Choosing the Right Training Plan

The right plan for you is out there somewhere.

You did it! After studying the calendar, Googling flights and hotels, negotiating with your family and deliberating with your running friends, you finally registered for a goal race. Yay!

Now what? Well, you probably realize you need a training plan, but how do you get one? Should you hire a coach? Consult running books? Use a “stock” training plan from the interwebs?

Let’s go through the decision-making process step-by-step. Below are the questions we need to ask ourselves in determining what kind of training plan we’re going to use to reach our goals.

Should I wing it or use a plan?

First, do I even need to create a training plan at all? Maybe I should just wing it. After all, Matt Fitzgerald in the book Run advises that we train by listening to our bodies and incorporating a set variety of workouts according to how we feel.

But what if you’re Type A and just can’t function without knowing every single workout weeks in advance? If I only ran what I wanted to on any given day, I’d only do tempo runs and short jogs to the donut place. Having a plan forces you out of your comfort zone, which may be key to making the kinds of improvements you need to meet your goal.

Should I use a stock plan or a custom plan?

By “stock plan,” we mean a plan from a training book or the Internet. Not sure where to start? We have posts summarizing some of the more popular plans out there: Hanson’s, Pfitzinger, McMillan, Lydiard and more.

Stock plans can be good starting points for planning your own training, but are not meant to be applicable to all runners at all levels all the time. So how do you tailor a generic plan to your needs? We’ve got a whole post about that! Some things you’ll need to do include building in rest days where you need them and tweaking workouts to the right distance and intensity. You can incorporate more of the things you know you need, for instance, extending an aerobic base phase if you feel that’s your weakness, or more fast-finish long runs if you tend to crash near the end of a marathon.

You can, instead, purchase plans online that are somewhat tailored to your needs in terms of mileage, progression, and paces, or pay a coach to draw up a plan for you (which does not mean long-term coaching, but just to draft a plan based on your specifications).

Finally, of course, you can draw up a plan for yourself from scratch. This works best if you’ve trained for the distance before and know what works for you. Cilantro, for instance, has drawn up her own marathon plans that included rest days and recovery weeks when she thinks she’ll need them. She plans the long run progression according to what she knows she can handle, and adds mid-week runs based on what she likes (mid-week 10 milers) and what she knows help her (three sessions of Yasso 800’s to help her gauge progress.) Finally, she prefers a two-week taper rather than the more standard three-week taper before a marathon.

Some other questions to consider when selecting a training plan:

  • How many days a week do you want to run? You don’t have to run every day. In fact, my coach says rest days are not negotiable! If you already know certain days of the week aren’t going to work for you, you can plan those as rest days, or train in a pattern of x days on/1 day off.
  • How many hours a week can you devote to running? This is another way of asking how many miles per week you can or want to run. (But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.)
  • Will you incorporate cross-training or strength work? Maybe you want to fit in a swim or an easy elliptical session rather than jog on recovery days. For strength training, think about whether you prefer to lift on hard days, after a faster-paced running session; or on easy days, after a recovery run. Personally, I prefer to lift after hard runs, to get all the hard work out of the way and make my easy days super-easy, but this can vary according to your personal preference (and, of course, when you have time to fit it all in.)
  • What does the rest of your life look like? Which days are generally hard to fit in workouts, and when can you fit in longer sessions? Do you have work trips, family vacations, or other obligations coming up that will affect whether you can train and/or the kind of training you can do?

Finally, don’t forget to build in time for recovery and #extrasalt!

Should I hire a coach?

It’s no secret that I’m biased in favor of getting yourself a coach, if you can at all afford it (I wrote about why I decided to hire a coach, and I haven’t regretted it!)

Having someone else plan your workouts for you means you barely have to think about it, you just have to run. Sure, sometimes I have to switch my coach’s assigned workouts around if something unexpected comes up — but generally I can just roll out of bed, check the app we use for workout scheduling, and go run. Less thinking, more doing. As a chronic overthinker, I appreciate this and recommend it for everyone.

If private coaching is not in your budget, other options may be worth considering, such as training with a local running club or a training group organized by a local running store. Both options generally cost money, but are less expensive than private coaching. You may even be able to find a group that’s training for the same race as you are.

How would you answer the training plan questions? Anything you would add to our list of things to consider?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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