Let’s Talk About Running: How To Make A Training Plan

In this LTA post, I talked about the different parts of a training plan: long slow runs (LSRs), speedwork (tempo runs and intervals), and easy recovery runs. Today, I want to cover how to use these pieces to build a training plan that will help you improve. There are lots of places out there that will give you a training plan – I linked some in the previous post and a google search will bring you tons more – but for people who want to build their own plan, or to better understand how to construct something on their own, I want to share what I’ve learned to try and help.

There are almost too many resources out there, and when you start a training plan there’s a lot of fear in it: will this work? am I wasting my time? Since Healthefficiency is all about the value of your time and how best and most efficiently to use it, I think understanding how to build a plan is valuable — because if/when you realize how all the pieces come together and understand how they’re working for you, you gain trust in your plan. Worry less; run more; train happier.

Before I start in on the plan stuff, though, there are a couple things I want to state upfront.

The first is a basic rule: You aren’t going to get any better/faster unless you run more.

This might sound obvious, but really, you need to understand this before you launch off into any sort of training plan: you aren’t going to get better or faster unless you run, you run more, you run harder, you run more. You have to do the workouts and push yourself and keep changing up that speed and increasing that mileage. You have to stick to it. With running, you get out what you put in. And the result is, if you keep putting in the same thing, you’re going to get out the same thing.

Let’s imagine you have a friend who is a runner; I have a good handful. But let’s think about this: let’s say I’ve got a friend, ‘the’ friend who struggles with her running. She constantly bemoans the fact that she’s slow: she’ll never get faster, she’ll never improve, no matter what she does she doesn’t get faster, she’ll never be as fast as other people. Now, on one hand: there are always going to be people faster than you; being slow sucks, I get it. I’m an asthmatic runner: I’ll never be as fast as many other people, either. And seeing no improvement is really disheartening.

But when I look at her workouts, her “training schedule”, and I see her running the same 3 or 4 miles each time, at the same speed, on the same trail or over the same path. She doesn’t run with any consistency – some weeks she’ll run that 3 miles thrice; others she won’t run at all – and she doesn’t run with any goals: there’s no long slow run to build up a base, there aren’t any targeted speedworks, there’s nothing. She’ll complain to me, “I even did intervals and it didn’t work” — as if doing an interval workout once makes you immediately faster on your next run out. Her interval workouts aren’t a part of anything — she isn’t going anywhere with them, and she doesn’t know how to make them more useful. Overall, it’s still that same 3-4 miles on that same path with that same low frequency. To me, this is the definition of “health inefficiency” — I mean, yeah, she’s running, and that’s awesome in itself, and good for her, but: she isn’t going anywhere with it.

It’s really frustrating to me, as a friend and a runner, to watch that. And when I as a friend offer to help build a training plan or send resources, the answer I get back is always, “I don’t have the time for that.” Ignoring my arguments to the contrary, the point here is: you won’t get better unless you run more. If you don’t have the time to actually train, don’t expect significant improvements. If you want to get faster, make some time. It doesn’t actually take that much time to get better if your workouts are designed and targeted, and you’re dedicated to consistency.

The second thing I want to point out before we launch in here is who my target audience is. If you are just starting to run – if you’re on the beginner side – I welcome you to keep reading to educate yourself, but I would also suggest you start somewhere like Couch to 5K, because there are a lot of really awesome beginner training plans out there and I’m aiming for people with some running experience already. On the other side of things: if you already run like 50 miles a week and you do 6 marathons a year and you regularly do “quarters” and “doubles” and your long runs are like 30 miles — I’m not really aiming for you, either, because you probably know all this. That doesn’t mean you aren’t welcome here! Just, this is a blog about efficiency, and if you’re too new or too experienced, this stuff isn’t going to be the most efficient use of your time.

