How to Create a Training Plan
Many runners tend to think of their training in terms of discreet training blocks aimed at a specific event. Think half marathon training plan, and you might think of a 12 week generic training plan downloaded from the internet-somewhat similar to the training guides we provide for you in the Running Training Groups Members’ Area.
These programs are a great guide for you if you just want to make sure you’re going to be able to make the distance with a reasonable level of comfort and satisfaction, and minimise your risk of injury. However, if you want to really be sure you’re getting the most bang for your hours spent training, you need to have a plan to suit your specific needs. And training for any race starts well before the discreet event specific training block.
Plan For The Long Term
You should be cycling your training over a period of 12-18, even 24 months, if you really want to realise your potential. Each training cycle builds on the last to improve the fitness of different energy systems, as well as to enhance your muscular and neuromuscular development.
Having a long term training overview is also a great way to keep your training on track. We all have times when training might seem a little too hard, perhaps a little pointless. If you’ve got an overview of where you’re heading over the next couple of years, it’s much easier to keep your training up when you’re starting to question it.
And by all means, question why, question what for, question if the goals you set for yourself are still relevant. Any plan is really just there to guide you, and it is not cast in stone.
Vary Your Race Distances
You should vary your training across different race distances over a couple of years. If you don’t you risk physical and mental burnout. Training only for your goal distance, and never specifically training for a different distance event, will most likely initially see you improve over that goal race distance, but over time, your times will plateau, and you’re likely to lose a bit of interest.
To understand why it’s important to race over different distances, we need to take a brief look at the different energy systems the body uses to transfer energy.
Energy Systems In Brief
We store energy in the body as fat, glycogen (from carbohydrate) and protein, and also in a molecule called creatine phosphate. The main sources of energy are glycogen and fat. Under normal conditions, we don’t use protein much at all for fuel. Energy needs to be transformed into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for the body to be able to use it. We have 3 different systems to transform energy into ATP.
Anaerobic Energy Systems
Anaerobic energy systems do not require oxygen to transform energy to ATP. Our bodies have two anaerobic energy systems; the ATP-PC System, and Lactate System, or Glycolysis.
The ATP-PC System
We use the ATP-PC system for sudden increases in the demand for energy, for example when we go from standing still to running, putting in a quick surge to overtake an opponent (or perhaps to catch your 3 yr old before they run out onto the road), or for explosive sports such as shot put, and the leaping component of high jump and long jump. Its a very quick form of energy production, but it doesn’t supply energy for very long. As far as running goes, we have enough ATP to produce the energy required for a 5 second sprint.
When energy is release from ATP, it breaks down into ADP, which can then combine with phosophocreatine (PC) to form ATP. This in turn can be broken down and used for energy. The whole ATP-PC system supplies enough energy for about 20 seconds of activity. PC is in short supply in the body and once it’s depleted, we have to use another energy system to keep moving. PC takes about a minute to be replenished in the body – hence your ability to do short sprint repeats with a minute’s rest in between.
Lactate System (Glycolysis)
The next major phase of energy production is the lactate system. This system kicks in when phosphocreatine stores are depleted. Like the ATP-PC system, it does not require oxygen. It provides enough ATP to fuel 1 to 3 minutes of intense activity.
The Aerobic Energy System
The third system is the oxidative phase. In this phase, oxygen is used to fuel the breakdown of firstly carbohydrates, and then fats – and if the exercise continues for long enough, protein. Note that this energy system prefers to use carbohydrates, stored in the body in the form of glycogen. You can only store a fairly limited amount of glycogen. We have much more energy stored as fat than as glycogen. One of the foremost aims of aerobic training is to teach your body to spare glycogen and use fat for energy, running at a faster pace.
The aerobic system is more for moderate or low intensity work, of longer duration.
The Relationship Between the Energy Systems
Glucose is the only fuel which can be used by the lactate system-glycolysis literally means the breaking down of glucose. When glucose is broken down, it is converted into two molecules of pyruvate. Hydrogen is also produced during this process. Aerobic respiration is used to clean up the pyruvate, converting it to carbon dioxide and water, to be exhaled when you breathe out. The aerobic process also uses up hydrogen ions, (acidic), which slows down the build-up of acid in the muscles.
