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How to Build a Workout Plan From Scratch

Breaking down the elements of a training plan can help you construct a routine that works best for you.

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Setting a goal to run a race without having a workout plan to follow is somewhat like embarking on a road trip to a new destination, where you only know where you want to end up but not what route you need to take to get there. You may be able to get yourself to the destination, but you may also find that you’ve veered off along the way. And whether these zigs and zags manifest as injuries, premature burnout, or insufficient training, they all equate to the inability to successfully reach your goals come race day. Having a good workout plan will help progress you towards your goals and minimize the risk of injury or overtraining along the way.

Working with a good running coach or purchasing a pre-made workout plan are both great ways to get your running roadmap, but with a little education, contemplation, and planning, you can also build your own. Whether you want to finish your first 5K, run a PR in your next half marathon, or break the 4:00 barrier in the marathon, optimizing your chance of success hinges on dedicated training and adherence to a smart training plan. A good workout plan will not only prepare you to achieve your running goals, but it will also get you to the starting and finishing line healthy and strong.

Ahead, we share how to build a workout program for running, whether it’s your first attempt at a new distance or your second, third, or even thirtieth stab at a familiar beast that you hope to dominate even more impressively on your next go-round.

Factors to Consider Before Building a Workout Plan

Since training for a race can be a big endeavor, it’s not typically something you should jump into on a whim. Before building a workout program, you should consider your goals, availability, and your physical abilities. Ask yourself the following questions:

What is my goal?

The first thing that must be nailed down before building a workout program is your goal, as this determines the metaphorical destination and shapes the program itself. Pick a goal that is meaningful to you and realistic. Be as specific as possible, using the well-known SMART acronym for goal setting: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Pick a race and realistic goal time or goal distance based on past performances. For example, you may strive to break 24 minutes in a 5K if your last effort was 24:52. However, unless that last race was far from your best effort, it may be unrealistic to set out to break 21 in your next race. Be sure to plan a race far enough out that you’ll have time to progress your fitness. Most workout programs are 6-20 weeks long, with some deviations depending on the race distance.

Do I have time?

Unless you’re already running plenty for the distance you want to train for, starting a workout program may be a step up in terms of time demands than your current running schedule. The amount of time you’ll need to devote to your training depends on the race distance, your pace and fitness level, and your goals. The following guidelines are considered to be the typical weekly mileage for each of the major race distances listed for the average runner:

  • 5K: 15 to 25 miles
  • 10K: 20 to 30 miles 
  • Half-marathon: 30 to 40 miles
  • Marathon: 35 to 60 miles 

Of course, your pace will dictate the time commitment for this mileage, and there are certainly exceptions on both ends for these mileage ranges, but the numbers can be used as a guide. As mentioned, you’ll probably also need at least 6 weeks for your workout program, so if you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling for work, have a big vacation scheduled, getting ready to move, or are preparing for a new baby at home, it might not be the best time to get your formal training program underway.

Is my body physically able to handle the training?

Training for a race takes time, dedication, and physical fortitude to complete the workouts and make it through the race without quitting or getting injured somewhere along the way isn’t as easy as anyone might hope. Running is demanding on the body and the training puts a lot of wear and tear on not just your running shoes, but your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments, too. An unfortunate number of runners get injured during the course of their training, and in order to prevent yourself from joining that dreaded club, you need to not only train smart and listen to your body, but ensure your body is fit and strong enough to take on the demands of training. If you’ve recently had an injury, or are an injury-prone runner, you might want to wait awhile and spend some time working with a physical therapist to correct any imbalances and weaknesses first. 

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Is this something I want to do?

There will be days when you don’t feel like dragging yourself out of bed to tackle a long run. If your relationship with running is already fickle at best, your training program might become too much of a chore to stick with it. Consider a shorter race or potentially a more modest goal time.

Elements of a Good Workout Plan or Training Program

Although any two runners will likely have quite different training plans based on differences in goals, fitness level, availability to train, injury risk, and preferences, most workout programs contain the same basic elements in varying proportions, paces, and distances. 

