There are two issues that hold back many runners. Firstly, we get stuck in our ways. We do what we do, the same runs, the same routes, the same sessions, and we hope for progression as opposed to planning for it. Secondly, we get caught up in the short-term. As we look towards a new year, this article encourages you to think about planning. What does a good training plan look like and what are some of the pitfalls? What does it include and how can you ensure it grows with you over time?
Why is planning your training important?
Having a plan can increase both the accountability and direction of your training. It can add variety, which we know is an important tool to develop fitness, but which can also keep you interested and motivated. A well thought-out plan can also focus your training on the specific demands and requirements of your personal goals.
More than that, though, it gives you a structure to change, develop and grow from. After all, if you have been training aimlessly, and you don’t get the results you want, how do you make good decisions about what to change next time? So having a plan can definitely help take your running forward but there are ways we can cause ourselves more, not fewer, problems through the way we plan. Here are some things to guard against:
Panic prep: I often find runners will seek out a training plan a set number of weeks before a goal event – for example 16 weeks before a marathon. This really a misunderstanding of performance and can often lead to injury and frustration as we build too quickly towards events with too smaller a foundation and no real linkage to the training that preceded it.
Missing what matters: A running plan without a lifestyle, conditioning and recovery plan means you’re missing many of the key limiters on performance. Despite this, generally when runners think about planning it starts and finishes at their running shoes.
Nostradamus planning: It might feel comforting to see 16 weeks of training laid out with every pace, rep, and mile set in black and white. It gives a feeling of predictability. Unfortunately life and our response to training is not always predictable. A rigid plan which aims to predict the future often leads to poor decisions and injury risk. If it’s on paper many runners struggle to adapt, to back off when they need to or lose confidence when they change what they feel must have been the perfect initial plan. The boundaries and constraints set in place by too much detail too soon can also place restrictions on runners – maybe you are ready for more?
The comfort zone: We tend to build or find plans which confirm what we want to do, whether it’s working or not. Of course there is value in being comfortable with what many others might find repetitive – easy runs, consistent training, the patient approach. But we also need to be prepared to take a different approach sometimes so care is required that we don’t just stick with what we know because it feels comfortable.
Accountability vs ownership: Over the years many runners have told me they like training plans because they don’t have to think, they can just crack on with the training. This always starts a warning bell ringing for me. Yes, having a plan or a coach can help with accountability, but it should be your plan, you should own the process and not just be a docile recipient. Ownership of your plan is key to being fully invested and in time, a key to success.
7 things to think about when making a training plan
1. Principles not prescription
We often hear the mantra of process over outcome. That’s fine, but you still need to know the intended outcome in order for the process to be right. Instead of slavishly laying out every single session, minute, pace or heart rate for the next 12 weeks, perhaps instead think about planning what it is you are working on, what change are you trying to achieve over the next six weeks? With those guiding principles in place you can start to make better decisions day-to-day. Want to jump into a club session or add an extra race? Ask yourself: ‘Will it take me closer to, or further from, my six-week goal?’
2. Analyse and review
Flexible planning and individualisation from emerging information is key to long-term progression. No matter what it says on paper, your plan should evolve and adapt to your individual body, motivation, lifestyle and response to training. Alongside your plan, look to use data such as heart rate variability (HRV), GPS, heart rate data from your workouts, alongside self-scored assessments of your levels of motivation and recovery.
3. Get granular
You might still want to put in place detailed training in order to maintain that feeling of accountability. I suggest only setting yourself up to two-three weeks of detailed training at a time. This way you can gradually factor in the learning mentioned above and stay flexible and adaptable to the unpredictable nature of life while still feeling like you have direction and structure.
4. Marry it up
This article isn’t focused on how to train but still this is clearly a critical element to consider if your plan is going to work. As a starting point you need to know what you are training to do. Do you have a race you are building towards? Are you aiming to build a foundation in the winter? Does your plan actually connect to your goals? It sounds basic, but so often I will see plans that don’t align with goals. If you want to train for a marathon you might need to sacrifice, for example, your weekly attempts to set a few parkrun PBs. A good plan requires us to commit.
5. Plan holistically
As you set your four-to-six week pure running goals, also consider adding goals for your conditioning, nutrition and recovery. A good plan should incorporate far more than just running. Plan with a holistic approach.
6. Take the macro view
Try to break free from the short-term approach. Your planning is a continual process of learning and adaptation, and a good plan doesn’t end after your goal race. It brings in your recovery afterwards and then your ongoing development. The running you do today is contributing to whatever you want to do next year.
7. Challenge yourself
While you might only set the real detail of your training over seven-to-21 days, develop a broad direction of travel to sit behind it all. As you do this, consider periods of the year where you challenge yourself differently – for example doing a cross-country, or even a track season, perhaps – and periods of higher and lower volumes and intensity. Also factor in a period where you plan in specific rest and downtime away from running. Variety builds fitness.
Tom Craggs is Road Running Manager for England Athletics
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