Everything that’s in this post is based on what I’ve learned over the last decade either by those who have coached me (i.e., collegiate endurance sports), what I’ve learned from teammates, what I’ve learned from graduate-level exercise science courses, and what I’ve read out of books. I was an assistant coach for my collegiate XC and track team during graduate school, and I followed the “training bible” of Jack Daniels, PhD, closely under the tutelage of the teams’ coaches. I do think that, over the years, I’ve learned quite a lot about endurance training and running in general, and yet my strategies for marathon and endurance-training are ever-evolving; that being said, after much exploring, I have honed in an ideology of training that really synchronizes with my physiology (and psychology) and I’ve clung to it. Every time I’ve trained for a marathon (all eight), I’ve done so by coaching myself.
Obviously, like I said, I was coached in college, but I didn’t run marathons competitively (or at all) in college. I had my first running coach when I was in middle school, with whom I maintained a strong coach/athlete relationship throughout my high school years, and also consistently had a running/endurance coach throughout my collegiate career (two coaches, actually). In graduate school, I no longer had any sort of official coach to guide my workouts each day, but I (thankfully) paid attention during my coached years and learned “the pattern,” and therefore was able to maintain more-or-less of the approach I was exposed to during my “developing” years: run more, run often, and mix it up with varying levels of intensity. And, because I was coached by numerous different coaches with different styles and approaches, I was able to identify what training methodologies worked for me, and what methods led to burnout.
Here’s the basics on how to set up and design your own training plan (or, how to pilfer it from somewhere else):
- Do your research. Not every plan will work for every person, that’s why there are so many books and plans and coaches out there (in other words: If one thing worked for everyone, wouldn’t everyone do it?). We all have different lives, different priorities, different physiology, and different goals. For example, if you are a veteran marathoner wanting to train for a faster marathon, and you have been consistently running bigger mile weeks without injury for the past few years (we’re talking 50-80miles), then you may be able to successfully execute a marathon training plan with 60+ miles per week in training (but what you do during those 60+ miles will influence how fast you race). On the other hand, if you’re new to the distance and have never run more than a 40-mile week in your life, jumping into a high mileage plan without making any adjustments should be avoided as it will likely set you up for injury. The most important thing is knowing yourself and your limits, knowing the basic concepts behind the plan, and fine-tuning them for yourself.
- Find the right plan(s) for you. Like I said in #1, there are hundreds of books out there providing insight on how to train for a marathon. Finding the right one for you is tricky. The first thing to do is ask yourself: “Does this plan fit into my life, or can I make it fit?” If you work 50 hours a week, have three small children, and a spouse that also works full time, training 20-25 hours a week may be something you’re looking to avoid. However, if you know you can manage the training time required to get in 80 mile weeks, then by all means, set yourself up for higher volume (that is, if your body is ready for it). But just remember, running more does not always mean running faster. There is a threshold at which you will become more and more fit the more time you put into training, but once you get there, your performance can plateau.
- Find the pattern and follow it. Setting long-term goals is important when setting up your own training plan. Cookie-cutter training plans taken from running websites or books are helpful for beginners and those interested in exploring other training options than they’ve tried in the past, but they are generic and are rarely designed specifically for you. What cookie-cutter plans do provide, however, is a skeleton schedule that is already ironed out and easy (well, easy enough) to follow. For example, a plan from Hal Higdon’s website details specifics for daily mileage, with every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday aiming for an easy run or off day, every Tuesday aiming for a “strength” day, every Thursday aiming for a “tempo” day, and every Sunday being a longer run. That schedule skeleton establishes a pattern that is easy to remember, once you get through a few weeks of it, and the pattern eventually becomes routine. Sure, the strength and tempo days are usually different; you may need to find a hill to run up or a track to run on, but it is more or less a consistent pattern that takes the stress out of figuring out your daily workouts. In general, most plans follow this type of schedule; oscillating between low and high training days (low being rest/recovery and high being intensity/duration). We need the rest in order to excel at the intensity days. This is called microcycle periodization, where – within a short duration of time, say a week – your body is stressed at different levels and allowed to recover and make gains. Periodization also occurs at the meso- and macro-scale, too, where training adaptations are targeted to monthly or quarterly cycles, respectively. Mesocycles are typically designated as “preparation” and “competition” phases, but can also be designated as different phases (strength-building, speed-building, skill-building, etc.) depending on the goals of the plan.
