Let’s Talk About Running: Training Plans

When I started training for my half marathon, I did a lot of research on how to build a training plan. I did a lot of reading. Look, I’m an engineer — I like knowing how to construct things that will work for me. I read lots of the usual resources, from Runner’s World Training Plans to Galloway, Higdon, and McMillan*. I read magazines and articles, I went through individual blogs looking for advice. again, if I had spent nearly as much time running as I did reading, well, dude, I’d be smoking the world with my feet right now.

Obviously I am not an expert here. My half marathon was 2:10:56, which puts me firmly in an “average” camp, the “yes in fact I actually did solidly run the entire 13.1 miles (at a ~10:00/mi pace), but there’s no way you can call me legitimately fast here” grouping. But that’s what this blog is for – that’s what this advice is for, people who want to run and run better but don’t have an entire life to devote to it.

When I was training for my half marathon, I was working a full time job (40 hour weeks, in increments of 11-12 hour days) and attending a full-time graduate school course load (20-30 hours a week, including up to 6 hours of lab on my days off and anywhere from 15-25 hours during the week calculating, creating, researching, and writing 30-page lab reports) — seriously, I dare anyone to tell me I should have, could have, spent more time on training. I dare you.

That being said — I’m a living breathing example of the fact that you always have time to do it. Look at that schedule, and look at the things in your life. Are you really too busy? Think about it.

anyway! This is a blog about healthefficiency — healthy efficiency, workout efficiency, training efficiency. So let’s talk about training plans! If I tell you what I learned, as an intermediate amateur runner in real life, not in magical running world, hopefully training can be more efficient for you down the line!

This is a plan for casual people looking to get a little more serious, looking to get better efficiently. This is for people who want to look at things beyond a 5K. This is for people who might be looking at this for the first time, or the second time — if you’re already running 35 miles/week, dude, you don’t need my help.

Using this sort of plan, I managed to drop my time on an 8-mile relay leg >9 minutes. That’s dropping over a mile a minute in my pace. This stuff works!

The setup that worked best for me was based on three core components, from which I built my plan.

  • the Long Run. This is a key piece of getting better, faster, stronger. Doing a long slow run each week gets your body used to longer, harder efforts, but grows that over the course of your training plan, so that your body has time to adapt and accumulate more gently. The key to the Long Run is making it a Long Slow Run. If you’re anything close to an average, amateur runner – like me – your LSR pace should probably be ~2 min/mile slower than what you consider your race pace or target pace. (Before I started training for the HM, I’d run a 5K at about a ~9min mile, and at the gym most of my runs were about 10min mile pace. So all of my LSRs were about 11-11:30/mile. Make sense?)

    This is going to feel slow. And it’s going to make your runs that much longer — they’re Long to begin with and now they are Long and Slow? Isn’t this blog about efficiency? Ha. Look — if you do a Long Medium Run or a Long Slow Run With Fast Intervals, and you haven’t worked up to it before, you’re going to hurt yourself. You’ll injure yourself, and that will put a stop to your training completely. At best, you’ll exhaust yourself and make subsequent runs worse because your body hasn’t recovered fully.

    When you aren’t used to going more than 3, 4, 5 miles, you need to do this. You need to learn to take it slow. Trust me — it’s important. Maybe you’ll feel like you aren’t working hard enough. Maybe you’ll wonder how the heck you’re gonna run 8 minute miles when all your training is 10 minute miles. Well, your body is an efficient machine. It takes what you learn at safe slow miles and runs that into safe fast miles. The point of the LSR is to build endurance.

    The Long Run goes into a plan once a week.

  • the Speedwork. Okay, one of your days gets to be about speed. There are two main types of Speedwork you see in training plans:
    • the Tempo Run. A “tempo run” is the name used to describe a run done at a faster pace – maybe close to your desired racing speed – for a longer time/distance – over 2, 3, 4 miles. It isn’t all out balls out racing pace — if you could run a 5K at this pace you wouldn’t be training for it — but it’s definitely faster than the LSR and it’s closer to your racing pace. (using my times as an example: I ran the 5K at ~9min/mi and other runs at ~10min/mi. I was assuming I wouldn’t do the HM any faster than a 10min/mi pace, and I was aiming to drop my 8mi relay leg time down to 9min/mi. SO: my tempo runs started out between 9:30-9:50 pace, and eventually dropped more to 9:10-9:30 paces.)

