Running training: how to construct a year long training plan for runners

Sport-specific training

Have you ever wondered how good you really could be? At age 31, Keith Anderson was an overweight chef, working long hours and smoking 25 a day. Ten years later he was running for England in the Commonwealth Games!

The best any of us can do is fulfil our genetic potential, but we cannot determine that potential without training really hard. Whatever your age or state of fitness, the first thing to do is set goals. But those goals must be realistic, based on your state of fitness now and the time you can afford to devote to training.

The pattern of your training should be laid down broadly a year ahead, and October is the conventional time to start, though a marathon runner might start in May. However, the training pattern should also be set in the context of a career plan if you are aiming to reach the highest class. It will take you at least three years and possibly as long as five to reach your best.

The two big considerations are mileage and intensity. For the youngish (under 21) runner, the question is how quickly you want to move from your present workload to your maximum workload. For those in the mainstream of their career, the question is how big that maximum should be.

At what point does increasing mileage merely make you more tired and therefore unfit for effective training? Most top-class distance runners are doing 100 miles a week, but it is possible to achieve a lot on half that amount. Seb Coe won two Olympic 1500m titles on 50 miles a week, and I myself ran 13.40 (5k) and 28.20 (10k) on 40-60 miles a week, while holding down a full-time job. It is hard to combine work and training, but it can be done; Ron Hill regularly trained over 100 miles a week, and ran a 2.09 marathon while working full time.

The bottom line is how much really effective training you can do in a week and carry on in the following week. That means training related to this year's event. You first need to decide on your main competitive periods. You can take part in races during your main training blocks, but without much easing down or emotional investment. A traditional British pattern would look something like this:

  • Mid-Sept to mid-Oct: easy running only after your short annual break;
  • Mid-Oct to mid-Dec: 9-week block of conditioning training. Races at end of November and during December as a yardstick of progress;
  • Mid-Dec to early Jan: 3-week period of mainly mileage, as preparation for...
  • Early Jan to mid-March: preparation for top-level x-country, including 3-4 weeks at altitude;
  • March to end May: 9-week block of preparation for track season. May include warm-weather training in March/April, and/or altitude training;
  • June to August: 13-week competition season. This will need to be broken up if going on to international competition in Aug/Sept, eg by altitude training in June or July before National championships.

Even if you are at your best on the road, track training is advisable to bring out the best in you. The track tells you the truth, because speed and distance can be measured accurately.

The younger athlete will need to put in hard training in April to achieve good times early in the season. The more mature athlete can reserve the hardest training for May or June in order to peak later in the season.

What is the hardest you can train?

My view is that 150 miles (240k) per week is the highest safe volume, and even then you will only train at that level for certain patches of the year, with appropriate breaks. The concept of weekly mileage alone is unsound, because it has to be related to the general pattern - say two or three weeks high and one week low as a mesocycle, repeated three or four times in a training block.

At what age will you reach maximum mileage? There is evidence that the skeleton is not fully formed until about 18, so overtraining on roads and tracks before that age can cause damage. A safe guideline for the long distance runner goes like this:

16/17 - 30+ miles/week
17/18 - 40
18/19 - 50 (up to 70 if taking a 'year off')
19/20 - 60
20/21 - 70
21/22 - 80-90

After that your weekly mileage depends on whether you are full-time or not.

What else should you be doing besides running? To keep a balanced musculature, you should have a strong torso and upper body. The shorter the distance you run, the more important is upper body strength. I don't think it has any value to marathon runners, but 5k and 10k runners need to be able to sprint, so they need all-round muscular strength. This can be achieved largely by 'natural' means, including bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and pull-ups for arms, sit-ups and stabilisation exercises for the trunk, bounding and hill running for the legs. Hamstring exercises are recommended to balance the quads' strength. Flexibility is needed to help you maintain a good stride length, but there is no evidence that a lot of flexibility training makes you run any faster.

Many distance runners can get what they need with a twice-weekly session of circuit or medicine ball training, but for those running 1500m and below, regular weight training is advised from November to April, tapering off as the competition season approaches. If you have access to regular gym training, plyometrics is also good for middle distance runners.

What are the best training sessions?

Training is specific to the event, so your best 5k training will be running at 5k pace and your best 1500m training will be running at 1500m pace. However, too much anaerobic training causes a lactate build-up and this can damage the muscles. Moreover, there is evidence that potential improvements in anaerobic capacity are much more limited that those relating to aerobic capacity. That is why the 400m and 800m records have moved down so slowly, while the 5k and 10k records have improved hugely in the last 20 years.