- Build up slowly and, when in doubt, rest is (usually) best. Taking on a new training plan is a stress to your body in and of itself. There are times when the stress is good, where it builds fitness and strength. But if the new training plan deviates substantially to what you’re used to doing in training (e.g., dramatic increase in mileage), easing into it is a good idea. Avoid dramatic increases in mileage quickly; many physiologists and coaches recommend no more than 10% increases in total training volume per micro- or mesocycle when building up to a volume that you either haven’t seen in a while or have never seen in your life. There’s a balance between feeling sore and stiff because you just ran 20x400s at 5K pace for the first time in ever, and then there’s teetering on the edge of getting injured. Knowing this limit is also one of those magic questions that only you can likely answer. So be honest with yourself, don’t be arrogant and bullheaded. Regardless of who I was coached by, the most important thing I learned during my coached years was that there is strength in consistency, and that I had to absorb the rest days just as much as the big training days. And, what I continue to learn is that, when I was 20 years old, it was a lot easier to recover from a big training day than it is now that I am 30.
- Adapt or get left behind. What cookie-cutter plans lack is specificity, and a lack of specificity can leave veteran and advanced runners in the dust. In order to get faster, stronger, better, we need to adapt, and if we always run the same thing every week, we aren’t going to adapt. So, although out-of-the-book plans are … ok … for beginner/first-timers, as veteran runners, we need to put a little more thought into how we are going to adapt our training plans in order to adapt our bodies. This may mean we go on longer runs, or we incorporate more repeats on strength days, or faster repeats, or less rest between repeats; maybe we increase our consumption of hill repeats, or we incorporate two-a-day runs, or we add a few mornings of weight training or plyometrics. Some believe that, in order to make fitness gains, you should simply run more miles. Obviously, there are limits to this, and it takes some figuring out on your own behalf to know how far is far enough, and how far will lead to injuries and lost speed. In the simplest terms, designing a training plan is a game of balancing residuals: extra miles can lead to gains in fitness, but too many miles can lead to injury and fatigue. Getting to know how to optimally train is the magic question, right?
- Don’t be afraid of mixing it up. Swap cross-training (maybe a bike ride?) for one of your easy runs (with the 1.3hr bike time for 1-hr run trade); learn how to swim or aqua-jog and swap that out for a run to keep the heart rate up without building on accumulation of high impact from running; run on gravel or trails whenever possible instead of roads/sidewalks. Easy runs don’t have to be time, or mapped out (if you are “supposed to do six miles,” try just running for an hour instead of mapping out the miles and stressing about getting a nice round 6.0 on the GPS). Most importantly, RELAX. It’s not baking at altitude; you don’t need to follow everything by the half-teaspoon measurement. I feel like Ron Burgundy (I have many (leather/paper-bound) books), but the truth is, I love to learn about training and exercise science. Some books are better than others, but there’s always at least little gem or two that can be pulled from the pages of books written by “the experts.” But my favorite, and perhaps most adventurous, thing about having multiple books on different training methodologies? Designing my own in my little training/racing melting pot. True, some training methodologies are complete 180s of other training methodologies, and perhaps my library fits more under the “scientifically proven” category (again, I am a big fan of Jack Daniels). But, finding the connections between different strategies and racing theories is almost like a game to me, putting together my own story (or literature review, for the academic geeks out there) in order to make sense of it all. If that’s not for you, don’t worry… Most of the books out there reference other books in the long line of endurance training literature, so the authors, in a way, do that work for you.
What training plan(s) do you use? Do you design your own, or rely on a coach for guidance? In your opinion, what is the biggest unknown in the realm of endurance training strategies that you wish you had the answer to?