I’m talking to people who are running their first 5K and want to train for it. Or maybe they’ve done a 5K and want to train for a half marathon. Or maybe they’ve done a couple 5Ks casually and want to get faster. Or maybe they’ve been puttering around running for a few years and want to start training more concretely. That’s the genre of running I’m in, and that’s the level I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about here is “standard procedure”  type stuff. I’ve done a lot of research and read a lot of opinions, so what’s here are general “rules” you can follow to put together a plan which will help you get faster but not push you so hard you injure yourself or just crap out. If you feel like something different will work better for you, feel free to work it in; I’m just trying to compile information to give you a general idea of how this goes.

I’ll be using myself as an example as I talk about putting together a training plan. I haven’t run consistently in a while, so it makes a good reference. When starting a training plan like this, I’m assuming you can run at least 3 miles / 5K without stopping, at a decent clip, and that you run a couple times a week and are hitting maybe 8-12 miles a week as a rough start. If you aren’t there yet, you can still use this info, but you should build from where you are to about there before you start pushing yourself in other directions too.

Step One: Figuring Out Your Training Plan Path

Before you can start putting these pieces together, you need to figure out where you are, where you’re going, and how you want to get there. This sounds more like running philosophy than a plan, but this really is where you need to start.

  • Where you are: How many miles a week do you run right now? How many times a week? What’s your normal training speed? What’s your racing pace (if you’ve done a race)? This is how you know where to start your plan. If you’ve been running, say, a 5K distance on and off for a while, 3x / week, then start there: 3 miles, 3x/week is your starting point, so 9 mi/week. Take whatever you’ve been doing and use that as the “base” for your plan.
  • Where you’re going: What are you training for? Do you want to increase distance? Increase speed? Both? These plans work better when you have a goal in mind, rather than just “I want to run some.”
    Knowing your goal helps you pick the length of your LSR every week, and you build the rest of the plan around that.

    If you’re looking to build mileage – say you’re starting where you can run a 5K, and you want to work up to a 10K, a half marathon, whatever. You’ll want your long slow run to reach at least your race distance, possibly more. If a 10K, you’ll want to go to 6, 7, 8 miles at your long run. If a half marathon, you’ll want to hit at least 10-12, preferably 13-14. If a full marathon, well, it depends on your goals: if it’s your first and you’re looking to finish decently well for yourself, at least 20 mi, and 24 wouldn’t be unreasonable.
    If you’re looking to get faster, you’re still going to have to up your mileage to improve. If you’re in the 5K range, say anywhere from 2-4 miles, you may want to aim for double your race length, ~6-8 mi. If you’re looking at races longer than that – 10Ks (6.2mi) or more – going up to 8-10 miles on your LSR will be good for you.

    Knowing what your goals are will help you set up your LSR, but it will also affect the kind and amount of speedwork that goes into your plan.

  • How you want to get there: This is how you design the actual plan. How much and how hard are you willing to train? The harder you train, the better and faster you’ll be — but go too hard and you risk injuring yourself, and that’s something that will set aside your running plans for a long time. It’s always better to err on the side of safety, as long as you’re consistent.
    • Weekly mileage: Most training plans increase mileage about 10% every week. This is a good level that will challenge you without hurting you too badly. If you want to train extra hard, you can increase up to 15% every week. (Going any higher than that is not really recommended.)
    • Weekly frequency: As you start building mileage, if you get too aggressive with your mileage building plans, you may end up needing to add another day of running to your plan. Or two. How many days a week will you actually make it out to run? Be reasonable and realistic when you plan.
    • Training paces: Your training paces, especially for your speedwork, should increase over time. How quickly they increase is something else to consider as you construct the plan. A faster increase is harder and means you’ll get faster, but too fast and you could injure or exhaust yourself.

Once you know all of this, it’s time to start building.