When anaerobic respiration overtakes the aerobic system’s ability to remove waste, a build up of pyruvate and hydrogen ions occurs. The body uses a pyruvate molecule and a hydrogen ion to create lactate, which also helps to stop the build up of lactic acid. The lactate can be shunted out of the muscles and used in other areas of the body for energy.
If oxygen is present, the aerobic energy system can use the hydrogen and the pyruvate to produce more ATP. When the aerobic system cannot keep up with the excess hydrogen being produced, the hydrogen combines with pyruvate to form lactic acid.
Development of your aerobic system will therefore result in higher functioning of the lactate system, by aiding in lactate removal. The athlete can therefore tolerate the production of more lactate.
At some point, you will reach the point of fatigue as a result of acid overload. It’s a fact. You can’t really get around it-especially in shorter races. Training can improve our ability to handle the acid produced when running fast, but eventually you will be limited by the acidity levels in your blood.
High intensity workouts, will train your body to process and burn the lactate produced, at a faster rate. You’ll be burning lactate as a fuel, which will help you run faster over 5k and 10k races, and give you more fuel to burn for the longer races.
Train for Different Distances Throughout Your Training Cycle
To race well at each distance, you need to be targeting different physiological demands in your training. There is some overlap between the distances of course, but by focusing on one or two different aspects of training at different times of the year, you’re insuring that none of the body’s systems are being neglected, year after year. So for example if you’re a marathoner who doesn’t ever train for shorter distances for years at a time, you may never improve your body’s ability to take up oxygen (vo2 max) which will eventually put the brakes on your ability to improve your marathon time.
To continually improve, the body needs a frequent change in stimulus. Training for the same distance year on year doesn’t stimulate growth and development, especially if you’re pretty much doing the same training. You need to challenge and stress your body just the right amount for it to respond by getting fitter.
Primary Training Focus for Different Events
Marathon (and half marathon, depending on your speed)
- Develop aerobic threshold – fastest pace you can stay at whilst predominantly utilising the aerobic energy system-think longer intervals (5-15 minutes) at half marathon pace with 1-3 minutes recovery.
- Muscular endurance – how long your legs can keep on keeping on. More time on your legs means greater muscular endurance
- Fuel efficiency – how well your body is able to spare glycogen – basically it needs to burn fats for fuel rather than carbohydrates-long easy runs are great for this. You could try fasted running from time to time as well.
- Improve the body’s ability to utilise oxygen-VO2 max training -for example 5-10*3 min intervals at 5km pace with 1 minute recovery
5km-10km Fun Runs
- Increasing vo2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take up in a minute)
- Improving your speed endurance – maintaining a fast pace for longer – achieved through interval training at or around anaerobic threshold
- Running efficiency and co-ordination – recruiting more muscle fibres per stride, without increasing effort-hill running is great for this
Making a Plan
Before you make a plan, know what you want to achieve.
It’s probably a good idea to think about why you want to achieve it as well. Know why you run, know what makes you tick, and that will define the type of goals you set.
Be specific. “I want to run a half marathon”, is not nearly as specific as, “I want to run a half marathon and I don’t care what time I do, I just want to run all the way”, or “I want to run a half marathon and know that I’ve trained to get the best out of myself”.
If your goal is more like this last one, you also need to define how you’re going to measure that. Is it by finding out everything you possibly can about getting yourself fitter, then implementing a plan and sticking to it, as measured by a training log? Is it putting yourself in the hands of an experienced coach and following their training plan? Do you set sub goals along the way, such as completing every training session you set yourself unless there is a physical reason for not doing so? It’s something you’ll need to decide, otherwise, you’ll never know if you’ve reached your goal.
You don’t need a specific race to train for to be able to set a goal. Your goal simply might be to train 4 times a week. Or it might be to feel fitter, or to feel happier. If your goal is about how you feel, again, you will need to determine some way of measuring that. Smiley (or frowny) faces on a calendar are a very simple way of tracking your mood over time.
