How to find the perfect running training plan for you

Eight weeks is a reasonable length of time to plan ahead in detail

I love nothing more than creating a colour coded training plan and seeing the next few months of my life condensed on to one page. I can trace it back to my years in the corporate world where working days were dictated by project plans. We spent our time breaking large tasks into manageable pieces, ticking off each task, tracking our progress, adapting as required and celebrating our success.

In a nutshell, when we followed a plan to reach a goal, we had a clear vision of where we were heading and that kept us on the right track.

It is all in the plan

My days of working in the corporate world may be behind me, but today every runner I work with is encouraged to follow a training plan. While those who are new to running will follow a similar pathway, runners who have been running for longer and know the basics can adapt a generic training plan to suit them. Planning sets us up for success by putting deadlines and details on our dreams. There are no end to the amount of running goals you can set for yourself but regardless of where you envisage your running future, a clear plan can make a daunting goal suddenly seem more achievable if approached sensibly and gradually.

What is the best plan

There are so many downloadable training plans available now that it can be overwhelming to decide which one to pick. Plans range from very simple to highly technical. They vary in terms of intensity, mileage and number of days training per week. But there is no perfect plan that suits everyone. Just like the best pair of running shoes are the ones that fit your feet and support your body best, the best training plan is one that actually fits in with your life – your other commitments, fitness level, running history and future goals. Running is just so personal and your plan should be too.


What to look for in a plan

Your training plan should fill you with excitement, not with dread. It should be challenging enough for you see gradual progression, but not so overwhelming that it knocks your confidence or pushes you to progress too quickly. It should be in a format that you enjoy reading and can understand – it could be a spreadsheet, a visual map, handwritten on paper or even integrated with your running technology. It should allow for flexibility so that you can easily adapt should life get in the way. Most importantly it should be simple to edit and in a format that encourages you to write notes, tick off sessions and track your progress.

Why bother with a plan?

Most of the training plans available are focused around a race distance or improving speed. But even if you don’t have your eyes set on such targets, a plan is still important to help you structure your running weeks. A plan gives each training session a purpose, puts dates in the diary and helps get clear on your running goals. You goal may simply be to run three times per week or work on your running technique. You may want to try new routes and schedule meet-ups with other running buddies. Planning these events in advance make them happen. Eight weeks is a reasonable length of time to plan ahead in detail. For sure you can look beyond, especially if you are considering long distance running, but in order to make long-term goals happen, the short-term ones need to be taken care of first. So what is it that you would like to achieve in the next eight weeks?

Finding the right template

Once you have chosen your running goal the next step is to work out how to get there from where you are now. The starting point for most people is Google, and you will have plenty options to choose from there. You may also come across training plans from coaches, magazines, books, social media or via recommendation from a running friend. But whatever plan you ultimately decide to follow, treat it purely as a template that needs to be customised for you. Consider getting support in adapting the training plan from an experienced running buddy or better still, work with a running coach, especially if you are not familiar with working with training plans before. It is imperative that the plan is realistic for your body, your fitness level and the time you are willing to dedicate to training.

The questions to ask yourself

If your training plan looks overwhelming, it won’t inspire confidence and motivation along the way. Make some key decisions before you launch into training to avoid getting disillusioned later on. How many days each week do you want to run? How far ahead do you want to plan? Do you enjoy speedwork or longer distance? Do you prefer to track progress in miles, kms or minutes. Do you like monitoring effort level by heart rate, the pace on your watch or purely based on how you feel? Do you like simple instructions or enjoy more technical workouts you can program into your running gadget? Will you have the motivation and knowledge to train solo or do you need support along the way?

Make the plan your own

Knowing the answers to the questions above gives you a clear idea of the type of plan you definitely don’t want. The plan you choose has got to be appealing if you are going to follow through. Not only does it need to have elements of training that help your body run better, but you also need to make sure you have the time allocated for rest and recovery. Be sure to include work and family commitments on your one paper training plan too. I like to integrate all my calendars so I know I am not scheduling runs for days when I know I will be preoccupied other family commitments or work deadlines. It can be quite satisfying to see your entire life plans for the next few months condensed onto one page.

A work in progress

Even if you have the most perfect training plan, it is no good unless you actually get out the door and start ticking off the training sessions. So set yourself up for success. Tell others about your plan and keep your training plan somewhere so visible that it is always on view. Take it one week at a time and be prepared to adapt when life gets in the way. Be flexible but still keep your eyes on where you wish to be in the future. Having a plan will give structure to your week, focus to your training sessions and comfort in knowing you are on the right path. You just need to decide now, what path do you want to follow?

Download a training schedule here. 

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

– Mary Jennings is founder at running coach at Mary's running classes and coaching programmes are now open for booking.