Step Two: Figuring Out Your Training Plan Structure

  • Runs per week: Take whatever you do now if it works for you. If you have no idea, or you feel like you could run every day, 3x/week is a good place to start.
  • Organize your runs: The reason 3x/ week is so nice is because it allows you one long run, one day of speedwork, and one easy recovery run. To start, pick a day for your long run, one you think you can stick to. The days before and after your long run should be rest/XT days – no running. Two or three days after your long run, plug in that easy recovery run. Then two days after that, plug in your speedwork. As an example: I like to do my long runs on Fridays, so I do recovery runs on Sundays and speedwork on Tuesdays. If your LRS is Sunday, then easy run on Tuesday and do your speedwork Thursday. This schedule spreads out your hard work so that you have plenty of time to recover and have less chance of injury.
  • Percent Increase: Like I said above, you’ll need to build mileage every week. Most plans start out at a 10%/week build. If you’ve been doing this for a while and you’re pretty sure of your capabilities, you can go to 15%; however just understand that it’s going to be harder that way.
  • Rest Weeks: Recovery days are important, because they let the microtears in your muscles heal up to make you stronger and better. However, rest weeks— where you back off on overall mileage and drop your long run — are just as important. If you just build and build and build, eventually your body’s gonna break down. General practice is to build mileage by 10% for three weeks, then on the fourth week, drop 25% in mileage overall and rearrange the miles so that the runs are all middling distance and easy.This is a great rule to work with when you’re just starting out. However, if you’re like me and you have weekends when you’re traveling or working or unavailable, sometimes you have to skew your rest weeks to work with your schedule. Do what you need to do, but don’t skip them. A general rule of thumb: it takes your body 10-14 days to “register” training. Rest weeks help “save” your progress by giving your body a chance to process and settle into the new demands you’ve been putting on it.
  • Training Paces: In order to construct meaningful speedwork and long runs, you need to have some target paces. Now, we aren’t professional runners — it’s doubtful you can mentally tell the difference between an 8:24 mile and an 8:32 mile. But a general target range is an important thing to have.If you’ve raced before/recently, you can use McMillan’s Running Calculator to determine your training paces. It will give you a range for tempo runs, for intervals, and for long runs. (I have found the race predictor to be scarily accurate, too.)
    If you haven’t raced, you can do a couple things. You could fake race: map out a 5K route, run it at what you feel is top effort, and plug that into the calculator. It should be close enough to give you a starting point. Or you could generalize off of your training paces: how fast do you think you could run a mile? Your speedwork target pace should be no faster than that. At what pace can you run 3-4 miles at medium-high effort: you’re breathing hard and you feel the strain/effort, but you aren’t dying? Your speedwork pace should be a good 1-2 min/mile slower than that.The thing to remember with paces is that you can always change them as you move along in the plan. In fact, it’s good to take stock in your plan once a month – during your easy week – and reevaluate your training paces.

Step Three: Actually Making The Stupid Plan

So now you’ve done a lot of nerdy thinking about a plan you could have easily gotten off of a website. Whooooops! Well, it’s time to start turning this knowledge into something you can work with. Let’s build a plan!

As an example, I’m going to show you how I built the basics of the plan I’m using right now. (Please note I’m modifying the plan for myself based on my experience and goals, but the base of the plan is the same.) My starting point for this plan was 10 miles a week, running 3x/week (3/3/4). My last 5K race time was between 9-10 min/mile.

  1. I start by calculating my weekly mileage. I want to build 10% every week for three weeks, and then drop 25% the fourth week. Then I want to go back to my mileage, and build again for three weeks, and then drop. With this example that gives me:

    Week 01: 10 mi
    Week 02: 11 mi
    Week 03: 12.1 mi
    Week 04: 9 mi
    Week 05: 12.1 mi
    Week 06: 13.3 mi
    Week 07: 14.6 mi
    Week 08: 11 mi

    You can round the numbers to whole miles if it makes you feel better. But this is how it breaks down. I would continue this pattern for as many weeks as I wanted to train.
    If I had decided to build at 15% every week, the plan would look like this:

    Week 01: 10 mi
    Week 02: 11.5 mi
    Week 03: 13.2 mi
    Week 04: 10 mi
    Week 05: 13.2 mi
    Week 06: 15 mi
    Week 07: 17 mi
    Week 08: 13 mi

    You can see the mileage ramps a lot more aggressively week to week.
    Think of the plan in “blocks” of 4 weeks. Every 4 weeks you have that ‘reset’ easy week, and after that, your paces should increase slightly, to keep yourself on your toes. Your speedwork could tweak as well, if you wanted.

