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Creating An Optimal Long-Term Training Plan

Learn how to fit your shorter training blocks into the bigger picture.

Learn how to fit your shorter training blocks into the bigger picture. 

Runners tend to think of training in isolated blocks: 16 or 20 weeks for a marathon, 8 to 12 weeks for an upcoming 5K and so on. However, training doesn’t always occur in neat little segments as we’d like to think. Each training cycle builds upon the last to improve some aspect of your fitness and to make you a better runner. Therefore, rather than looking at training and racing in independent weekly segments, runners should take a more holistic view, planning instead in one or two year blocks.

This long-term approach sounds fine and dandy if you’ve been running for a long time or if you’re well-versed in training theory, but if you’re a new runner or don’t have a strong grasp on exercise physiology, this can be a difficult and confusing task.

RELATED: Become A Faster Miler To Become A Better Marathoner

Each runner is unique, and over the following pages I’ll explain why you need to vary your training for different race distances over the span of one or two years and then outline a few long-term approaches you can take to train optimally year-round for your favorite distance.

The Importance Of Varying Race Distances

Too often, runners find one race distance they like and continue to train repeatedly for that one distance. This is especially true for many marathon runners, who will often race three marathons a year, in consecutive years, without taking time to work on other aspects of their running fitness. Not only does continually training for the same goal race distance lead to burnout, but is also one of the main reasons many runners fail to consistently improve year after year.

Train All Your Energy Systems

Each race distance requires that you shift your training focus to a specific set of physiological demands. There is certainly some over overlap between distances, but the exact demands are still different.

For example, the primary focus of training for the marathon is developing your aerobic threshold (the fastest pace you can run while staying aerobic), increasing muscular endurance (how long you can run without your legs falling apart), and fuel efficiency (how proficient you can be at burning fat instead of carbohydrates while running at goal marathon pace). Conversely, in the 5K, your primary training focus should be on increasing your VO2max, improving your speed endurance (your ability to maintain a fast 5K pace for the entire race), and running efficiency (the ability to recruit maximum muscle fibers with each stride without increasing effort).

If you’re a marathoner and you neglect training for shorter distances (5K/10K) for a year or two at a time, you may never improve your VO2max and running efficiency. Eventually, this will limit your ability to improve at the marathon distance down the road.

RELATED: Maintaining Speed During Marathon Training

A good way to visualize this concept is to think of a how window blinds work. To raise a blind, you usually have two strings you need to pull. Each string controls one side of the blind. If we imagine the blinds themselves to be your race performance and the strings to represent separate energy systems, you’ll find that you can only raise one side (by pulling on one string) so far before you need to begin raising the other string. Your body works in much the same way.

Along the same line, if you neglect certain energy systems or physiological elements for a long period of time you’ll start to lose overall fitness. To continually improve, the body needs a constant change of stimulus.

Repeatedly training for the same race distance, especially if you rehash the same schedule and simply change the paces, trains your muscles and metabolic systems in the same exact way, which doesn’t ignite growth and development.

What does a long-term training cycle look like?

Every runner has their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Some runners are more naturally suited for the shorter distances while others can seemingly run forever. Individual differences aside, you can use this general approach as a guideline to tailor a yearly schedule that fits your unique running qualities.

Marathon Focus

Running one or two marathons a year is optimal so you can properly recover from each of those efforts and also have time to focus on improving your other energy systems. Here is what a full-year approach to training might look like when racing a fall and spring marathon:

August through October/November – Marathon training (mileage, aerobic development and marathon specific workouts)
November/December – Recovery and building back general fitness. Include strength work, strides and hill sprints to stay healthy and stay in touch with speed.
January/February – Short 4-5 week speed-training phase. Race a few 5Ks and do shorter, speed-oriented workouts while slowly building your mileage.
February through April/May – Marathon training
May/June – Recovery and building back general fitness. Include strength work, strides and hill sprints to stay healthy and stay in touch with speed.
July through September – Speed development or 5K/10K training. This will help you work on your speed and improving your VO2max.
September through December – Half marathon training. Another good change in stimulus and helps improve your top-end anaerobic threshold

From here, you can run another winter or spring marathon and repeat the cycle. This one-year cycle provides you one shorter and one longer opportunity to work on energy systems and training outside of your goal event and will leave you primed for your best marathon result during your next training segment.

Half Marathon Focus

Because it’s much easier in terms of preparation and recovery to run more than one half marathon in a training segment, you can race the distance more often than the full marathon. However, like the marathon cycle outlined above, you still need to include training segments that focus on opposite ends of the spectrum – aerobic development and speed. Here is what a yearly half-marathon training cycle might look like:

August to November – Half marathon buildup and specific training. If you’re an experienced runner, you can run a half marathon every two or three weeks, depending on your recovery rate.
December – Short recovery and buildup period. It’s important you build in periods of recovery regardless of your experience level and race distance.
January to March – Speed phase, 5K and 10K training, or base building. Choose whichever you like best or work on whatever system you feel is your weakest.
March to June – Half marathon training and racing.
June through September – Recovery and then either base training or speed training — whichever you didn’t do in the winter.

From here you can repeat the cycle and use the same races to measure progress or tweak your racing schedule to find new experiences or challenges.

5K/10K Focus

It’s important that if your focus is improving at the 5K and 10K distances that you set aside a training segment or two each year to safely build your mileage without the stress of scorching speed workouts. This will enable you to build your aerobic engine and ability to clear lactic acid. Here’s what a sample year-long approach would look like:

January to March – Build mileage and work on including more tempo runs and long runs. Maybe even race a half marathon.
March to June – Start including speed work and transitioning to 5K or 10K-specific workouts
June to September – 5K and 10K racing. Race opportunities are abound, so take advantage.
September to October – A short segment that bumps the mileage back up and refrains from intense speed workouts to allow your body to get back in balance. Performing intense speed workouts lowers the body’s blood pH (a measurement of acidity levels), which can only be sustained for six to eight weeks before staleness and burnout typically occur.
November and December – Return to another six to eight week 5K and 10K racing segment. Turkey Trots and Jingle Bell runs are a great way to test your fitness.

Including the base-building periods and the short break in the fall helps ensure you continually improve each year and prevent burnout and overtraining.