If you are planning for a race to be your goal, you need to think about which races to target. Take into account:
- The distance you ultimately want to race over – ie if you have a secret desire to run a marathon, whack that down on your plan
- What distance is going to fire you up? Do you really need to run a marathon or a half marathon to feel like you’ve achieved something? Getting your 5k and 10k time down is rewarding in itself, and will help with your longer distance races eventually.
- Your current fitness level, and how much training you’ve been doing over the past couple of months
- The consistency of your training
- How much time you realistically have to train, given the demands other people make on your time
- How much time is required for you to be able to reach your goal
- How do you cope with the heat?
- How do you cope with running in cold weather?
- How do you handle hills?
- Are you looking for a fast time, or an interesting course? The fastest courses can also be the most boring!
- Do you want to combine it with a holiday? Do you perform well when you are sleeping away from home?
Once you’ve taken all these factors into account, you can choose a goal race which is far enough into the future for you to be able to give it your best shot. If you goal race is more than 12 weeks away, it’s a great idea to have some other races along the way which you target, to keep your interest up. The length of the races you choose will determine how many races you decide on for your goal races. For example, if you’re fit, you might be able to run a couple of 5km races well in a 4-6 week period, but you won’t be able to do justice to two marathons in this same time frame!
The One Essential Piece of Equipment
Crucial to doing justice to any good training plan, is a way to log your training, and how you are feeling, on a daily basis. The runners we coach on an individual basis all complete a training log, so that we can monitor how they are going. It’s the only way to determine how your body is coping with the training, and how effective your plan is. Your plan can then be adjusted, based on your training results. You can also look back on it when creating a plan in the future, to see what suits you, and what doesn’t.
At the very least you should record:
- Your training session
- How you felt during the session
- Your sleep, how much you got of it, and how refreshed you felt on waking.
- Your resting HR – that is your hear rate on waking – before you stretch, before you move around, but after your heart rate has had time to settle if you wake to an alarm.
- Any niggles – it’s useful to know about the onset of any injuries if they hang around and they need treatment. You can also look at the onset and severity of injuries and niggles and see if there is a correlation to the amount of training you’re doing
Nice to know:
- Anything else which might need to be measured to assess whether you’ve reached your stated goals
If you have not run one of the longer distances before, you should build your mileage slowly and deliberately. If you are not a seasoned runner and this is your first marathon, you are better off having the goal to finish, rather than a time goal. If you’ve been running for a few years and you’ve done several half marathons and lots of shorter races, then a time goal is appropriate, should you wish to set one.
How Long Does It Take To Train For a Marathon?
A specific marathon training period will be 4-6 months. Prior to the specific marathon training period, you should have been running for AT LEAST 6 months, be injury free or under the guidance of a trusted and knowledgeable sports physio or medical practitioner, and your mileage should have built up slowly to:
- Consistently running 3 times/week over that 6 month buildup
- A long run which has built up to around 20k –you should have done this once in the 2 weeks prior to entering into specific marathon training phase
- An 8-12k run once/week
- An interval training session of fairly intense effort of around about an hour’s duration
Once you are at this level, you can start into a specific marathon training period.
Half Marathon Training
If you’re not a seasoned runner, a finish goal is more appropriate than a time goal in most cases for your first half marathon. If you’ve been running for a few years and done quite a few 10-15k races, and you want to set a time goal, go for it. Just remember your time goal should be based on something that is realistic for you, not based on what your friends do, or a milestone time-eg under 1:45, just because it has a nicer ring to it than under 1:47:30, which might be the more appropriate time for you to aim at – two and a half minutes faster actually requires quite a bit more effort.
You should not set a time goal and then base your training paces on that time goal. Your training pace needs to be based on what you can cope with at the moment. If all goes well, by the time you are at the end of a half marathon specific training stretch, you will be able to run a half marathon far quicker than you could at the start.
