For all runners, or even if you don’t run, there are times to just go with the flow. Running without a plan or an end goal is enjoyable, great for your mental health, and a nice relief from a disciplined schedule. But, if you’re serious about getting faster, going longer, or improving your race results, you’ll need to put together a plan.
The purposes of a plan are:
1) To train your body to go for longer distances by improving your cardiovascular endurance and oxygen carrying capacity, as well as improving the strength and toughness of your tendons, muscles, joints, ligaments and soft tissues over more and more miles
2) To train your body to move faster and more efficiently by improving the transmission of brain-to-muscle “messages” and improve running biomechanics
3) To improve mental grit resilience to longer and harder workouts – your brain is always in charge!
The catch with all of these things is that they only work if you’re following a plan that pushes you past your limits but then lets you recover but without getting injured. It’s kind of like walking on the edge of a cliff – how close can you get without tipping off? A good training plan is a perfect balance of breaking things down, and building them back up. When the breaking down part exceeds the building back up part (aka recovery), you end up hurt.
The below shows this “sweet spot” perfectly. The red line illustrates the upper most amount of load, or training, one can handle. The grey line shows the minimal amount of work that would need to be done. So, unfortunately, if you want to run 10k, just walking the dog around the block isn’t going to help you get there. The oscillating blue line is your day-to-day stress, i.e every time you go for a run. You can see that it’s ok to overstep your upper boundary, or the red line, every so often, but if you do it for too many days in a couple weeks you’re probably going to end up hurt. (i.e, if you race and then do speed training two days later). Alternatively, if you’re only ever hovering under the grey line, you’re not going to see much change. Note that the grey line will go higher over time – so as you train and become stronger, you’ll have to push harder in order to still see changes happen. This is why people will plateau – they’re usually doing the same thing for too long and it is no longer enough to propagate change.
Finding and keeping this sweet spot is therefore a moving target. You can see how it can be relatively easy to get hurt, or to miss the mark! This is truly what you’re paying for when you hire a coach – someone to do this thinking for you. Coaches can use heart rate, stress scores, or other metrics to help calculate about how tired or rested you are, but even then, bodies are not a perfect science. Things like nutrition, stress, and sleep, will also play into how you feel and how you’re performing.
And if you don’t want to pay for a coach? Read on for how to build up a basic training plan that you can fit into your busy life.
Each Week Should Include at Minimum:
- 1 run with speed practice
- 1 long run (usually on a weekend day)
- 2 easy runs
- 1-2 strength and/or mobility days
Speed runs are typically done at tempo pace or as intervals.
- Tempo runs: Are done typically at a pace slightly slower than your 5k pace. So fast, but sustainable. You should be able to hold this pace for 20 minutes, but it should be difficult. The idea here is to teach your body to better clear out lactate from working muscles, without totally burning yourself out.
- Interval runs: Are short, intense efforts followed by equal or slightly longer recovery time. The pace should be harder than race pace. The idea here is to maximize cardiovascular efficiency, develop power, good form, and mental grit.
You should NOT be doing more than 2 speed runs per week as they are challenging on the body and require some time to recover from.
- The long run should make up 20-30% of your total weekly mileage and is usually over 60-90 minutes. They should be done at a pace much slower than your race pace – you should be conversational. The point of these runs is to grow your cardiovascular endurance, improve muscle fibre resistance and breakdown, and improve the efficiency in which your body breaks down fuel. You will need to fuel these runs and always remember to recover well afterwards. These are key to improving fitness.
Easy or Recovery Runs
- These are exactly what they sound like – shorter to mid-distance runs throughout the week that let you improve blood flow to tired muscles, let you mentally relax and unwind, and improve recovery.
- The most neglected parts of a runner’s plan is always the strength and mobility aspect – arguably the most important part as you obviously need to be moving well, strong enough, and balanced enough to do what you are asking your body to do. Imbalances, assymetries, and especially poorly-rehabbed previous injuries combined with an aggressive program can be an invitation for a problem, even for the most experienced runners. You should aim to do 1-2 sessions per week of key muscle group work.
- Not sure what to do on these days? The best thing to do is have a gait assessment done. Your therapist can immediately point out your weak links and provide you with specific exercises that can be done in 15 minutes or less that you know are going to work for you, so you’re using you (very limited) time as wisely and as productively as possible.
Organizing Your Week
There’s a few rules to follow when scheduling these workouts into your week. Firstly, you’ll need a few days between your speed run and long run. Some people are able to do them on back-to-back days, but proceed with caution on this as it’s a lot of load in a 48 hour period of time. The day(s) between are perfect for recovery runs or strength/mobility/physio work.
10k Sample Plan:
TUESDAY: Easy run, 4-5k
WEDNESDAY: Interval run. 5-7k as 1-2k warmup, 2-3k as 3 minutes 8/10 effort, and 2 minutes very easy, easy cool down home.
THURSDAY: Recovery run, 4-5k
SATURDAY: Long run, 8-12k
SUNDAY: Recovery run, 4-5k
If you’ve picked a race that has hills in it, or if you’re uninjured and looking for a way to improve strength and power, you can swap a hill workout in for a speed workout. Alternatively, if you’re really feeling good, you can add one hill workout in a few days away from a long run or speed run, just be sure you start with just a few repetitions and increase slowly. This would bring your “hard runs” up to 2 per week – the maximum recommended. For example, one week you could do a hill workout of 5 hill reps going hard up, and walking or jogging easily down. The following week do a speed workout, and then the following week another hill workout of 6 reps. Note that if you’ve recently had foot and ankle problems like plantar fasciitis, Achilles issues, or shin splints, be very careful with adding in hills.
Remember that effects of muscle breakdown and recovery are cumulative. Therefore, it’s very important to give yourself some weeks that are easier. For example, you can increase your long run mileage and your speed runs for three weeks in a row, and on the fourth week take it easy for the whole week as a recovery week. Intermittent cycling of these recovery weeks can be critical to avoiding injury, especially if you’re starting to feel a little niggle. This is usually your body saying “I’m at the end of my rope! Give me a rest!” So when you’re starting to put together your plan, think about not just what’s happening day to day on in your microcycle, but also what’s happening month to month in your macro cycle.
Does this sound like a lot of work? It is and it isn’t. Once you bang out a tentative plan, making small adjustments is easy. And the upfront work is well worth the effort, as it will give you an overview of what you can be looking forward to over the coming weeks and months. Remember, if you’re not really training for anything and you don’t really care about improvements, plans are less needed, just be sure you’re still going out consistently and not changing things up too much, too fast. If you’re a more experienced runner and wondering why you’re not getting better – we’d highly suggest that you spend some time on this plan over the holidays and perhaps even pay us a visit so we can provide you with some guidance and feedback.
Let us know if you have any questions, and happy training!