Mastering a Training Plan

man running

Between family, work, hobbies, and social obligations, life can feel like a game of scheduling Tetris: so many moving pieces and a limited amount of time to fit them in. Here are some valuable tips how to make a good training plan combining all key training elements.

If you plan to run whenever you have a free second, chances are you’ll rarely get out at all – and when you do, you won’t be reaping the benefits of a more organized strategy. A training plan gives you structure and direction. It also brings variety, so that you’re not doing the same day by day, getting stuck in a boring routine. In addition, variation has physical benefits. Research shows that increasing the pace for short periods of time provides additional cardiovascular benefits and can help you to lose weight.

Adding in weight training can help prevent injuries and increase bone density. Having a plan can keep you from overdoing it, since recovery and hard efforts are in good balance. And it can give you confidence you can bring to your next race. Personal trainers and commercially available training plans are good ways to add structure to your exercise routine, but a DIY strategy is doable, as well.

a couple running
If you follow some basic guidelines, you should be able to plan your own training or adjust an existing plan to fit your lifestyle.

 PLAN THREE DAYS A WEEK

Three quality days a week is how much an individual needs to run to see progress. If you are doing a long run one day, intervals on a second day, and a tempo run on a third day, you’re going to see improvement. And progress doesn’t only mean faster race times: these exercises ramp up kilojoule-burning, improve overall health, and make you a more confident runner. Long runs build endurance and mental toughness, and you don’t have to go super-long to see progress. Athletes who aren’t training to race a half marathon or longer can run up to twelve kilometers.

Build the mileage slowly, adding no more than a kilometer a week, and keep the pace easy. A lot of runners plan long runs for the weekend, when the majority of us have more time to cover the distance.

Rushed weekdays are great for interval runs, which are time-efficient and effective: a 2012 review of studies showed that interval training reduced the risk of health issues like high blood pressure and insulin sensitivity, while a 2015 study discovered that subjects who included bursts of speed kept burning kilojoules at a higher-than-normal rate post-exercise.

Intervals can last from 30 seconds to one full kilometer, with periods of walking or jogging separating the high-intensity intervals. The effort should feel hard but not all-out – similar to 5K pace.

Tempo runs – sustained efforts at a comfortably fast pace – combine the endurance-boosting properties of long runs with the speed-developing qualities of intervals. Tempo runs help you train your body and brain to turn up the pace and keep it there.

On the other four days of the week, if you decide to run, choose an easy pace.

swimming
In a 2010 study, triathletes who swam after a tough interval run were able to run harder than those who rested in a test the next day.

INCORPORATE REST DAYS

It’s impossible to tell for sure how much rest you’ll need. It depends on experience and age and whether you’re prone to injury or not. The rule is not to run hard on two consequent days. And long-run days are considered hard, even though the pace is slow.

Also, know that a rest day doesn’t mean you have to rest all day. You can try swimming on rest days. In a 2010 study,  triathletes who swam after a tough interval run were able to run harder than those who rested in a test the next day. If you don’t like swimming, try practice active recovery – yoga, walking, or having an easy cycling trip. But be sure to take at least one day a week – two if you’re just starting out, prone to injury or to mental burnout – completely off from exercise.

running in the morning
If you decide to run in the morning, spend enough time to warm up since your body didn’t move a lot during sleep.

ADD TIME FOR WARM-UP AND COOL-DOWN

It may be tempting to jump right into your exercise, but this is definitely a bad idea. Your body needs at least 15 minutes to increase bloodflow to main muscle groups. And a 2012 study discovered that athletes who performed a dynamic warm-up had more hamstring flexibility and quad strength than those who did no warm-up. Increased flexibility helps protect against injuries, particularly when running intervals or at tempo pace. It’s recommended to start exercises – particularly hard ones – with jogging and plyometrics to activate key running muscles.

Early-morning runners in particular need warm-up time, since we’re mostly stationary during sleep. But this also also goes for other runners – if you have a sedentary job and you’ve been sitting all day, your body will need a longer warm-up – particularly before high-intensity exercise. Try doing 10-15 minutes of jogging plus a few drills and dynamic stretches (like skips and high-knees) before doing the fast portion of a exercise.

Also, don’t forget to do a cool-down. When we’re exercising hard, all systems are firing, but when we suddenly stop, all of these systems slam on the brakes without letting our bodies return to normal. Jog for a couple of minutes after a tough exercise, then downshift to a walk. Build in at least 10 minutes after interval or tempo runs, or use the final kilometer or two of a long or easy run to start the cool-down process.

box jumping
It’s recommended to dedicate one weight-training day to building power with drills and plyometrics like box jumps and walking lunges.