Training paces should be set on what you can do right now,
not what you are hoping to do in a few months’ time.
A specific half marathon training period will be around about 10-16 weeks. Prior to going into a half marathon training block, you:
- Should have been running for at least 4 months, (6 would be better), slowly building your mileage
- Be injury free, or under the guidance of a trusted and knowledgeable sports physio or medical practitioner
- Be able to run 10k comfortably -but not necessarily quickly
- Be running regularly, 3 times a week, including a long run of at least 10k, a shorter run of at least 5km, and an interval training session or a 3-5km run at a faster pace
5k and 10k Training
You’re ready to start training for a 10k if you’ve been consistently running 4k+ 3 times/week for about 3 months. Try to have a season running shorter 5k-7k events before you attempt a 10k. Your body will thank you for it, and you’ll get a great deal of satisfaction knowing you’ve covered all bases in your training. Whilst it is best if you’ve already done a few shorter races, you can still aim for a 10k if you haven’t raced much before. You can include a 5k time trial or a 5k race in your lead up to the 10k event.
If you’re new to running, a 4k or 5k run is a great way to launch your racing career. Build your mileage slowly over about 3 months, and don’t be concerned about the pace you’re running. Just enjoy the feeling of your body growing stronger and fitter as your training volume and intensity increases.
A specific 5k/10k training period can be anything from 6- 12 weeks, depending on your current level of fitness and current training volume. If you’re coming off a marathon for example, 6 weeks of speed work to improve co-ordination and lift your VO2 max should see you posting a great 10k time. If you’re training for your first 10k, you’ll want to take have a longer lead up.
Putting Together a Long Term Training Cycle
Marathon Training Cycle
- Run no more than 2 marathons/year so that you can properly recover and so you have time to focus on improving other energy systems
For our purposes here, we’re assuming you’re running a marathon in April and September.
This is a general guide so that you can see the way your training needs to be cycled. The specific length of time in each cycle will depend on the individual runner’s physical and psychological makeup, ability to recover and adapt to training, and social and family life.
June to September
Marathon training, focusing on mileage, aerobic development and marathon specific workouts. These will vary depending on your level of fitness and running experience. If you’ve not been running for a few years, I probably wouldn’t prescribe fast finishing long runs for you, as they can be quite punishing and take a bit more recovery time. However if you’ve been doing good mileage for quite a while, you can throw in quite a bit of speed work during your long runs, as long as you’re program takes into account the slightly longer time to recover from these workouts.
Race a marathon
Recovery for a few weeks, building some general fitness. Some strength work – eg hills, sprints to keep in touch with speed and help develop co-ordination required to run faster
4-6 week speed training. Race a few 5ks and 10ks. Shorter speed workouts, whilst slowly building your mileage outside of interval training sessions. Remember, the heat might slow you down in a race at this time of year, so factor that into your expectations.
January – mid – April
Continue to build mileage and move into specific marathon training phase and race in April
Mid April – mid June
Recovery for a few weeks, building some general fitness. Some strength work – eg hills, sprints to keep in touch with speed and help develop co-ordination required to run faster.
Mid June –mid August
5k-10k training and racing to improve speed and vo2 max. Race City to Surf
August – November
Half marathon training. Improve your anaerobic threshold – challenges you physiologically, without being so hard on your musculo-skeletal system
Race a half in November
From here you can race another marathon in Autumn, or you could think about a season of racing 10ks and halfs, before a winter marathon
Half Marathon Training Cycle
If you are running your first half marathon, you’ll be following a cycle similar to the marathon cycle. You won’t want to back the half marathon up with more than one other in the year, unless you have quite a bit of running under your belt. You’ll probably know yourself if you really feel capable of running more than a couple of half marathons in a year.
If you are a very seasoned runner, you could race a half marathon every few weeks if you wanted to, though focusing on one race in the training cycle where you’re at your absolute peak, will more likely yield a Personal Best time.
