How to Choose the Right Training Plan and Stick to It!
19 weeks until my marathon. Plenty of time, right? I’ve spent a year building my base, getting my mind ready for the challenge. Every time I go running, no matter how short, I remind myself that this is part of marathon training. It’s all building up towards that big goal.
But the pressure is on. It’s decision time. I need to pick a training plan. Jack Daniels? (No, not the whiskey, unfortunately!) McMillan? 80/20 Endurance? Hanson? Higdon? Galloway? They all make their plans sound like the scientific holy grail of marathon training. They’re the experts, and they don’t agree. I’m just getting started with endurance training. How on earth am I supposed to figure out which one is right?
Maybe you’ve been there too – overwhelmed by the options, tired of endless research, wishing someone would just tell you, ‘Do this one, it’s the best!’ Well, I’m not going to do that for you. As I said, I’m not even sure about myself!
But here are the keys I’ve found that can guide your decision, not only when you choose a plan but all the way through your training cycle.
1. There is no ‘right’ answer
You are a sample size of one. Your training experiment can’t be repeated – next time you prepare for a race, even if you use a different plan, the comparison with this time is apples and oranges.
Instead of trying to find the ‘best’ plan, which is an unanswerable question, focus on finding a ‘good’ plan. There are lots of options that will work.
2. You are an individual
All of the major plans on the market have a solid scientific basis and have been field-tested by thousands of athletes before you. All of them can work. Not all of them are ideal for all runners.
Each of us has different strengths and weaknesses, and we respond differently to different types of training based on genetics, athletic history, nutrition, stress, hormones, and a host of other factors.
What worked for your training buddy, or your brother-in-law, or even your last race, might not work for you this time around. Don’t be afraid to choose something different if it seems right for you.
3. Think about where you’re starting
Except for beginner start-up programs like Couch 2 5K, training plans generally assume that you are already running regularly. Look for a plan that starts where you are right now – similar weekly mileage, number of runs, and length of long run. If you don’t have a lot of experience with speed work, look for a plan that emphasizes tempo runs and fartlek-type workouts instead of one that will throw you in the deep end with track repeats.
If you are already running higher weekly mileage than where the training plans start, feel free to jump in at a later week. This is also true if you just finished training for a different race – maybe you are already in half marathon shape, but the marathon plans start with a long run of 5-6 miles.
No need to go backwards unless you want to ease off for a few weeks. You can find the week that matches your current level, maybe repeat it once or twice to make sure it feels comfortable, and carry on from there.
4. Make it your own
Believe it or now, training plans are not legal contracts! You can make changes to suit your style and schedule. This can range from simple changes like swapping your long run day to more sophisticated ones like substituting cross-training for easy runs or hill repeats for track workouts.
Make sure you understand the purpose of the workout you’re changing, so you can fulfill that same purpose in a modified way. Online runners’ groups and forums can be a great resource for getting help with this.
5. Stay flexible
Remember, your choice is not set in stone! If a plan really isn’t working, you can always change later on. Maybe you enjoy the track sessions, but you feel terrible for days afterwards. Maybe you like the idea of higher mileage but find that work or family obligations are not allowing the amount of time you need for that kind of training.
In general, choosing a method and sticking with it through the training block is recommended, but changing it up partway through is always an option.
6. Prepare mentally
If I’m honest, sometimes I think that if I can just choose the right training plan and follow it perfectly, the race will be easy. Well, guess what – it won’t! Marathons are hard, which is why I’m doing it in the first place.
A good training plan will guide me, but I’m going to have to do the hard work. Some training runs will feel great, others will be a struggle. The best way to be ready for race day is not to expect that everything will go according to plan. I need to train well, but also to know that it will probably hurt and I’ll keep going anyway.
7. Enjoy the ride
Training for this race will not be easy, but I’m determined to enjoy myself. I don’t have to do this. No one is paying me – in fact, I’m the one paying for the privilege! So I’m going to choose a plan that sounds (more or less) enjoyable – not doing workouts I hate, not pushing the paces to my absolute limit.
More than any time goal, I want to finish the race with a smile on my face – and I want to practice that attitude on as many training runs as possible. I’m planning on this being the first marathon of many, and I’ve got ultras in my sights, so having fun and staying healthy is a high priority.
If you follow these seven tips, you can choose a training plan with confidence and get started on your race preparation with a spring in your step!