At some point in your running career, someone is going to recommend you follow a training plan. If you’re new to running, then you could be doing a Couch to 5k programme. That’s a training plan. For every goal you have and for every race you enter, someone, somewhere will have written a training plan. There are good plans for you and bad ones and you won’t always know when you set out which will work and which won’t.
The plans are frameworks. They’re not set in stone. If you need to move a session because you have a regular commitment when the plan says you need to run then move the session. If you need to do your long run during the week then do that. It’s fine.
Listen to your body. It will start to ache and you will become quite tired at some points in your plan. There’s an article about dealing with injuries elsewhere on this blog. They’re almost inevitable but we can do things to make them less likely and less severe.
Lastly, the most important thing to remember about training plans is that you are different from every other athlete out there. What works for one of your friends may not work for you. It’s a good idea to try out new things especially if what you’ve been trying so far hasn’t been working but be very wary of articles about the “killer 10k plan that will get you results.” It might exist and you might fall upon it by chance but you’re more likely to find it by talking things through with an experienced coach and trying out a variety of ideas until you hit upon the right mix of elements which will give you the results you want.
When you’re assessing your training plan you need to bear in mind three different variables. These are known as the FIT Factors. You have the Frequency of your sessions, the Intensity of your sessions, and the Time they take to complete. You can increase one of them at a time, but not two or worst, all three of them. An example, if you have been running easily three times a week and enter a 10k in six weeks’ time, you can’t then immediately go to six runs a week including a tempo run, an interval session and bump up the mileage on your long run. You’re asking for a miserable time at best or an injury taking you out for a while at worst.
As with so many things, the best thing you can do is ask a coach for advice. It’s what they’re there for.
Rest and Recovery
It’s almost a joke. The first day of nearly every training plan I’ve ever seen, and nearly every one I’ve written says REST. Rest is as important as what you do in your training sessions. During your rest days your body repairs the damage you’ve done to it in your training. Muscle fibres become stronger, tendons more resilient, the little mitochondria in your cells which provide all the energy you need while you’re running adapt and multiply. As I said, it’s important. In an absolute beginner’s plan you will run three days a week, maybe four in the biggest weeks if you want to do a parkrun. Don’t do too much on your rest days. It will make your running days feel much harder and remember – this is supposed to be fun.
Your Interval Session
I write my training plans so they include a variety of sessions, each with a different purpose. However, the three basic running sessions I include in every one are intervals, a tempo run and a long run.
Intervals are a series of shorter, harder efforts run at a considerably faster pace than you would normally run in your other sessions and in your target race. After each effort you have a recovery period to allow your heart rate and respiration to come down a bit before you set off on another effort.
The purpose of interval training is to ensure that you train the various energy systems your body uses. Most endurance runners use the aerobic system most of the time when racing and if you want to go faster, or go longer, or go faster for longer, you need to increase your aerobic capacity. An interval training session is one way to do this. There will be more on the different energy systems and how to use different sorts of training to improve different aspects of fitness elsewhere on the blog.
In the meantime, once you have a decent level of baseline aerobic fitness from your long runs, you can include sessions such as 6 x 3:00 or 4 x 6:00 in your training, pushing as hard as you can for the duration of the effort and not quite giving yourself enough time to recover fully before starting the next rep.
Most of your training as an endurance athlete, most of the time will be steady, easy paced running. Your long run each week is probably the most important component in your training schedule. Its duration will depend on the race for which you are training. 5k or 10k races will only need 40 to 60 minutes of easy running at a time. Your long run becomes even more important and will become longer in duration when you begin training for longer races than that. It’s always a good idea to seek advice from a coach when you embark on training for longer races. I like to go over distance when I’m training for a half marathon but it’s very unusual to go beyond 26 miles in a single run when training for a marathon.
Your pace for your easy runs should be exactly that: easy. You could try using the talk test. If you can talk easily in full sentences then you’re getting your pace for an easy run right. If you can only talk a few words at a time then you’re running too quickly and you need to slow down. If you need to take a walk break on a long run then take your walk break. There is a lot to be said for “time on your feet,” especially in the early days of your running career. If you expect your race to take you an hour then spend an hour running or running and walking.
You need to allow yourself enough time to recover from your long run in particular before your next training session. It will take a lot out of you.
A tempo run is probably the hardest session to get right. There is a pace at which your body shifts from using mostly its aerobic energy system to using mostly an anaerobic energy system and your tempo run should be at about this pace. It’s hard to run at this pace on your own for long and for this reason, it’s a really good session to do with a training group. If you’re using the talk test then you should only be able to get out two or three words at a time. “Pace okay?” is a good one. If you manage more than that, speed up a bit.
If you have a decent level of aerobic fitness then starting at ten or fifteen minutes of tempo running would be good. You can gradually increase the duration of your tempo run until you’re going for about half the planned duration of your race.
Again, you will need to allow yourself enough time to recover from your tempo run.
I always include recovery runs in my training plans. However, they are entirely optional. I have found them very useful because I get some of the stiffness out of my legs after a hard session on an easy recovery run the next day. I can then start my next hard session on legs which move more freely. However, everyone is different and you might need a full day of recovery, or not need the recovery run at all in order to run your next session hard.
I am a big believer in cross-training, using one sport or activity to train for another. In olden days, when we were still allowed to meet up and hug one another, I used to go swimming on Fridays. I’m not a great swimmer and I’d only do a couple of lengths of slow crawl at a time but it was calming, meditative and a good stretch after my Thursday session.
A good alternative is easy spinning on your bike. If you have a bike, go out for 30-45 minutes of easy riding. Don’t push the pace. Don’t get all sweaty. Just ride around for a bit, use the time to free up some tightness in your legs.
If you do yoga or Pilates then carry on with that. Or just go for a walk. Have an hour to yourself that isn’t about everything else you have going on in your life.
You Don’t Need to Stick to 7-Day Weeks
It’s convenient to have a training block based on a number of 7-day cycles. A week is an entirely arbitrary length of time and it’s especially convenient for working with other people also using the same cycle. However, if you need more recovery after your sessions than can be squeezed into 7 days, you can use a 10- or 14-day cycle. These work well especially for older athletes or athletes who have only recently started training, both of whom will need longer recovery between sessions.