  • Long runs: You’ll have a long run just about every week no matter what race distance you have your eye on. This is your primary endurance-building workout that gets progressively longer and closer to the goal race distance or beyond. If you’re training for your first attempt at a certain distance, with the goal of simply finishing, your long runs will progressively approach this distance, though you might not hit the full distance until race day. Don’t worry though; you’ll be physically prepared on race day even at these shorter distances. For example, the longest run on most marathon training plans maxes out at 20-24 miles. You’ll want to do one long run per week, gradually increasing the distance each week, with a drop back every four weeks or so to give your body a break. The distance should also taper starting 2-3 weeks out from race day.
  • Pace work: Your workout plan should include plenty of runs done at goal race pace so that you can get a feel for it and train your body to run comfortably at that pace. Build on the distance or length of time you work at goal pace as the weeks progress in your training plan. For example, if you’re training to run a half marathon at 8:30 pace, start with 2-3 miles at that pace in week one or two, then add a mile or so to that weekly tempo run each week. Typically, tempo runs should occur once per week, but more advanced runners may throw in goal race pace miles during long runs as well. 
  • Speed: If you’re trying to chase a specific goal time, your training program should also have workouts that are run faster than goal race pace to improve your speed and lactate threshold. Track intervals, hill repeats, and fartlek runs are good examples. These should only be done once per week unless you’re training for a very short race.
  • Easy runs: Easy runs or recovery runs should follow long runs and hard workouts, or you may choose to program in cross-training or a rest day instead, depending on your goal distance, level of fitness, injury history, personal preferences, and availability.
  • Cross-training: Cross-training is a great way to get an aerobic workout while using different muscles and reducing the impact of your activity. Low-impact exercises like cycling, pool running, swimming, elliptical, and rowing can supplement your running and help prevent overuse injuries. Depending on your experience level, injury history, and goal race distance, you may want 1-2 cross-training workouts per week. These typically follow hard workouts.
  • Rest days: A smart workout program should have at least one rest day per week. Your legs need time off to recover and rebound from training. Be sure to build in at least one rest day per week, and more if you’re a newer runner or injury prone. Rest days should follow hard efforts like tempo runs, long runs, or intervals.
  • Strength training: A good workout program should be balanced and develop your strength as a well-rounded athlete. Make sure you are doing core work, mobility exercises, and strength training, doing full-body workouts 2-3 times per week. Resistance training helps prevent injuries by correcting strength imbalances and building functional stability so that your body can handle the miles of running. 

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Helpful Tips When Building a Workout Program

Given the fact that you’ll be devoting hours per week for quite a few weeks to your training, much like entering a long-term relationship, you want your workout program to be a good fit for you, both in terms of the meshing logistically into your life schedule as well as with your current fitness level and race goals. Here are few final tips to help you build the best workout plan:

Plan your first week and biggest week, and use those as guides to fill in the rest.

Your biggest week should occur 2-3 weeks out from the race (2 weeks for shorter distances and 3-4 weeks for the marathon). This is your biggest volume week and may have the most difficult workouts. In contrast, your first week should be just 10% more or so than the training you are currently doing. Work backwards or forwards between these two points to connect the dots in a smooth, gradual progression. A good rule of thumb is not to jump mileage by more than 10% per week, and consider a similar conservative change in speed and intensity.

Follow a template.

It’s usually a good idea to follow the same general template each week for your workouts. While the distances and paces will change from week to week, the same elements will remain. For example, 

    • Monday: easy run and strength training
    • Tuesday: tempo run
    • Wednesday: cross-training
    • Thursday: intervals or hills
    • Friday: easy run and strength training 
    • Saturday: rest day
    • Sunday: long run 

Use a pencil instead of a pen.

Things change. While having a workout program is an excellent roadmap to guide your training, just as your GPS recalculates the route after happening upon a closed road, you’ll need to be flexible and willing to take an extra rest day if you feel a niggle, or switch a long run and a tempo run if inclement weather strikes. Always prioritize listening to your body over adhering religiously to your workout program. 

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