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If you’re like most people, you’ve probably grumbled that there aren’t enough days in the week to do everything you need to do. Usually, such complaints are about juggling job and family obligations while still trying to squeeze in some quality training.
But even without those other commitments, the same problem often applies simply to your running schedule — especially if you’re trying to do everything you “should” every seven days.
In the ideal world, many runners aim to do two speed workouts a week, plus a long run and one or two strength-training or plyometric sessions. But how do you cram it all in, while still allowing time to recover?
It’s not just recreational runners who have this problem.
Lindsey Scherf, American junior record holder at 10,000 meters and 2015 US 25K champion, notes that some elite programs like to put not two, but three speed sessions into a week. But combining that with a long run — not to mention everything else — she says, would “break” her.
“One of the things a workout is supposed to do is be difficult enough to elicit a response adaptation,” she says. “And in order for me to go sufficiently hard to gain fitness and absorb that effort, I need at least 72 hours [recovery].”
So what’s a runner to do?
Ditch the 7-Day Cycle
If you’ve got a flexible schedule, the answer is simple. Who decreed that running “weeks” have to be seven days? Why not go on a longer cycle? Eight days, nine days, ten days, eleven days—whatever works?
Playing with this concept 15 years ago for a book I wrote with Alberto Salazar, I came up with a 9-day cycle that went like this:
Day 1. Long run
Day 2. Easy run. Strength or plyometrics.
Day 3. Easy run, rest, or cross-training.
Day 4. Speed workout #1.
Day 5. Easy run. Strength or plyometrics.
Day 6. Easy run, rest, or cross-training.
Day 7. Speed workout #2.
Day 8. Easy run. Strength or plyometrics.
Day 9. Easy run or rest.
Since then, I’ve come up with other ways to do it. An option that works well for many people is to do strength work after hard workouts, allowing for 2 full recovery days after the double-whammy. You can then go on a 10-day cycle such as this:
Day 1. Long run.
Day 2. Easy run, rest, or cross-training.
Day 3. Speed workout #1, followed by strength or plyometrics.
Day 4. Easy run, rest, or cross-training.
Day 5. Easy run.
Day 6. Speed workout #2, followed by strength or plyometrics.
Day 7. Easy run, rest, or cross-training.
Day 8. Easy run.
Day 9. Speed workout #3, followed by strength or plyometrics.
Day 10. Off or easy cross-training.
In fact, elite runners and coaches often redefine the training week (sometimes referred to as the microcycle) to meet their runners’ needs, not those of the calendar.
“Giving yourself time to absorb the training is the only way to get better,” says Scherf. “Some of the elite programs will do this.”
Drawbacks of Alternative Training Weeks
1. Lack of Training Partners
There’s just one problem. Even if you can manage to schedule such a program around your job, it will drive your training partners nuts.
I tried it once with a marathoner prepping for the Olympic Trials…and promptly gave it up as too disruptive. Even if her friends and training partners wanted to accommodate her, their lives made it impossible. Every now and then, a piece of her training cycle would overlap theirs and she’d have company for a speed workout or a long run. But most of the time she was on her own. And there’s a lot of value in having someone to run with — value that easily outweighs the calculus of the otherwise perfect training schedule.
“With a running partner comes accountability, but there is also that inexplicable excitement, an adventure shared: the what the hell factor of running when you weren’t planning to, when someone else has talked you into it. So it’s freezing? So it’s dark? This could be fun!” running author Holly Hight wrote a few years ago for Running Times, ironically about running with the same Olympic Trials competitor I’d coached.
Bottom line: training partners can be useful…and important.
2. Significance of the 7-Day Week
Even if you’re ok with running on your own, breaking out of the 7-day rhythm isn’t the easiest thing to do.
“I have done the 10-day cycle,” says Thom Hunt, who in high school ran a then-American-record indoor mile record of 4:02 (later broken by Alan Webb), and went on to set the American 10K road record at 28:12 in 1981.
“I tried it fully back in my day, when training was the number one aspect of my life,” he says. “[But] it’s tough in our world that revolves around a week. It became a weird routine that wasn’t easy to maintain.”
Solution: Alternate “Weeks” of Training
My own preferred approach has come to be an alternating week program in which one “week” is six days and the next is eight days. That produces a 14-day cycle in which I can keep key workouts on days of the week that satisfy the needs of training partners and the normal work week, while adding a bit more recovery into the overall cycle.
It begins by giving up the dream of doing everything, every week. Instead, there are five key workouts, and three strength sessions, every 14 days.
The first week has three of the key workouts: two speed sessions and a long run. It puts the speed sessions on Tuesday and Friday (with Tuesday being the more intense) and the long run on Sunday. (Like many coaches, I log training weeks as Monday-Sunday.)
The second week has two key sessions: one for speed (on Tuesday) and a long run with embedded speed on Saturday. The overall goal is to keep the primary speed session on Tuesday (the one most likely to have training partners) and the long runs on the weekend (for the same reason). Strength work is on speed days.
Here’s how it looks in practice:
Tuesday: Speed. Strength or plyometrics.
Friday: Speed. Strength or plyometrics.
Tuesday: Speed. Strength or plyometrics.
This works particularly well for marathoners and half-marathoners, but it also works for cross-country runners, and others training for shorter distances, for whom the “long-hard” runs can become “medium long” runs containing tempo repeats or other types of speed.
Hunt, now the women’s cross-country coach at Cuyamaca College, Rancho San Diego, California and an instructor for USATF coaching symposiums, agrees.
“I do a two-week approach similar to what you mentioned,” he told me. “It depends on the level of the athlete and the amount of time and mileage they are putting into their training. The two-week approach gives you a little more room to get it all in.”
Ultimately, however, the key is to realize that you simply can’t do everything every 7 days, week after week.
“There is this itch to overdo it,” Scherf says. “I think a lot of people get stuck with [feeling] I need to do a workout, instead of, ‘I just put in an epic stimulus’ [and need to recover].” Avoiding that trap, she adds, “is particularly difficult for people who are very schedule oriented or regimented.”
But, she notes, if there’s ever a time to experiment with breaking out of the 7-day mold, what better time than now, when work schedules are fluid, training groups can’t gather for normally scheduled workouts, and everything is a bit less structured.
“Now, in the time of COVID-19, it’s more feasible,” she says.