How to Customize a Training Plan

So many training plans to choose from!These days, runners seem to want personalization. And if you’re one of those people, all of those great running plans in books ranging from Advanced Marathoning to Hanson’s Marathon Method aren’t good enough for you. I hear you! Even though you really loved the Pfitz 55 or the Hanson’s plan, using the same plan you used last year gets old, and you need to up the ante if you want to get faster. Maybe it’s time to hire one of the billion online coaches to write a plan for you?

Hold it right there! That coach on the internet has never met you and is expensive, and that plan you used last year was pretty good! Instead of making drastic changes, why not just tailor what you already have?

There are easy adjustments you can make to any training plan. So once you find the plan you like, you don’t just have to own that training plan as it’s written, you can actually make it your own.

The Volume – Intensity Tradeoff

Volume is the amount of miles we run in a training cycle, usually measured per week. Intensity is the amount of faster-than-easy pace miles you run and how much faster-than-easy those harder miles are run. Some of us do better with higher volume and lower intensity, while others prefer lower volume and higher intensity.

I’m one of those runners who prefers more volume and less intensity. For marathon training, I do a lot of marathon pace miles and cruise intervals which are relatively lower on the intensity scale as far as workouts go. Marathon pace miles are, well, marathon pace and cruise intervals are usually around the 15k race effort range. While I do a significant amount of miles at these paces per week, the actual intensity of those miles is far less than if I were doing tempos at half marathon pace and track workouts at 3k – 10k race effort.

Because of this lower overall intensity, I am able to sustain a higher-mileage training volume. Over training cycles I’ve gradually increased my mileage. Last season, I was up into the mid-90 miles per week range when I ran my 2:54 PR. Others do better with higher intensity, like my Cleveland Elite Development friends who made it all the way to the Olympic trials in the 70-80 miles per week range. But they traded those extra miles for intensity and man are some of their workouts tough!

Even if you’re running 20, 40, or 60 miles per week, you still need to figure out the right balance of volume and intensity that will help you excel. We each handle intensity and volume differently, and while you can’t completely trade off one for the other, you can tip the scale to favor the style that works better for you.

If you know that doing a lot of fast track workouts often leave you injured or under-performing, then a higher volume, lower intensity plan is likely better for you. If, on the other hand, more miles tend to zap you and you do well with shorter speedier workouts, then a lower volume, higher intensity plan is likely better for you.

If you do not know which is better for you, you can do a little trial and error. To increase mileage, you can add a day to your regular training week or make your regular runs a little bit longer. I’m a big fan of setting a daily minimum distance. But while focusing on increasing mileage, be sure to lessen or maintain the intensity level.

To up the intensity, try adding more intervals on speed days or try faster miles on another run during your week. If you’re doing a tempo and a speed workout, a good place to add more intensity is adding strides to an easy run or a mile or two of faster running in a long run. See if you take better to increases in intensity or volume and use that as guidance when you go to up your running game. If either of these changes leaves you feeling flat or beat up, then you have some solid clues for what is the best balance of volume and intensity for you.

Train Like a Girl

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Run with the men, but don’t necessarily train like one.

Was that plan written for a man? (This would be a good place to make a joke about a training plan using the bathroom in North Carolina.) But seriously, there is a difference between men and women that affects how we recover and adapt to training. So a plan written with men in mind may very well be suboptimal for most women. Testosterone plays a specific role in speeding up muscle recovery, controlling maximum attainable strength, endurance, and retaining those athletic gains.

As women, we don’t have the same amount of testosterone as men, and this means, in general, that we don’t recover and adapt as fast as men do. You know how men can skip weeks or even months of training and jump right back in where they left off? We women may lose our fitness level at faster rates if we don’t actively maintain it right up through race day. We work harder for the same athletic gains. We may need more recovery time between high intensity training activities.

But if you can’t just pick up the skirt of a training plan and figure out who it was written for, how do you know if you are on a men’s training plan? There are a lot of staple training plans out there written in the glory days of men’s running that weren’t designed for us. (Psst … I’m looking at you, Pfitz.)

If the plan’s intensity and volume seems appropriate for you, but the workouts seem crammed too close together and you’re not recovering between workouts, you probably found yourself stuck in a man’s training world. Move stuff around so it matches the amount of time it takes you to recover. That chapter in the book trying to guarantee that you don’t lose fitness when you are out sick or injured? Yeah, that is from old research done on young men. You’re losing your fitness faster. Once you find your schedule, don’t let it slide. You’ll have a harder time bouncing back.

Make Your Schedule Flexible

Think beyond the seven-day training week

Just because a calendar week is seven days doesn’t mean your training week needs to be. The Brooks-Hansons women run nine-day training weeks. Last year, I thought I was going to peak about two weeks early, so I added a day in between workouts, spreading out my training week from seven to ten days. Sure, this can be difficult with the time demands of jobs and family, which often necessitate doing long runs and workouts on weekends or other days with more flexible schedules. But to the extent you are able, consider extending your training week and adding in more recovery.

Think beyond 12-week training plans

And while we are on the topic of scheduling, just because your training plan is 12 weeks, 16 weeks, or 24 weeks doesn’t mean you need to stay on it that long. You can switch between plans. Maybe you like the early speed work of one plan but the race specific build up of another plan. Switch between them! You’re not stuck on any one training plan.

Do More of What Works For You

Find the workout that is most important for your success and do more of it. We’re talking about the workout that brings you the most confidence. The more confident you are, the better you will do on race day. If race pace miles make you feel better about that stretch goal still ten weeks away, do more of them. If it is the long runs, do them every single week instead of every other week. Whatever it is, do it!

Have you ever made adjustments to a training plan? What works for you?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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6 comments

  1. I think in general most cookie cutter and book plans SHOULD be altered to suit each persons needs. Yes, some people may do just fine following a book to the T, but many I think would benefit from spending a little time to fine tune. As you said, I agree this becomes more important when trying to get faster.

    I tend to alter plans to be a little lower on the volume but higher on the intensity, I have found this works better for me personally. I enjoy the harder workouts, and find the slightly lower miles allows me to recover just fine to be able to do more than one workout per week that way. I do think I could be better though about not always looking at the training weeks at 7 day blocks. I’m a very structured person and I love seeing my weeks laid out Monday- Sunday…I get twitchy with anything else.

  2. Great post! So much interesting stuff here. Would love to explore the volume versus intensity trade-off and how our understanding of good training practices may or may not be based on male runner physiology and therefore not as applicable to women runners.

    1. That’s a great idea! we should explore the volume intensity spectrum. I never hear anyone talk about it directly, but as you talk to runners, it clearly is one of the preferences and features of their training mentalities.

  3. I never thought about the gender of the runner making a difference, but it makes PERFECT sense.

    Training for my first “running” 5K, I realized I was adding volume too fast (because of old knee and ankle injuries barking at me). So I ditched the plan and switched to another that I modified to fit ME and worked on listening to my body. More reading and more research means I usually end up lengthening a plan or focusing on time ran vs. miles ran and not increasing too fast.

    Ultimately, I may go out for a run with a plan, but if something feels off, then I will alter my plan. If something feels good, then I may alter my plan.

    Of course, I’ve also sometimes taken that decision out of my own hands (like when I bring someone along, ahem, my 6 yo on his bike = long easy run turning into short tempo run).

  4. Great post! I’m self-coached, and I generally use a base from existing plans and modify to suit my needs / schedule etc. I have to do a lot of juggling to fit in my training, and in some ways, I think I’m best suited to know how to adapt to suit myself!