  2. Next I start splitting this up into my three runs. As a general rule, the long slow run should build about a mile a week, but it shouldn’t get to be more than 50% of your weekly mileage — 25% is a better and safer target, but that’s very difficult to do when you don’t have a ton of running time. Using my overall weekly target above, I start plugging in my LSRs, making sure it’s not consistently more than 50% of my weekly mileage.

    Week 01: 10 mi (4 mi LSR)
    Week 02: 11 mi (5 mi LSR)
    Week 03: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR)
    Week 04: 9 mi
    Week 05: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR)
    Week 06: 13.3 mi (7 mi LSR) <– here my long run creeps up on that 50%, so the LSR stays constant between weeks 6 and 7; once over 50% is okay but twice is a bad idea.
    Week 07: 14.6 mi (7 mi LSR)
    Week 08: 11 mi

    With my aggressive plan, it breaks down similarly:

    Week 01: 10 mi (4 mi LSR)
    Week 02: 11.5 mi (5 mi LSR)
    Week 03: 13.2 mi (6 mi LSR)
    Week 04: 10 mi
    Week 05: 13.2 mi (6 mi LSR)
    Week 06: 15 mi (7 mi LSR)
    Week 07: 17 mi (8 mi LSR)
    Week 08: 13 mi

  3. Once the LSR has been sorted, I can take the remaining mileage and split it out into my speedwork run and my easy recovery run. I know that I’m going to want 4-5 miles for the speedwork: 1 mi warmup and 1 mi cooldown plus 2-3 miles of work in the middle. The residual then becomes my easy recovery run.

    Week 01: 10 mi (4 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 02: 11 mi (5 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 03: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2.1 mi ERR)
    Week 04: 9 mi
    Week 05: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2.1 mi ERR)
    Week 06: 13.3 mi (7 mi LSR / 4.3 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 07: 14.6 mi (7 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 2.6 mi ERR)
    Week 08: 11 mi

    For the aggressive plan, the speedwork becomes a little longer, and the ERRs also become a little longer.

    Week 01: 10 mi (4 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 02: 11.5 mi (5 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2.5 mi ERR)
    Week 03: 13.2 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 3.2 mi ERR)
    Week 04: 10 mi
    Week 05: 13.2 mi (6 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 2.2 mi ERR) <– note here that the SW jumps in between “blocks” (split up between rest weeks), then stays constant for the 3 weeks while the extra miles go into the ERR.
    Week 06: 15 mi (7 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 3 mi ERR)
    Week 07: 17 mi (8 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 4 mi ERR (or 2mi + 2mi ERR))
    Week 08: 13 mi

  4. What to do with those pesky rest weeks? Well, I usually just split them out into 3x equal-ish runs.

    Week 01: 10 mi (4 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 02: 11 mi (5 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 03: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2.1 mi ERR)
    Week 04: 9 mi (3 mi / 3 mi / 3 mi all ERR)
    Week 05: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2.1 mi ERR)
    Week 06: 13.3 mi (7 mi LSR / 4.3 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 07: 14.6 mi (7 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 2.6 mi ERR)
    Week 08: 11 mi (4 mi / 4 mi / 3 mi all ERR)