Even the 800/1500m runners need to do a lot of aerobic work in the winter. Running fast, though, is essential for winning races, so speed must not be totally neglected in the winter. According to physiologist Andy Jones, the most effective ways of improving oxygen intake are:

  • running at VO2max pace - that is 3000m speed;
  • running right on threshold pace - that is 10-mile speed;
  • running at faster than threshold pace - 5k and 10k pace;
  • 'aerobic' running at slower than threshold, eg marathon pace.

For a national class distance runner this means 8.00/50.00/14.00/29.00/2:25 speeds.

Looking at the programme of the Moroccan squad, as described by Abdul Kada recently, their main training methods were: hill training, fartlek, extensive intervals (800-2000 with short recovery), intensive intervals (speed endurance, 100-600 with incomplete recovery) and regular intervals (400-2000m with about 60 secs recovery per 400m run). None of this is very different from our methods.

How to progress

The important thing is for one training phase to build from the previous one. Within each block the training will gradually become harder, so that you know you are making progress. In the pre-Christmas training block we need:

  • to get up to and maintain our target mileage;
  • to get in up to four good sessions a week;
  • to progress from general conditioning work towards race-related work.

In the January to March period we need to push closer to the limits by making the hard sessions longer and/or faster, with the help of altitude training. Hills may be less important, being replaced by fast intervals. The hard periods will be harder, but the easy weeks will be easier, before major events.

In April and May the sessions will be more race-related and will include pace-change sessions and tactical practice.
How should you cycle your training? The possible structures in a week are:

  • two hard sessions, either Mon/Wed or Tue/Thu, plus a hard run on Saturday and a slow run on Sunday or
  • the three-day cycle of easy-mod-hard, easy-mod-hard+ long Sunday run. This has the advantage of being more sustainable - the 'moderate' sessions being threshold runs or fartlek runs.

If you are on a cycle of two weeks hard, one week easy, you might be able to sustain the following regime for a couple of weeks: Monday - speed, Tuesday - extensive reps, Wednesday - slow, Thursday - intervals, Saturday - hills, Sunday - longish single run.

Pre-Christmas training

The philosophy here is 'strength-building', which means getting up to your new target mileage and staying there, apart from one low week in four. In October/November you will start hill training. Middle distance people will start weight training, 2-3 times a week. In both cases you will aim for eight weeks of gradual improvement.

Hills might alternate between the 50-second hill and the two-minute hill, building up from six to 12 of the former and from five to eight or ten of the latter. To start with, you might do either a threshold run lasting 20 minutes, or an 'extensive intervals' session, eg 4 x 5 mins, but from November onwards you should be doing one of each, ie three good sessions a week plus a long run. In race weeks you might do the extensive intervals early in the week and a short hill session on Wednesday or Thursday.

This programme continues up to 19 December at the latest and then gives way to one or two weeks of mainly mileage, doing faster aerobic runs on days when you feel like it.

After New Year

Wherever you are, success in February and March depends on the work you put in in January: that is why it's a good thing to go off for altitude training in warm climates!

Because we are working towards racing fast over 10k, we must start working on 5k and 10k-type training, with increasingly fast reps, while maintaining endurance and aerobic fitness with good aerobic runs (eg a 10-mile session with the middle six run briskly). On a three-day cycle, one of these might be on the track (10 x 600 , working up to 10 x 800 and then 8 x 1000, with 90 secs recovery) and the other one longer reps on grass, eg 6 x 4 mins, then 5 x 5 mins, then 5 x 6 mins, with 2 min recoveries (on separate weeks, not in the same session!) In general, the best pattern is two weeks hard, then one week easy with a race at the end of it. After hard races, the long run should not be too long: 90 mins is enough, unless you are going for the marathon.

You should be training hardest in the period from six to three weeks before the major event. In the next two weeks, go for only two hard sessions a week, but still with good mileage, and in the last week just do half a session on the Tuesday, at race pace, and cut down to half your normal mileage.
Stretching should be done before fast running and after long runs. Leg-speed work should be done twice a week, after the moderate sessions: say 8 x 150 metres, working up to a full fast stride - 800m pace - at the fastest.

Monitoring progress

Using a heart monitor is a great help in the following situations:

  1. For the steady runs - stay within a heart rate zone, eg 130-150, to get the best out of it. On the recuperation runs stay below 130;
  2. For the good aerobic runs - aim to get up to the threshold HR and stay within 10 beats of it throughout;
  3. For the hard work - in the fast reps you should be working up to VO2max and staying at it during the run. Find your maximum HR by doing 2 x 3 mins flat out, with a three-minute recovery. For the shorter session (3-5k pace) you should be around this HR by the end of the fast run. For the 10k longer session you should be working at about 90% of maximum HR. If your max is 180, you should be in the 160-165 zone during the fast runs.

After a bit of practice you will be able to do the sessions on 'feel', but it is a good thing to record speed, effort and heart rate regularly in the first few weeks.

Bruce Tulloh

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