How do you find the right training plan for you?
I often hear runners asking others to point them in the direction of a ‘good’ training plan. I always advise caution when using generic plans, or a plan written for somebody else, because every person is an individual and therefore what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.
As a running coach, I would never advocate following a generic training plan to the letter - every plan needs a degree of flexibility - which is why I only ever design plans to individual requirements, which are all different. However, I appreciate that not everybody can afford to pay a coach to write them a bespoke plan, so I’ve written some tips below to help you get the most out of any plan, and make it work for you.
Here are a few questions you need to ask of any training plan:
1 - Who was it originally written for, and by?
If it is a plan written by a coach, designed for publication in a magazine or on a reputable website, then the likelihood is it will include options for differing abilities of runners, guidance on how fast – or slow – to complete each session, and will be well balanced with a good variety of sessions, including those all important recovery runs and slower miles, as well as the key sessions, to help you avoid injury. If it’s a plan written by somebody who isn’t experienced in coaching, or for somebody of a different running ability to you, I would question the wisdom of using this, as the wrong plan could, at best, help you fall short of what you are capable of, and at worst, contribute to injury.
2 - Is it specific to the event you’re training for?
There are plenty of generic training plans on the internet and in magazines, which will help you train up to your chosen event distance. However, look at the terrain of your event and whether it’s very hilly or whether part of the event is on trail. If your plan doesn’t include specific sessions to suit your chosen event, don’t be afraid to include them in lieu of a different session on the plan: so, for example, do an easy recovery run on trail instead of road if it will help you get some experience off road; or swap in a hill rep session for an interval session. It’s more important that your plan works well for you than that you follow it to the letter, because remember that it wasn’t written with you in mind.
3 - Has it been designed to take into account your running experience and recent mileage?
You’ll often see generic plans labelled beginner, intermediate or advanced. Look at what these mean in terms of what the plan will require you to do. A plan should not ask you to significantly increase your weekly mileage when you start it, so if you usually run 15 miles a week, and the first week on your plan is asking you to do 25 miles, alarm bells should ring. Increasing mileage too quickly can tire you out, lower your immune system as your body tries to deal with the increased pressure on it, and ultimately lead to illness or injury. So don’t be tempted just to jump in feet first. If you can’t find an alternative, more suitable, plan, give yourself an extra few weeks to build up gradually so that when you do start training, your body is ready for the increased training load.
Take regular stock every week too of how you’re feeling. If you are tired, take an extra rest day. If this doesn’t resolve your tiredness, it’s time to re-evaluate your plan. The same goes for any niggling injuries - pay attention to your body and don’t be afraid to have a couple of days off or have a recovery week with more easier runs than hard runs.
4 - Does it fit your life and work commitments?
Training for an event, especially for a marathon or an ultra, can take a LOT of time. A plan that asks you run 6 times a week may not work for you and your lifestyle. People often ask me whether it’s possible to train for a marathon on 3 runs a week, and yes it is, but don’t expect to be breaking any speed records at that distance, running just three times a week. With running, you get out what you put in, but you also have to fit it around life so do think carefully about your goals when choosing a training plan.
5 - Will it get the best out of you and help you achieve your goals?
While I’ve talked a lot about being careful not to do too much and injure yourself, it’s important to make sure a plan will challenge you and get the best out of you. This is why I will (obviously!) always encourage you to take on a coach who is in your corner, pushing them, motivating you with a plan designed to help you achieve your potential, as well as regularly reminding you to check in with how they’re feeling so sessions can be adapted if need be. It can be tricky finding that right balance between not doing enough and doing too much. A great plan will have you laying down at the end of some interval sessions where you’ve worked really hard, but you’ll be raring to go and feeling fresh for your next session.
So while a plan that’s written just for you would be the ideal, don’t be afraid of changing generic training plans to suit YOU! The key is to know yourself, be honest with yourself about your goals, and to listen to your body.
Wise words from Michelle that we can put our hand up and say we've broken a few of these rules over the years!
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