How To Pick The Perfect Training Plan

With all of the potential training plans out there, how can you know which works for you?

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It’s very easy to get caught up in the mindset that you have to hire a running coach to reach your goals. These days, it seems that everyone either is a coach or has a coach – or both. As we all know, running can be expensive – entry fees, shoes, GPS devices and other gear can cost a small fortune (if you are looking for ways to save money on running, check out this post I wrote) – and so the additional cost of a personal coach may not be feasible for you, even if you wanted one.

There are so many free training plans available these days that are challenging and effective without spending the money on a coach. But it can be overwhelming. Where do you begin? How do you tailor a plan? Which plan is even best for you?

Here are a few ways to go about creating your own plan!

  1. Pick a Race! Sounds easy enough, but finding one that fits with your schedule, your current ability and the amount of time you have to reach your goals may be tougher than it sounds. You’ll want to ensure that you have a solid base, are running consistently and have been running injury-free for several months before you start ramping up training.
  2. Decide the training method. There are a slew of different training methods out there. Take into account your interests, desires, ability and available time. For example, if you would prefer to cap your long runs for a marathon at lower mileage (think 16 miles), you might want to consider the Hansons Method. If you like higher mileage long runs, some of the other plans may be better suited for you. Do some research, talk to some friends and figure out what you are most comfortable with. Here are a few free or relatively inexpensive plans you can purchase:
    1. Hansons Method (Marathon, Half Marathon, Couch to 10k)
    2. Cool Running (Marathon, Half Marathon, 10k, 5k, Couch to 5k)
    3. Jenny Hadfield (Zero to Running to Ultras)
    4. Hal Higdon (Half Marathon, Marathon) – costs $9.99
  3. Be realistic when you choose your ability level and goal mileage. Most of the above plans have plans for beginners, intermediate and advanced runners. For example, if you are running 20-25 miles per week (mpw) when training begins, do not choose a plan that kicks off with 40 mpw. Or if you are comfortably running 3-4 times per week, choose one that sticks to that frequency. Don’t choose one that has six days of running.
  4. Work Backwards. Mark your race on the calendar and work backwards to see when you will begin training. Put any obligations or events that may prevent you from completing an important run. This way you can plan ahead and switch things around.
  5. Find 1-2 tuneup races. While not necessary (at all!), having a couple of races on the calendar during the training cycle can help dust off your racing shoes, while also serving a great test run for nutrition and gear. Many of the training plans have tuneup races included in the schedule. It just may take switching around some weeks so they align.
  6. Determine training paces. Probably the toughest aspect of self-coaching is deciding what pace you should be running. There are a handful of charts (this one is my favorite!) that provide paces for easy, recovery, long, tempo, intervals – every type of run you will encounter. The charts are based on finish times and should be based on your current fitness level, not your goal finish time. So you want to tart with where you are now and spend the training cycle slowly working towards where you hope to be on race day. But the tough part is determining your current fitness level, especially if you haven’t raced in a while. There are a few things you can do:
    1. Run a time trial or sign up for a race: Either simulate a race or sign up for one – so you get an idea of your overall fitness
    2. Use a recent race time: If you’ve raced in the last couple of months, you can use that time, but if it’s much more than that, your fitness level could have changed a bit.
    3. Estimate: Start on the conservative end and estimate what you think you are capable of running.

Now that the plan and training paces are determined, it’s time to start training! But it’s never that easy, right? Conflicts, sickness, injury, work all come into play and can easily throw curve balls into a training plan and you may have to get creative with shifting runs and weeks around. Keep in mind:

  • You typically want to avoid doing back-to-back quality workouts (think: intervals, tempo, long). You will need an easy (or rest) day sandwiched between those workouts.
  • Increase weekly mileage by 10%. Again, this is generally speaking, but it’s a good rule to follow. So if you ran 30 miles last week, you want to keep this week under 33 miles.
  • Slowly increase long run mileage. If you have to skip a long run, you may want to shuffle long runs around so you aren’t going from 14 to 18 miles (for example) on back-to-back weekends.