The long game: how to structure your training

Learn how to structure your year-round training and your race times will benefit, argues our resident running coach Tom Craggs from RunningWithUs.

The long game: how to structure your training

For many runners achieving a PB involves chucking as many races as they can at the problem until one of them sticks.

Are you someone who enters a race on the spur of the moment, even entering on the day perhaps, or a month in advance after chatting it through with running friends? Or perhaps you have a list as long as your arm of 10K and half marathon races you’ve entered that will fill every weekend from now until 2020. There’s definitely a PB in there somewhere!?

You could actually be doing yourself a discredit. If you really want to achieve those PB goals, now is the time to get more structured in your thinking about how to phase your training and racing calendar.

Play the long game

Endurance sport is long-term game. Look at how many years of training it takes for a top marathon runner to reach their potential. Paula Radcliffe won her first world title at the junior cross-country championships in 1992; it took 13 more years of training before she won the championship marathon.

In that time was Paula doing the same training week in, week out for 13 years? Of course not! But from recreational runners to competitive club athletes we still believe that we can do the same training every month, packing our year with races with little or no build up and yet get a different, faster result.

A matter of cycles 

Sit down with a calendar. Consider your goals, any injuries, lifestyle and your current fitness level and target a race that will allow you the time to peak at your optimum physical condition. For a marathon or a half this might require 6-12 months, for a 10K you might try to peak 3-4 in a year, but give yourself the time to incorporate some of the advice below. This is your macrocycle.

Now look to break your year down into smaller chunks that give you the opportunity to develop different elements of your fitness – your endurance, your strength, your speed, your race pace, your taper, these are your mesocycles which typically last 4-8 weeks.

The actual training runs you include on a weekly or bi-weekly basis represent your microcycle.

Why structure your year?

The Running Bug is packed full of fantastic advice on different types of training sessions, including hill running, tempo and threshold, interval sessions and long runs. Then there is all the conditioning, stretching flexibility and of course, racing.

There just isn’t enough time in the week to do everything, especially if you are racing every week or fortnight. That’s where long-term planning comes in allowing you to move through different phases in the year where your training includes more of some sessions, and less of others. 

The benefits are also psychological – changing and phasing your training across a year helps to keep you fresh, interested and motivated and also helps stimulate and stress your nervous system as well as your muscles, heart and lungs! 

Tips for getting it done!

  • Reach your peak: Give yourself the time to train fully for our main goal and ensure that it falls at a time of the year when you know you’ll be able to invest yourself physically and emotionally in giving it 100% with no distractions.
  • Get FITT: Your long term planning should see you vary and develop the frequency, intensity, time (duration) and type of your training. These are called the FITT principles. As you progress through your mesocycles you will adjust these four areas to ensure you are developing and progressing as the year goes on.
  • Overload and progression: If you are not asking your body to work at a greater volume or greater intensity than you have before it will not develop. Gradually and incrementally building your training will allow you to do this safely and ensure you reap the gains in your races.
  • Plan rest: Planning proper rest is vital for your body to absorb training, heal and improve. Have a regular rest day each week in your microcycles. Long term planning goes beyond this though. Mesocycles should also consider rest, particularly after your goal race. Having between 2 and 4 weeks to cut your running back to recover and recharge will help keep you injury free.
  • Keep specific to your race: The exact make up of your mesocycles will depend on your key race. However the goal is that your training gets you better able to cope with the demands you will face on race day. Don’t always assume that every plan has to start easy and build through months to end with faster, shorter intervals. This depends on your goal.
  • Maintain the quality: As a distance runner it is tempting to assume progression always means running more. Faster sessions should always be present in your training plans to ensure you continually overload your body and nervous system, it is the volume and type of faster running that changes with each mesocycle.  
  • Take measures: Many of the newest GPS and HRM watches include a range of detailed fitness measuring tools, use these to track our progress.

Change it up

Use races to set yourself interim goals – breaking that long term challenge into smaller targets will keep you focused.

If you are a regular 10K-marathon runner how about spending time developing your speed through targeting different races in the summer, 1500m-5K races can be used in to help you push yourself harder.

If you are experienced how about using the cross country season to develop your strength and competitive edge.

Consider multi-sport events to overload your body differently running on tired legs at the end of a triathlon can provide a good way of challenging your goal race pace.

Plan to include phases of the year where you focus on your strength and conditioning through core or gym work early in your macrocycle to give you the conditioning to progress your training as you get closer to your goal.

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