TAKE SOME TIME FOR STRENGTH TRAINING

Try completing two hour-long strength-training sessions per week, plus three sessions of core training. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that this can mean just doing a few leg lifts, planks, and oblique crunches after a run. It’s recommended to dedicate one weight-training day to building power with drills and plyometrics like box jumps and walking lunges, while the other should be used to work on total body strength and stability. Prioritize the core workouts. If you can only fit in one strength session a week, concentrate on power one week and strength and stability the next. If you don’t have much time, try lifting heavy weights for fewer reps. Doing as few as three or four reps with the max weight you can manage builds strength quickly. If you do your strength-training is a matter of personal choice. If you do it after a hard training session, you can take the next day completely off. But mentally, that can be hard. If the choice is doing it on your easy day or not doing it at all, do it on your easy day.

INCORPORATE ENOUGH RECOVERY TIME

To feel the best on all your runs, do things in between to help your body recover. Ensure you’re eating a protein-rich snack after you run, especially after demanding exercises or runs lasting longer than an hour. You should also try to get enough sleep – however much you need to wake feeling rested – as well as quality time with your foam roller.

Foam rolling is a strategy of working out the scar tissue that we all have in our muscles. Concentrate particularly on your lower body – the glutes, calves, quads, hamstrings, and IT bands are especially important to focus on. It’s recommended rolling for 15-20 minutes per day. As a minimum, try to get 5 minutes in every day, and save longer sessions for after tough workouts. The best way to do it regularly on a daily basis? Keep your foam roller near your TV. When you plop down to log some tube time, you’ll see it and remember to use it.

woman sleeping
Make sure you sleep enough as this significantly helps your body to recover faster.

TRAIN TO RACE

If you’re preparing for a race, try to start most long runs on the time of day your race will start. Racers should do one or two dress rehearsal long runs in the weeks leading up to the taper to test out what they’ll eat the day before and morning of the race, how they’ll fuel mid-run, and even what they’ll put on. Even your tempo during rehearsal runs – for at least several kilometers – should mimic race day. Pre-run oats might work for you on easy days, but if your stomach revolts when you speed up, you’ll be glad to learn that in advance. When to start your taper is a personal decision. Some half and full marathoners taper for a few weeks, while 5K and 10K runners need less taper time. And remember, taper doesn’t mean slow: “It should be shorter volume, more rest, but with the intensity still up. Complete fewer, shorter reps at your usual pace during speed sessions. Do only four repeats so you can keep that snap but not exhaust your legs. The key is to keep muscle memory and snap alive.

woman sitting at a desk
Sometimes you don’t have time to complete all training sessions. Adapt your plan to the situation.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO EXERCISE?

Sometimes you just can’t get out for your run. Here’s what to do if…

…YOU HAVE TO SKIP ONE TRAINING SESSION

If it’s a once-in-a-while thing, don’t worry and let it go. If you’re frequently missing one main training session per week, however, you should either change your schedule or adapt your goals.

…YOU HAVE TO SKIP TWO TRAINING SESSIONS

Reschedule the training session that best aligns with your goal and skip the other. For instance, if you’re preparing for a marathon, prioritize your long run. If you’re trying to drop a few pounds, hold the intervals.

…YOU WERE UP ALL NIGHT WITH A SICK CHILD

If it’s a single night of no sleep, you can probably rally and do your morning session. If it’s several nights of no sleep, skip it and sleep in.

…YOU REGULARLY JUST CAN’T FIND THE TIME

If you have small children, try splitting workouts in half, doing two 20-minute sessions instead of a 40-minute run. Do what you can in the time you have.

running couple

WHEN AND WHAT TO SHOULD YOU ADAPT YOUR TRAINING?

Having a plan and sticking to it is important, but it shouldn’t own you. Adapt it for these scenarios.

THERE’S A FUN 5-K YOU WANT PARTICIPATE IN THE LAST MINUTE.

Do fun things when you can; just keep in mind that it could jeopardize the next day of training. Also, if you’re only a few weeks away from a goal race, skip the extra starting line.

YOUR FRIENDS MEET FOR A LONG RUN ON A DIFFERENT DAY TO WHAT YOU’D PLANNED.

There’s nothing wrong with doing a group run, as long as you keep on with your plan. Go, but when someone within the group opts to have a long-run day like tempo day, don’t get sucked into the faster pace.

YOU MISSED A HARD TRAINING SESSION, SO YOU DO IT THE DAY BEFORE YOUR LONG RUN.

A good approach because your legs are already tired. Learning how to run on tired legs can help you late in demanding workouts or races. Don’t do this often – your long runs should usually be between easy or rest days – but it’s okay once in a while.

YOU’RE EXHAUSTED OR JUST NOT FEELING IT.

Building a schedule takes a fair amount of trial and error; you have to figure out how much rest and recovery your body needs. It’s better to listen to your body – not your Google Calendar alert.

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Written by Kyra Williams

Kyra Williams likes to say in a joke that she preferred running to walking already as a child. Regular running has always been part of her life and she has joined several running events. She loves long runs with her loyal playful companion Vicky, Brittany Spaniel, in the early morning or in the evening.

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