Forming a Training Plan
by Chris Cooper
The aim of this page is to provide simple and practical guidance for endurance runners wishing to put a training programme together for themselves for the first time.
This guidance is regardless of your age, current ability, gender or the specific racing distance you may be aiming for.
Why write your own training programme?
Look at pages on any number of running websites and in running magazines and you will find endless training programmes for novice runners. You will find programmes lasting just a few weeks up to a few months, all providing an ‘easy’ script for how to approach race distances of 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon and other distances too. This being the case, you may ask why it is worth the effort of having a go at writing your own schedule.
The reason why you should have a go at doing this yourself is because every runner is different, in a number of different ways outlined here. This means that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is inappropriate to follow. Differences relate to factors such as cardiovascular fitness, but more crucially lifestyle factors, such as your job, family life, social life and other factors which dictate the priority you can give to running.
Many enthusiastic recreational and club runners fantasise about having all day, every day available to them to run, cross train, do strength and conditioning work, eat well, rest and recover to enable them to achieve their potential as a runner. However, for the vast majority of runners this lifestyle is a pipe dream so it is important to consider how much you value running, and how and when you can fit the training you would like to do into your life.
Maintaining a work/life/running balance is really important for recreational runners, and getting this right is something that many runners are unable to do.
This guide is far from exhaustive but provides five principles to consider that will help you make the right decisions when putting together a training programme. Hopefully it will help ensure that running enriches your lifestyle, and you use well the time you have available to train.
1. What is my current training and fitness level?
The first thing to consider your current, baseline position of fitness. This doesn’t need to be overly scientific, but you need to consider how fit you currently are and use this as a starting point for planning how much training you can do at the beginning of your programme, and then build up from this point.
For example, if you already run three or four times a week, the first few weeks of your programme can include a higher volume of running training than if you are just starting out as a runner, or if you are returning from a lengthy spell of injury.
You need to gradually increase your training load (the amount of running you do each week) or you will increase your risk of injury. Use your current weekly mileage as a starting point and look to make increases every 4 to 6 weeks.
For novice runners, getting injured in highly likely if you all of a sudden go from running just a few miles once a week to, for example, 6 miles four times a week. You need to build up steadily and patiently to reduce this risk. If you are a complete beginner, the first step should be to try running multiple (3 or 4) times a week over short distances (up to 4 miles) that you find challenging but manageable.
If you are completely new to running or any kind of fitness training, you may want to consider consulting your GP before embarking on a training programme – especially if you have any underlying health concerns.
2. What is my goal?
All training programmes should have a goal, an end point that your are working towards that keeps you motivated throughout your training. It may be that you are starting out as a runner and you would like to be able to run a 5k event in six weeks time. Or you might be an experienced runner attempting a marathon for the first time, so you are building up over six months to take on your target race over 26.2 miles.
If your goal is a particular race, the date of the event will determine the length of your training programme – however make sure you allow yourself enough time to prepare. If it isn’t realistic to attempt a particular race in the weeks you have available, adjust your goal and choose a different race.
When setting a goal, making it a SMART goal is really important:
Specific – define exactly what you would like to achieve
Measurable – quantify your goal. For runners this may be running a race in a certain time, or completing a certain distance
Achievable – make sure you choose a goal that is appropriate for current ability
Relevant – consider your goal in the context of what you would like to achieve as a runner in the next 2-3 years or beyond
Time-bound – the specific date you target for achieving your goal
For a beginner runner attempting a 5k event, such as a parkrun, 6 weeks is a realistic timeframe to allow yourself.
If it is a 10k race, allow at least 12 – 16 weeks. Any distance further than this should not be attempted unless you are an experienced runner, with at least 1 – 2 years of running training completed.
3. How often can I train each week?
The most important thing in order to achieve the results you want is to be consistent. There is no point starting off training 3 to 4 times per week and over the length of your programme have some weeks when you train only once a week or not at all.
Think seriously about the time you have available to commit yourself to training, and make sure you block this time out each week to be able to train. Be flexible so that if,or example, you normally train on a specific night but one week this isn’t possible, you can switch your training to another night. The key thing in this scenario, is to re-arrange, not drop your session.
Training programmes are progressive, so as the weeks roll on your training volume and therefore possibly the amount of training days, will increase.
Ask yourself how important your running goal is in the context of your work, time with friends/your partner/family and the other things you do in your leisure time. Once you have evaluated this, decide how many times per week you can train and stick to this as a minimum. Be realistic, or you will become de-motivated if you cannot fit in all the training you have planned.
If you are starting to train seriously for a particular goal, you should allocate at least 3 days per week for running.
4. What sort of running training should I do?
Most running training programmes will consist of running done at a comfortable, easy pace, combined with ‘quality’ sessions that stress your body either in terms of the speed of your efforts or the volume of distance you are running in a single session.
We’ve already established that you should be running at least 3 times per week if you are getting serious about your running. If you are a complete beginner, concentrate on increasing the distance you are able to run each session until you can comfortably run 6 miles without having to walk/run.
If you are able to run 6 miles comfortably three times in a week, consider adding in some speed training. A good place to start is the Tuesday night track session organised at the Etihad Campus (formerly SportCity) by Manchester Frontrunners.
A really simple thing you can do is to add some ‘strides’ at the end of a training run. These are accelerations over a short distance (80 – 100 metres), whereby you increase your pace until you are almost sprinting or running flat out. At the end, jog or walk back to the start and repeat. Start out with a set of 4 and then increase by two repetitions until you can do 10 strides in one set. You can do strides on any flat surface, although grass or tarmac is a better choice than concrete as it is less hard and therefore the impact will be lower.
Future pages on the website will provide examples of speed training sessions.
5. What else do I need to do apart from running?
Every running session should be book-ended by warm-up at the start and cool-down and stretches at the end. The aim of the warm-up is to gradually increase your heart rate and to warm-up the muscles you will be using when you run. Runners use their upper bodies as much as their lower bodies, so your warm-up should consist of exercises for your whole body, and be specific for the type of movement you will be making.
Conversely, the cool-down is to slowly bring your heart rate down so it is starting to return towards the level it would be when you are walking or moving gently. This should be followed by a series of stretches where you elongate the muscles you have been using during your training. Firstly, this is to keep them from shortening, but over time stretching will encourage greater flexibility.
In addition, you need to consider strength and conditioning work. Increasing the amount of running you do every week, will make your heart stronger and more efficient at coping with physical exercise. Your cardiovascular fitness will increase at a faster rate than the strength of the other muscles in your body (such as in your arms or legs), the main reason why you need to increase your training load gradually.
Imagine you are a car, your heart would be your engine and the rest of your body is the chassis. If you put the engine from a sports car into a small hatchback, the chassis won’t be strong enough to cope with the power and it will start to fall apart. The same will happen to your body if you increase the amount of running you do too quickly, and you will run increased risk of injury
Therefore, as well as increasing the amount of miles you run gradually, you should also do some strength and conditioning work. If you are running 3 times per week, dedicate a fourth session to helping your body to get stronger in order to cope with your increasing cardiovascular fitness.
Examples of good strength and conditioning training that you can do include gym classes such as Body Pump, which will work your body well all over. You may do free weights at the gym, and if you do make sure you work your core – your abdominals and your back. Another idea is a demanding and/or ‘hot’ yoga class, such as Bikram yoga. For more ideas about strength and conditioning work, email firstname.lastname@example.org