The Ins and Outs of Training Plans
As we enter mid-July, runners start to follow training plans for fall races. Next week marks 19 weeks until the Philly Marathon and JFK 50 Mile, 16 weeks until the NYC Marathon, 13 until Chicago and the Staten Island Half, 12 until New Hampshire and Maine, and 11 until Berlin and the Hamptons Half. In case you weren't keeping track. And just one week to the Greater Yellowstone Adventure Series if you want to join me next Saturday in Montana!
I'm often asked when you should start training and what comprises a good training plan. I will share my thoughts on both, using experience from coaching athletes of all levels and racing over 50 marathons myself. Feel free to reach out with questions.
When to start a training plan?
It is no surprise that this depends on the runner! Your age and current level of fitness, weekly mileage, race experience, injuries or conditions, and life schedule are all factors to consider. I have coached runners to a goal-pace half or full marathon over cycles as short as four weeks to as long as 20 weeks. A training plan beyond 20 weeks can become mentally and physically exhausting and lead to overtraining, unless you are truly starting from scratch. Overtraining syndrome occurs when you train beyond your body's ability to recover. You experience energy depletion, diminished performance, and persistent soreness in your muscles and joints.
For healthy and active runners with race experience, 12 to 16 weeks for marathon-specific training and 8 to 12 weeks for a half is often sufficient. If you anticipate work travel, personal conflicts, or medical conditions interfering with training, it can be helpful to have more flexible and slightly longer training cycles, such as 14 to 20 weeks for a full and 10 to 14 for a half.
My athletes ask me how long of a plan I follow. As someone who has run six to eight+ marathons a year since 2011, I hold a higher base of mileage and use marathon races as long runs. I plug in shorter and easier runs for a couple of weeks after a race to recover and fill in the gaps with quality interval training and mid-distance tempo and long runs. If you race frequently, race preparation should focus more on tuning your strength and recovery.
What makes a good training plan?
In a word: personalization. I have my athletes first answer questions about their fitness habits, current mileage and pace, race goals, motivations to run, running shoes, health, and nutrition. This allows me to create a customized plan to maximize return on training time. I believe the most important consideration of any training plan is to stay injury-free. It is crucial to prioritize health and continuously make adjustments, such as switching the long run to a different day, incorporating specific strength exercises for aches and pains, or swapping out less specific workouts like cross-training.
In general, key components of an effective half or full marathon training plan include interval training, tempo runs, and long runs. A few months ago I shared example workouts for each.
Interval Training: often referred to as "speedwork", helps to improve your aerobic capacity by making you quickly adapt to different speeds and become a more efficient runner.
Tempo Runs: also referred to as lactate threshold runs, are done at a pace that’s faster than your half-marathon pace, but just slower than your 10K pace to increase the time it takes for your body to accumulate lactate and fatigue.
Long Runs: enhance your entire physiological system—including blood flow, energy production, bone and muscle strength—while giving you mental confidence needed for the race.
How to train effectively
From my experience coaching and racing, I have developed a few key principles to consider:
Intervals: Avoid back-to-back days of intervals. For most runners, one interval training session a week is most effective to balance improving endurance with staying injury-free.
Tempo runs: Gradually increase the length of your tempo runs over a training cycle. Work up to 6 to 8 mile tempos for a half and 10 to 13 mile for a full.
Long runs: Don't put long runs on a pedestal. Have weeks where you practice running the day before or after long runs to simulate running on tired legs. For advanced runners or those training for an ultra, incorporate weeks with back-to-back long runs.
Easy runs: Easy runs should be as easy as possible. Ignore your watch. This is critical if you are doing more than four runs per week. Easy runs coupled with intentional recovery sessions help achieve weekly mileage while letting your body regain strength after harder efforts.
Build-up: Keep the build-up in mileage around 10-15% per week with step-back or recovery weeks. Weekly mileage increases are a gentle, rolling progression instead of up and to the right. Avoid playing "catch up" with a plan if you miss a session, focusing on what's ahead.
Paces: Train faster to run faster. Running too often at half marathon goal pace for a half or marathon pace for a marathon can be mentally taxing; instead, use 5k or 10k intervals and tempo efforts to be more confident running faster than goal pace.
Cross-training: The closer cross-training can mimic running form and activate running muscles, the better. The elliptical, stair-master, and swimming, which keep your torso upright and hips forward and use your arms, core, and quads and glutes, are better forms of cross-training.
Strength-training: Correct muscle imbalances and reduce injury risk with specific strength exercises at least twice a week. Last month I wrote about exercises that build a strong foundation for running.
Nutrition: Have a nutrition plan and practice it. Nutrition, rather than your training, is often the reason why you hit a wall in a race.
Taper: Taper smarter and shorter. Taper about 10 days before a race, maintaining normal training until then. Studies show longer taper periods cause too drastic of a change in routine and anxiety.
Recovery: Recover as hard as you train. More mileage means more recovery and more sleep. Rest is important to maintain good mental health and optimal performance. And invest in your favorite tools of the recovery trade.
Training plans require motivation and discipline. Prepare to commit time and effort, mentally and physically, to follow a plan. As Eliud Kipchoge says, "To win is not important. To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial. When you plan very well and prepare very well, then success can come on the way.”