Similar to the marathon, you need to include segments that focus on the two different areas of training, speed and aerobic endurance
Let’s assume a half marathon in May and September
November – mid January
Building mileage, extending your long run to at the very min 10k, 15k+ for experienced runners
Mid January – Mid May
Continue building mileage and specific half marathon training. You could include some half marathon races if you’re an experienced runner, or try some Sri Chinmoy 14k races every 3-4 weeks. You don’t need to do these races, but it might make training a bit more interesting. Make sure you give yourself time to recover – and if you are not used to racing these distances, don’t enter these races and expect to run them at top speed, without planning in 3-5 days of recovery of reduced training volume and intensity.
Run a half marathon in May.
Mid May – Mid June
A couple of weeks recovery and start to build a bit of mileage into your training again. By recovery, I don’t mean do nothing for two weeks. You might want to take 3 or 4 days off from training completely, though I’d recommend you at least do some walking and swimming in that time, to aid recovery. After that, start some easy running.
Mid-June – July
Speed – 5k/10k training and racing, and continue to build mileage
August – September
Specific half marathon training
Short recovery of a week or so and start aerobic training. Could do another half if you wanted to.
5k/10k Training Cycle
If your main focus is the shorter distances of 5k and 10k, you still need to set aside some time each year where you can build your mileage at a time when you are not doing a high volume of high intensity workouts. That means a time when you are not racing 5 and 10k races. This will enable you to build a good aerobic base, and also improve your ability to clear lactic acid.
Build mileage (no more than 10%/week) and include some tempo runs (3-7km at race pace – should be hard, but still manageable) and some long runs. Depending on your fitness level, you could race a half marathon, if you can find one.
As a guide, if your tempo runs are 3 to 4kms, you can do them at 5km race pace, 5-7km runs can be done at 10km race pace.
Start to increase volume and intensity of speed work and move into some 5k and 10k specific workouts
May – August
5k and 10k racing
Lift the mileage again, but keep away from very intense speed workouts (can still be doing interval training, but longer intervals, with an active recovery are better at this part of your training cycle). Allows the body to get back in balance. Intense speed workouts cause the blood pH to fall (ie acidity increases) which can only be sustained for 6-8 weeks before you burn out
6-8 weeks of 5k and 10k racing and training
How Do You Train at Threshold Pace?
This is the pace where you are just in control of everything, and to go any faster would mean you would have to slow down through exhaustion. You’re puffing hard, but not out of control. Your muscles are feeling it, but can keep going powerfully, but if you go any faster, you’ve had the dick. This is how you feel when you’re running at threshold pace.
On the inside, the amount of lactic acid in your blood is just about to tip over to that point where your body can’t clear lactic acid from the body quickly enough, so you have to slow down to allow oxygen to be used to convert lactic acid back to pyruvic acid at the cellular level, which will then be converted to water and co2 and expelled from the body as breath, sweat and urine.
The most time you can run at your true threshold speed is somewhere around the 4-6 minute mark. An interval session like 10*4 mins with 1-2 min active recovery is a good threshold session.
Training at lactate threshold can help you maintain your threshold pace or near threshold pace, for longer. It trains the amount of time you can maintain the pace, to a far greater degree than it increases your actual lactate threshold speed itself. So you wouldn’t expect to be getting much faster of 800 – 1500m with this type of training, as it’s not what it’s designed to do. What we’re aiming for is to be able to sustain a faster pace for longer.
Race Specific Training
Marathon Training Blocks
Specific training in the 4-6 months leading into a marathon is going to differ for less experienced and advanced runners.
For the less experienced, it’s more about time on your legs. Getting in lots of mileage, without overdoing it. As you get closer to race day, your speed work will be run in longer chunks, at closer to your marathon race pace, with shorter active rest intervals. Your speed work at the start of the marathon training block might resemble more that of a 10k training plan, and taper to more specific marathon training as time progresses towards the race.
For more experienced runners, you’re still looking at making sure you have the miles under your belt, but you could also include some faster long runs, instead of the long slow run once/week that so many marathoners do year in year out. You should be doing lots of running at marathon pace. You’ll be doing some long hard runs to condition your body to performing when it is fatigued.
