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The hardest part about designing your own training plan is adapting universal principles to your unique body, brain and life.
At the end of the day, basic run training isn’t rocket science: just run as much as you can, run mostly easy and stay healthy. However that general framework can be broken into infinite permutations. How many miles exactly? How much vert? What workouts?
The answers to those questions vary from runner to runner. They might even change as your goals change over the years. Figuring out the right plan for you can be the difference between reaching your running goals or never getting off the ground.
At the 2017 Way Too Cool 50K last weekend, human-shaped rockets Megan Roche and Keely Henninger finished 1st and 2nd. Both had decided to target this early season, relatively non-technical 50K as a way to work on speed and strength through winter. Though both Megan and Keely were targeting the same race, their goals and athletic backgrounds were quite different. As a result, their training plans had to be different, too.
Megan, 26, is a medical student at Stanford who also makes time to be a perfect wife (I am biased). She has been running seriously for six years, since finishing her field hockey career at Duke University.
Keely, 24, is a sports validation engineer at Nike in Portland, Oregon. She has been running seriously for three-and-a-half years, since finding the sport as a mountain escape when she lived in Pennsylvania.
Here is how they tailored their training schedules—and how you can customize yours, too.
Over-Arching Life Questions
What are my short- and long- term goals with running?
It is essential to define your “why” to understand why you will be getting out the door each morning.
Megan and Keely both want to get as fast as possible, independent of what races are on the schedule. Keely, who won the Transrockies Run in 2016, wants to be fast to be the best mountain runner she can. Megan loves the mountains too, but enjoys the oxygen at races like Way Too Cool, and wants to continue exploring her potential at faster races.
When determining your own goals, make sure your short-term goals are complementary (you can’t reach your potential at both a 100-mile trail race and a road marathon with the same training). Second, keep a long-term focus, asking, “Will this make me the best I can be three years from now?”
Design a training plan with those goals as the driving focus.
What are my time constraints in a typical week?
Big goals are meaningless without big actions. Big actions require understanding how running fits within the context of your life.
Every weekday morning, Megan wakes up at 4 a.m., guzzles coffee, eats a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and heads out to run the flat, lighted neighborhoods around our apartment. Keely is busy too, but has a bit more flexibility with mid-week runs.
However, while both are sponsored professional runners, running isn’t what they do full time. They need to be flexible to make training work in the context of their lives, not the other way around.
Honestly evaluate your ambitions relative to your time. Think about what you can replicate year-round, week-in and week-out, because that is what it takes to get anywhere close to what you are capable of.
What is my injury history?
Staying healthy is the key to long-term running development.
Megan has had the usual litany of minor injuries, and had some small issues with overtraining when she started out. Keely has been incredibly durable, handling high-volume training without many injury scares.
If your injury history reads like Herodotus, focus on controlled easy running and a slower build-up of training intensity. If your body has proven to be unbreakable, you can ramp up more quickly and do more workouts.
Do I have demons?
Demons are the personality quirks that play a big role in who we are and how we act.
The term was coined by one of my athletes, Shannon Payne, who won the 2014 Mt. Washington Road Race. “[Demons] can certainly be destructive if we let their voices get too loud,” she says in her blog. “… But if they’re channeled correctly they can be friends rather than foes”
Megan and Keely’s most important demon is an intense inner drive. When channeled in a focused direction, that demon becomes a strength.
You don’t escape your demons by running away from them. You learn to love yourself by running with them. Design your training mindfully, thinking about the role your demons play.
Designing a Training Plan
Once you’ve established your goals and your time constraints, and accounted for your injury history and demons, you’re ready to develop your training plan. Simplified, it all boils down to three main elements: overall mileage, overall vertical gain and speed workouts.
1. How much mileage should I run each week?
Choose your mileage based on your running background, goals and time constraints.
In the build-up to Way Too Cool, Keely, who has a history of long, injury-free weeks, averaged 75 miles per week. Megan, who has run a lower total volume over the last year, averaged 68 miles per week. Both also had little injury scares (Keely a bout of shin tendinitis; Megan a hamstring strain) that caused a week or two of 50-percent-reduced training.
For your training, start at your current mileage, and work up to the mileage you have previously sustained healthily, considering both your bodily health and mental health. After that, do minor increases, rather than major leaps.
2. How much vert should I run each week?
Choose your vert based on your goals and the terrain you have available.
Keely, who loves adventuring in the mountains, averaged 6,600 feet of climbing per week while training for Way Too Cool; Megan, who has a medical-school schedule that prevents her from running any elevation during the week, averaged 4,300 feet. For Way Too Cool, which has only 4,000 feet of climbing, this was fine.
In general, the fastest runner wins the race as long as the fastest runner is strong enough to survive the demands of the course. Start by building up your speed, logging the minimum amount of vert you can to feel strong and resilient on race day. For races like Way Too Cool, you could likely get by on minimal vert. For longer ultras with some elevation gain like the Western States 100, or shorter races with substantial gain like the Speedgoat 50K, vert becomes paramount.
3. What should my workouts look like?
Your workouts emanate directly from your goals.
For ultrarunners like Megan and Keely, who are not running 100 miles and don’t come from a four-year collegiate running background, speed development is important. Megan and Keely’s workouts revolved around building fitness from the ground up, starting with fast strides to improve running economy, and then progressing to longer intervals later in the training cycle. However, an essential focus for both women was keeping their easy days easy, to avoid injury or burnout.
Keep a minimum of 80 percent of your running easy, unless directed otherwise by a coach. If you are relatively inexperienced as a runner, build up your short-distance speed first. Once your running economy improves and the short intervals feel smooth and fast, increase interval duration.
Most importantly, no matter your goals or your background, remember to individualize your running based on your unique life. You aren’t a cookie-cutter person; don’t force yourself into a cookie-cutter training plan.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and Team Clif Bar, and works with runners of all abilities, including Megan and Keely, through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.