As with all aspects of life, all runners are built differently and have their own individual strengths and weaknesses. Some are naturally more inclined towards top-end speed and favor 5k races, while others enjoy slogging out long runs and specialize in the marathon distance.
But no matter your preferred discipline, a training plan is essential to maximize your success. From hiring a running-specific coach to finding a random free running plan online, it can be tough to figure out what’s right for you and your goals.
Enter Alex Hutchinson — he’s an expert on the science of endurance and fitness, and his latest book, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, highlights much of his insight.
Here this physicist-turned-endurance expert shares his thoughts on ready-made versus personalized training plans, and their strengths, values and intended uses.
Can a ready-made running plan — one that’s not personalized for your specific needs — work? If so, Why?
Sure, a basic ready-made plan can be helpful, particularly for beginners. Many people start with the general goal of getting a bit fitter, so they’re less concerned with truly optimizing their training and performance. Following a very basic plan with a cautious progression and a reasonable balance between easy and hard efforts can take them a long way.
Of course, having expert guidance or a custom plan can be helpful for pretty much anyone. So ready-made running plans probably aren’t “better” even for beginners. But they may be “good enough,” at least initially.
Specifically, what kind of runner can you recommend a ready-made running plan for?
As I said, ready-made plans are probably best for beginners. And to be more specific, for beginners who aren’t too impatient.
It’s always tempting to take some shortcuts – if Week 2 feels too easy, you think, “I’ll skip ahead to Week 4.” That’s when the trouble starts.
For a ready-made plan to work, you have to be willing to take things slowly.
What key components should you look for in a good ready-made running plan? How do you pick what’s right for you?
There are many different ways to skin a cat, so there’s no “right” plan.
It’s probably best to find a running plan designed by someone with good experience or authority, and they should be clear about what type of runner their plan is aimed towards.
And you have to be honest with yourself about your current level of fitness and experience to ensure you’re choosing an appropriate plan.
How can runners customize A ready-made running plan to better suit them?
In a word, experience!
It may be that you do better with a longer weekly long run than most people, or it may be that your job means you can only train four days a week.
There are lots of individual reasons for adapting a training plan. But once you start changing a training plan, it’s no longer doing what its author intended, so you’re on your own.
I guess the main rule is probably to start with small adjustments, see how they make you feel, and proceed from there. Otherwise, you’re basically making up your own plan.
What if you decide to create your own plan from scratch, how should you go about it?
To be honest, if you’re going to make up your own running plan, you hopefully already know the answers to this question!
You’ll have to decide how often you run, how long each run will be, how hard each run will be, and how those various pieces will fit together as a coherent whole.
There are common patterns — for example, do one long run, one tempo run, one interval workout, and fill the rest of the week with easy runs.
In the end, how most people first create their own plan is by adapting a plan they’ve used previously, rather than inventing something out of thin air.
How should you vary training (intensity, duration, frequency) for different distances (5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon)?
The basics are very similar. I’ve often trained with groups of runners training for distances between 5k and the marathon, and the similarities between our training were far greater than the differences.
Marathoners, of course, generally need to be doing higher total mileage, put more emphasis on their weekly long run, and do a fair amount of threshold training like tempo runs.
Most 5k runners would do less mileage but include more hard workouts with intervals lasting between three and five minutes. So the ratios may vary, but the basic ingredients are mostly the same.
How can you use heart rate, running power and other metrics to your advantage when you’re creating a training plan?
Metrics like running heart rate and running power can be useful when your training environment isn’t always predictable. If you did all your running on an indoor track (which sounds horrible), you’d always have a pretty good sense of how hard you’re working.
But if you’re training in heat or cold or hilly terrain or muddy trails, your speed no longer tells you much. Heart rate and power give you a read on how hard you’re working.
There are also other uses for these kinds of metrics. A lot of motivated runners tend to push too hard on their recovery days, because they’re so eager to get fitter and faster.
Forcing yourself to stay below a certain heart rate on recovery days can keep that pattern in check. It can also be a useful way to track fitness changes: If you can run the same course in the same time but with a lower average heart rate, that’s a good sign you’re getting fitter.
How should a runner approach setting running goals for the year?
It’s great to have a hierarchy of goals: big, ambitious ones combined with smaller and more reachable ones.
In practice, that means a series of races leading up to one (or perhaps a few) major goal races. It’s great to dream big, but it’s also important to have some sense of what’s possible.
Plus, the goals need to be flexible. Injuries happen, other life events intervene, or something in the training just doesn’t go well. Be willing to adapt your goals if needed.
Would you recommend that a training plan be race-specific, or designed for an entire season?
Personally, I think it’s good to have a big-picture plan for the whole season, with one intermediate goal (like a race) leading to the next one (a more important race) and culminating in your main season goal.
It’s mentally tough to spend months thinking about just one single goal, so intermediate goals are important.
And the various pieces of your season need to fit together: you can’t spend two months focusing on running the fastest possible 5k, and then suddenly decide to run a marathon a month later. Well, you can — but you probably won’t run your best.
How do you know if your training plan is working, when is a good time to evaluate your progress?
It’s good to have ways of checking in on your progress periodically — say once a month or so. That might be a tune-up race, or simply a benchmark workout where you can track your progress and look at the data you collect to see if you’re moving in the right direction.
If things aren’t progressing as you’re hoped, you have to decide whether it’s just taking longer to get fit, or whether you need to make fundamental changes to your training.
And importantly, don’t forget to factor in what’s going on in the rest of your life. If you’re stressed at work, that may affect your running and require that you ease off your training a bit.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.