Hard Long Runs
- Experienced runners can transition to hard long runs by throwing in a bit of fartlek training at various points in your long run. So after a good 20 min or so warm up, you might throw in a km at marathon pace, then a minute or so back to easier running, and repeat this a few times. Throw a couple of these sets into your long run.
- Or you could run the last 10% of your long run at marathon pace, and increase it to 20% the next time you do it. You need to have a couple of weeks between fast finishing long runs, and they’re done as you get closer to the race.
- You might want to throw a 10k race somewhere into the mix during your marathon training block. It’ll get you running at your threshold speed, and will force you to take a recovery week as you taper for the race.
- Or you could do a 25k or so run, with a couple of km warm up, 10km at race pace, 3 mins easy, 10km at race pace, 3 mins easy, 5km at race pace and cool down. It makes it a bit more manageable mentally if you break it into chunks like this.
Who Should Do Hard Long Runs?
Before you start doing a long hard run, you need to have your mileage up to about 50+km /week, to avoid risk of injury. And I mean you need to have sensibly built it up to 50k+/week, and be covering that distance regularly not just decided that one week you’re going to run 50k so you can do some long hard runs!
You’d include a long hard run about 3 times in the 12 weeks leading up to a race, so 12-11 weeks out, 8-7 weeks out, and 4-3 weeks out from the race. Give yourself plenty of time to recover – 2-4 days of easy running AND MAKE SURE YOU RECORD IN YOUR TRAINING DIARY HOW YOU FEEL! If it’s taking too long to recover from these runs, you’d need to rethink your training plan.
In our custom online training programs, we do set some fast finishing long runs for less experienced runners, but only for maybe 10-15 minutes at the end of a long run, and we’re not looking at running at race pace. We just lift up to a pace which is more challenging than the easier long run pace.
Half Marathon Training Blocks
The main difference between marathon training and half marathon training is time on your legs. With a marathon, you need to spend more time on your legs, getting stronger ligaments, tendons and muscles and training your body to spare glycogen, and use fat as a source of energy.
Your specific half marathon training should include a long run, intense interval training and a shorter run each week. An extra interval training session is useful, where you will run some longer intervals. You could also throw in another shorter, tempo run. It all depends on the time you have to spend training, and how much training your body can handle.
If you’re new to running the longer distances, you’ll do well to follow the guide lines for first time marathoners.
If you’re an experienced runner, you can enter a couple of less important 14-21km races as part of your training for your main race.
5k and 10k training blocks
A specific training block for shorter races is 6-10 weeks. If you’re looking at a 10 week training block, your interval workouts should be less intense at the start of the 10 weeks, otherwise you risk burning out before the main event!
As you approach your specific shorter race training block, you’ll start to pick up the intensity of your interval training. Include more of the shorter work intervals at a faster pace. You’ll be able to handle more intense interval training sessions than you would if you were training for a half or full marathon, as you won’t have the stress and wear and tear of big mileage. You’ll still be doing up to 15km or so long runs.
Add some long 5-10k tempo runs into the mix, along with shorter intense intervals.
Race a couple of races over varying distances
Putting It All Together
If these all seems a bit daunting, break your planning down into chunks. Sketch out an overall plan for the next 18 months, outlining your main races and training cycles, then you can plan a 12 week block in a little more detail. I’d suggest you plan out individual training sessions only four weeks at a time. A lot can change whilst you’re training for any race distance – illness, injury, misadventure to you or any member of your family, or could be that you win the lottery and need to take time out to spend all your money!
When we put together our online customised training programs, we pretty much follow the process above. We find out what you’re aiming for, assess and advise on what’s realistic, and set about creating a long term training plan. We deliver your training plan only in four week blocks, so that we can assess how you’re responding to your training, and plan the next four weeks accordingly. When you’re planning your own training, you should be doing this too.
Running training group members receive substantial discounts on our online training programs. You could have a customised training plan for just $30 per month (normally $42) or a premium coaching plan for $70 per month (normally $92). Six and twelve month subscriptions attract a further discount.