    Week 01: 10 mi (4 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2 mi ERR)
    Week 02: 11.5 mi (5 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 2.5 mi ERR)
    Week 03: 13.2 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW / 3.2 mi ERR)
    Week 04: 10 mi (4 mi + 3 mi + 3 mi ERR)
    Week 05: 13.2 mi (6 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 2.2 mi ERR)
    Week 06: 15 mi (7 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 3 mi ERR)
    Week 07: 17 mi (8 mi LSR / 5 mi SW / 4 mi ERR (or 2mi + 2mi ERR))
    Week 08: 13 mi (5 mi + 4 mi + 4 mi ERR)

  5. Now to work out the details of the speedwork. This involves knowing your paces (which you can get or estimate above), as well as knowing what kind of work you want to include. Also, your paces should improve a little every “block”, to keep your improvements rolling.
    (Some example pacings: For the construction of this example plan, my easy recovery pace is 11-12 min/mi, my tempo paces are 9:30-10:30 min/mi, and my interval paces would be anywhere from 8-9:30 min/mi.)
    For all of my speedwork, I assume a 0.5-1 mi warmup and a 0.5-1 mi cooldown; this means that the actual speedwork portion will usually be 2-4 miles worthin the middle.

    • Tempo runs: For a tempo run, you do the entire middle stretch (2-4 mi) at a medium-hard pace. I might start out using 10:00/mi for weeks 1-3, then drop down to 9:45/mi for weeks 5-7, and so on.
    • Medium Intervals: In this case you do ~0.5 mi hard followed by 0.25-0.5 mi recovery jog, until you hit your target (2-4 mi). I might start out running 0.5mi @ 9:15/mi pace (easy jog recovery) for weeks 1-3, then drop to 0.5 mi @ 9:00/mi for weeks 5-7.
    • Short Intervals: You can do short intervals by distance (0.1-0.25 mi hard, easy recovery jog) or by time (15-60 sec hard, easy recovery jog). Either way, your hard interval should be really fast, near sprinting. Using our example paces, these short intervals should be close to 8:00/mi pace, faster if possible. You probably don’t want to do more than 2-3 miles of this type of speedwork at once, or you’ll exhaust yourself.

    I feel the most effective way to arrange it is to alternate tempo run / interval / tempo run / [rest week] / interval / tempo run / interval / [rest week]. However, if you’re just starting and you haven’t done a lot of speedwork, you may want to spend your first “block” doing only moderate tempo runs. Arrange the speedwork in a way that makes you happy.

The final plan becomes:

Week 01: 10 mi (4 mi LSR / 4 mi SW [1mi WU + 2mi tempo + 1mi CD] / 2 mi ERR)
Week 02: 11 mi (5 mi LSR / 4 mi SW [0.75mi WU + 2.25mi @ 0.5mi interval + 0.25mi recovery + 1mi CD] / 2 mi ERR)
Week 03: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW [1mi WU + 2mi tempo + 1mi CD] / 2.1 mi ERR)
Week 04: 9 mi (3 mi / 3 mi / 3 mi all ERR)
Week 05: 12.1 mi (6 mi LSR / 4 mi SW [1 mi WU + 2.25mi @ 0.5mi interval + 0.25mi rec+ 1mi CD] / 2.1 mi ERR)
Week 06: 13.3 mi (7 mi LSR / 4.3 mi SW [1 mi WU + 2.3 mi tempo + 1mi recovery] / 2 mi ERR)
Week 07: 14.6 mi (7 mi LSR / 5 mi SW [1 mi WU + 3 mi @ 0.5mi interval + 0.25mi rec + 1mi CD]  / 2.6 mi ERR)
Week 08: 11 mi (4 mi / 4 mi / 3 mi all ERR)

And so on, similarly, for the aggressive plan.

Well, I realize that was long, but I hope it helped explain some of the logic behind training plans! Hopefully this will help you either build your own training plan for yourself, or better understand a plan you’ve been given or found online, for better running.

If you have any questions, please comment! I’d be happy to explain more or to help you out with your plan.

Next LTA, I want to talk a little about modifications to the training plan – micro and macro – as your training moves along, as well as talking a little bit about common running injuries.


2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Running: How To Make A Training Plan

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

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

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