      The point of the tempo run is to teach your body what it feels like to run at or close to your desired “race pace”, without breaking said body by doing an entire race at that pace before you’re ready for it. Usually a tempo run is bracketed by ~1mi warmup and ~1mi cooldown.

    • the Interval Run. “Intervals” are just what they sound like — periods of running like hell broken up by periods of recovery. In my experience, there are two sorts of interval training that get used in running training plans. There are “short intervals”, which are something like 15 seconds, 100 m, short bursts of absolute sprinting followed by 30-45 seconds or 100-200m of easy jogging for recovery. There are “medium intervals”, which are more like 400-800 m / 0.25-0.5 mile, at a good fast frigging clip, with equal periods of jogging recovery. When doing shorter intervals, the point is to just run as fast as your body will absolutely go. With medium intervals, your speed is fast, faster than your tempo runs or your previous race paces or even your desired race pace. (again using me as an example: most of my medium interval runs were 800 m or 1/2 mi, in ~4:00-4:30 – so an 8-9 min mile, starting on the high side and progressing faster as my training intensity increased.)

      Personally I feel that the “medium intervals” are more useful for a runner who is still training and developing their body to run in a longer race. However, I have to be honest: I cannot do full-out sprinting intervals because I have asthma and intense exercise can trigger it. I learned the hard way that I can’t do sprinting intervals without inducing an asthma attack and rendering the entire run/workout invalid. I guess I can say that medium intervals worked great for me; I can’t speak to short intervals much.

      The point of the interval training is to teach your body what it feels like to run fast. It gets you used to intensity. It makes you challenge your legs and lungs and head to go faster. It does it in a way that’s meant to hurt, but hopefully not to break you. Again, it’s usually bracketed by a long easy warmup and cooldown.

    Speedwork goes into a plan once a week. The way I usually did it was alternate, so that one week I would do a tempo run, and the next I’d do medium intervals, then the next was another tempo run, and so on. Switching up the kind of intensity not only keeps your plan more interesting, but helps keep your body constantly adapting.

  • the Easy Run, or Recovery Run. Finally! I used the word easy! Easy runs are how you fill out the rest of your plan to keep your body used to running, but help it recover at the same time. The point of an easy/recovery run is nothing at all: you aren’t working on speed, you aren’t working on endurance. You’re working on convincing your body that it doesn’t hate running, hahaha.

    Easy recovery runs can be anywhere from 2-6 miles, depending on where you are in your plan, and should be run at an easy pace. For starters, aim for your LSR pace. Increase or decrease as needed to what feels good, what feels “easy.” Actual pace here isn’t nearly as important as stretching your leg muscles and keeping your heart rate relatively low and easy. Concentrate on keeping it casual. Relax with it. Yay!

    Easy recovery runs can be done once a week to a couple times a week, depending on where you are in your plan.

The next post in this series will discuss how to put these pieces together — how to assemble this into a training plan – something effective, but that a modern busy grown up can follow and stick to!

* linked here is McMillan’s Pace Calculator, something that has been really helpful for me as an intermediate-level runner but a beginner at training plan construction. I adore this thing on a purely engineering geeky level too. NUMBERS: YAY. If you’re confused about the paces I’m talking about at all, it’s a great resource to figure out how YOU should be training.


3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Running: Training Plans

  1. Pingback: Let’s Talk About Running: How To Make A Training Plan | Healthefficiency

  2. Pingback: Let’s Talk About Running: Speedwork Workouts and Ways To Jazz Up Your Plan | Healthefficiency

  3. Pingback: Let’s Talk About Running… With Asthma | Healthefficiency

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