Your training plan describes the steps involved in reaching your goal. Your progress as a runner, therefore, is only as good as your ability to plan.
Much of my work as a “coach” and exercise physiologist is just helping runners to develop well thought-out plans. Effective planning is really quite simple. It starts with determining where you are now, where you want to go, and the process involved in getting there. Effective planning also entails evaluating where past plans have gone wrong. If you keep records of your training and race performances (there is lots of software available for this if you are so inclined), then the effectiveness of your planning will improve each time you go through the cycle.
I use a 10 step process to develop and evaluate training plans. Let’s go through the process, step-by-step.
Step 1: Select a goal race and a goal for your performance in that race. Your goal race should ideally be at least 15 weeks away so you have enough time to train to significantly improve your performance. Your goal should be difficult enough to be motivating but not so difficult that you cannot envision yourself achieving it.
The next 2 steps lay out the basic structure of your training plan.
Step 2: Block off the last 2 or 3 weeks leading up to your goal race to taper your training. By cutting back your training, you allow your body to rebuild to peak strength. Generally, the longer the race the longer the taper that is required for optimal performance. If the length of your goal race is a half-marathon or less, then a 2 week taper should be sufficient to leave you optimally prepared for race day. For a marathon, a 3 week taper is a better option. You can fill in the details of the taper later.
Step 3: Plan a recovery week every 3rd to 6th week of your program. Recovery weeks are a critical success factor in your training by allowing your body to adapt to the key workouts you put in during your hard weeks. Recovery weeks help you to avoid overtraining (which is really under-recovery), and reduce your likelihood of injury and illness. A rule of thumb for a recovery week is to do 60 to 70% of your previous week’s mileage, and to not include any hard sessions such as intervals.
Step 4: Insert several tune-up races to prepare physically and mentally for the rigors of racing. A tune-up race is simply a race of lesser importance that you use to help prepare for your goal race. Tune-up races serve three purposes, they: 1) make you go through the nerves of racing which helps reduce your anxiety before your goal race; 2) toughen you mentally and physically by taking you to your limit; and 3) provide feedback on your current fitness level.
Tune-up races are generally shorter than your goal race, so you can practice running at, or slightly faster than, your goal pace for a sustained period. You may also want to include one or two races at the same distance as your goal race as a benchmark to gauge the effectiveness of your preparation. A typical plan might include tune-up races 2,4, 6, and 10 weeks prior to your goal race.
Step 5: Between recovery weeks, there are 3 to 5 week training blocks during which you put in the hard efforts that improve your fitness. Now you need to decide what your training priorities will be during each training block. Logically sequencing the priorities for your training blocks is called periodization.
There are many possible ways to categorize training. Four simple categories that I use are: Endurance (your ability to run long); Lactate threshold (your ability to sustain a fast pace for more than 20 minutes); VO2 max (your ability to run fast for up to 10 minutes); and Speed (your ability to run fast for less than 1 minute).
During each training block, you will have a main training objective, a secondary objective, and a third minor objective, which are selected from the 4 categories of training. Which types of training you should emphasize in each training block depends on the distance of the race, how many weeks away it is, and your own strengths and weaknesses as a runner. For example, with 20 weeks to go until a marathon, your primary objective would likely be to emphasize endurance, whereas with 5 weeks to go before a 10 K you would likely emphasize VO2 max training.
The specific workouts will be discussed in detail in Step 6, but first you should develop the overall strategy for the periodization of your training. A useful guideline for periodizing training is: the closer to the race, the more race-specific your training should become.
Here is a typical progression in preparing for a 5 K or 10K:
Training Block Priority 1 Priority 2 Priority 3 1 Endurance Lactate threshold VO2 max 2 Lactate threshold Endurance VO2 max 3 Lactate threshold VO2 max Endurance 4 VO2 max Lactate threshold Speed
Step 6: Select 3 days per week for your hard workouts, allowing at least one rest day between efforts.
Step 7: Insert the key workouts in each week of your training blocks according to the training objectives you selected in Step 5. Examples of the most effective types of workouts for the four training objectives are shown in the table below. More examples are provided in my book Road Racing for Serious Runners.
Training Objective Type of Workout Intensity Distance/Time Sample
Endurance Long run 10-20% slower than MP 15 miles
Lactate threshold Tempo run 15K at MP 15-40 minutes 25 minutes
VO2 max Long intervals 3K to 5K race pace2-6 minutes 6 x 1K
Speed Short intervals Fast but relaxed 15-45 seconds 12 x 150 m
Put in workouts for your primary objective twice in the first week and once in the second week; include one workout for your secondary objective each week; and do one workout for your minor objective every 2nd week (this is simpler than it sounds). An example of the hard efforts for a training block in preparation for a 5 K or 10 K is presented in the table below.
Sample Training block: Hard Efforts 10 weeks to 7 weeks before 5K or 10 K
Week Wednesday Friday Sunday
1 VO2 max Tempo run VO2 max
2 VO2max Tempo run Long run
3 VO2 max Tempo run VO2 max
4 VO2 max Tempo run Long run
Step 8: Fill in the rest of your aerobic workouts. This includes general aerobic conditioning runs and recovery runs, as well as cross-training.
General aerobic conditioning runs increase your training mileage and thereby enhance your aerobic fitness. For most serious runners, these runs are usually 50 to 70 minutes long, and should be done at a moderate intensity. Recovery runs help you to recover for your next hard session, and should be 20 to 45 minutes in duration. Recovery runs should be inserted into your training program before and after hard workouts and races. A typical schedule for a runner who runs six days per week would include three hard workouts, one general aerobic run, and two recovery runs.
It is important with both your general aerobic and recovery runs to avoid the temptation to run too fast or too far. By adding a few more miles or running too fast, you can wear yourself out so that the quality of your hard efforts goes down. Develop your plan and stick to it.
Some elite runners whom I coach run seven days per week, with up to 13 runs per week. Other serious runners I work with run five or six times per week, and gain additional aerobic fitness by cross-training. This usually consists of cycling, swimming and water-running in place of additional general aerobic runs or recovery runs. Thanks, no doubt, to cross-training, these runners hardly ever get injured.
Step 9: Fill in the non-running activities that will help you reach your racing goal. These consist of supplemental training sessions such as core strength training and flexibility sessions, as well as factors to help improve your recovery such as massage, staying well-hydrated, and maintaining a more regular sleep pattern. Including lifestyle factors as part of your training plan is intended to remind you to look after yourself. For many runners, it is these “extra” considerations that determine whether they reach their racing goals.
Step 10: After your goal race, assess the effectiveness of your plan, whether or not you achieved your goal. If you have a coach, the two of you should discuss your insights together. If you do not have a coach, then a training partner may be able to help you evaluate your preparation and your performance.
If you achieved you goal, try to determine what aspects of your plan genuinely helped. Was it increased mileage, a longer taper, better attention to diet, more tempo runs, or a combination of factors?
If you did not reach your goal, try to evaluate what factors got in your way. Was your goal realistic? Did injury or illness intervene, and can you take steps to reduce your likelihood of injury or illness for the future? Did you train too hard, miss important workouts, or do the wrong types of workouts? By reviewing the success of your last training plan you will learn how to develop a more effective plan to reach your next racing goal.
This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.