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What Makes a Good Race Training Plan?

You signed up for a race and now you know you need to figure out how to get not only to the finish line of the race, but the start line healthy and injury free too!

With so many plans out there, from Hal Higdon to Nike Training Club to all of the pretty plans on Pinterest or the ones touted on social media, I wanted to share what I would look for in a training as a professional run coach, injury prone runner, and experienced marathoner.

Why Follow a Race Training Plan

Maybe you signed up for a local 5k or 10k and you run a few miles every few weeks and you’re pretty sure you can cover the distance, so why would you use a training plan?

For something that you usually run about 80% of the miles of and you have no time goal, you don’t really need a plan, especially if you’re not prone to injury and don’t plan on building mileage.

If you have a goal for your time or you’re starting at less than 80% of the race mileage, I recommend a race training plan. A good plan is going to help you safely add mileage, prevent injury, and help you feel confident going into the race.

If you’re doing anything above a 10k, I recommend most runners follow a plan—the compounded mileage of training can easily cause overuse injuries.

Elements of a Good Race Training Plan

Elements of a good race training plan
Elements of a good race training plan

For me, a good race training plan comes down to 5 things:

  • Matches your current level of fitness

  • Includes strength training

  • Slowly progresses mileage

  • Is written by a professional

  • Is clear, easy to understand, bonus if there is a way for you to ask questions and get advice

Current Fitness Level and Race Training Plans

After a race or two in any distance, it’s not uncommon for us runners to set a time goal. I chased a sun 2-hour half marathon for 5 years!

But you need to make sure the training plan you pick is reasonable for the current fitness and time commitment you have now. Not what you want one day, not in a fantasy world, now.

If you can only realistically run 20-miles a week, you need a plan that matches that. If you can’t workout more than an hour a day, you need a plan that will follow those constraints!

Training plans should be designed to take you from where you are to your goal (as long as your goal is reasonable). They shouldn’t start you out at the paces you want to finish at. A plan that would start someone who wants to run a 2:30 half marathon running 10 minute miles in their long run is not going to set you up for success. It’s going to lead to burnout, frustration, and likely injury.

Most training plans *should* give a description of who it’s designed for. Be really honest with yourself when reading through those so you pick the best plan for you.

Strength Training and Race Training

I am a big believer in the power of strength training for runners. Not only are there a number of studies to confirm it, but consistent strength training has completely changed my own running.

A training plan should include at the very least, days you should train. Even better if it tells you what time or body part to workout. Just because a plan skips this part, don’t assume you can leave it off. I guarantee you will feel better on race day if you keep up with 20-30 minutes 2-3 times a week of strength training.

Slow Progression of Miles

What a slow mileage progression should look like.
What a slow mileage progression should look like.

Just like you should pick a plan that meets your current fitness, your plan should add approximately 10% more miles each week that you’re in a loading phase. Sometimes it may be a little more, other times a little less, but it’s an oft touted rule of thumb in running because it works pretty good!

Training Plans Written by a Professional

There are a lot of really amazing run bloggers out there who publish their training plans for us all to read. There are also some really great Canva graphics or Pinterest plans you can get for free. But those plans may or may not be written by someone who’s qualified to be coaching.

Just because one plan worked for one person over one training cycle doesn’t mean it follows the principles of running that have been backed by science.

One pretty plan doesn’t mean the person who wrote it has any idea of how to write a plan that will take you from your current fitness to where you want to go.

Just like you shouldn’t take medical advice from Dr. google, don’t trust a training plan you found for free because it worked for someone else. Find a plan by a professional who has credentials you trust.

Easy to Understand Race Training Plans

Have you ever found a plan that looked great only to realize you have no clue what all the acronyms and numbers mean?

Been there, done that.

You want to make sure the plan you pick is clear and easy to understand for you.

Just because your friend followed the plan and it worked great doesn’t mean it’s the best plan for you.

A huge bonus to all of that is if there is a Facebook group or coaches email that you can get in touch with as questions do arise! Training doesn’t happen in a vacuum so having someone to ask questions to when the schedule goes off or illness happens is incredibly beneficial.

I remember the first time that I used a paid for plan with an ask the coach option attached, I was able to ask such valuable advice about the course and pacing and hills for race day. It ended up being the first time I ever ran that sub 2-hour half marathon (tip I learned: run the hills by effort, not goal pace, both on the up and down, otherwise you’ll burn your muscles and won’t have anything left).

Want more tips for training for a races? Check out these other posts:

Training for a race and want community, fun, plans, and more? Learn more about my virtual group coaching program, Best Run Year Ever.

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