How to tell a good running training plan from an average one?

By Hayden Shearman // A quick Google search revealed 825 million results for “marathon training plan” in just 0.36 seconds. That’s a lot of choice. And a lot of noise. And unfortunately not every training plan is made equal. And, worse, unfortunately not every runner is made equal … which complicates the heck out of finding a good running plan. 

So, what follows is a guide—six easy to use tools—for deciphering the good from the average and cancelling out the terrible when scouring the web for possible training plans to follow:

1. The 10 Percent Rule

I’ve only witnessed a handful of runners who’s bodies can handle mileage increases of more than 10% per week and per long run. For the rest of us mere mortals, we need to be patient with very gradual increases.

So scan your training plan and make sure weekly totals and long runs aren’t jumping up by more than 10% (or, when just starting out, by a maximum of 5km per week and 1km per long run).

2. Scheduled Rest & Recovery

A close second in importance on a training plan, is that the coach has thought long and hard about when and how much rest and recovery to prescribe. Long runs and hard workouts should be bookended with easy or rest days and there should be recovery weeks at least every month.

Don’t even go near a training plan that has a linear progression in overall mileage and long run distance; it should go up for 2 or 3 weeks and then down for a week or two, and so on.

3. Intentional Recovery & “Prehab”

As well reductions in training volume, a good training plan will also prescribe intentional recovery like ice baths, massage, foam rolling etc. Most people need to find out what works for them, but a coach should be giving you an indication of when to do something to treat your body with love and tender care.

Same goes for a guide around strengthening and stretching areas prone to causing injuries. This might be as simple as spending 10 minutes at the end of a run in a particular time of the week to do some mobility drills or squats and core exercises.

4. Mix up the Speeds

You should be very skeptical about a training plan, even a beginning plan, that has you running only at one speed. Not only will these plans be boring, but your training will also fall short in effectiveness. Strides (short, fast bursts of running to develop technique), steady state tempo runs or fartleks, the odd 5k race or time trial, hill training, race pace practise, and, for the beginner, walk breaks—all can be used at specific times in your build up to both build on what you have done before and also prepare you best for what is to come.

5. Ability to Tailor

This is a big one. Every generic training plan I’ve ever produced comes with an almost-full A4 sheet of caveats and tips on how to tweak the training plan to suit the individual. This is because EVERY runner on the planet is at a different level, has different goals and has a different health and athletic background. Therefore, every training plan should be different.

Your training plan should open up with a comment like “This training plan is designed for runners who have … and want to achieve the goal of …”. Within those confines, it should also outline ways that you can tweak the plan to suit your racing and training needs and ideas on what to do if you get injured, if you’re doing another sport/workout on top of running, if you miss a key run, or if you have stressful week at work/home.

6. Builds on the Week Before

This picks up on that 10% rule and the point around speed. But perhaps the worst crime you can ever see in a training plan is when you’re thrown in the deep end into something you’ve never done before.

The classic example is giving someone who has never done any speed training to get them to do, say, 10x 200m hill sprints or 6x 1k reps as fast as they can. These are great for bringing up last night’s dinner or for popping hamstrings, but not great for gradually building a base of healthy running fitness that will make your upcoming marathon or half marathon as enjoyable as possible.

Instead, look for signs of logical threads running through the training plan. E.g. 3x10secs strides at week one at a comfortably quick speed, then 4x15secs the next week, 5x20secs the following and then 6x30secs on the fourth week.

 

Well, there you go, six rules for combing through the plethora of training plans on the inter webs. We’ll be loading up a bunch of training plans that hopefully align to the above rules shortly (in mid 2019), but in the meantime, happy training plan hunting!

Happy running.

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