Call me strange, but I love building training plans. It’s one of my favorite activities, right up there with training itself. That’s why I got together with David Warden to create 80/20 Endurance, which, as you well know, exists for the primary purpose of creating training plans for endurance athletes of all types and abilities.
Nevertheless, I recognize that training plans aren’t perfect. They have a fixed duration, a fixed weekly workout schedule, a fixed volume progression — everything about them is fixed. We try to overcome this limitation by creating lots of different options so that any given athlete is able to select a plan that’s close to perfect. But close to perfect still isn’t perfect.
Some degree of post-selection customization is almost always required to take a readymade training plan from almost perfect to perfect. The most common issues are as follow:
- The weekly workout schedule doesn’t match up with the athlete’s life schedule (e.g., the athlete prefers to do long rides or runs on Saturdays, but the plan schedules them on Sundays).
- The plan is X weeks long, but the athlete’s “A” race is either fewer or more than X weeks away. In other words, the plan is either too short or too long.
- The athlete wishes to do one or more “B” races during the plan period, but these aren’t necessarily included in the plan.
- The athlete will be unable to complete some of the workouts in the plan due to expected travel or some other scheduling conflict.
Let’s take a brief look at how to handle each of these scenarios.
Adjusting the Weekly Workout Structure
In most cases, this is the easiest type of adjustment to make. A couple of key principles will help you modify your training plan’s weekly workout structure to fit your routine.
- Don’t schedule hard workouts back to back.
- Don’t schedule similar workouts back to back.
The first principle is the hard/easy rule, which stipulates that challenging workouts should not be scheduled on consecutive days. When shuffling workouts around, be sure to insert at least one lighter day of training between days containing long endurance sessions, high-intensity intervals, or any other workouts expected to result in a high level of fatigue.
The other key principle is balance, according to which the various workout types should be distributed as evenly as possible throughout the week. Suppose you’re a triathlete who swims, bikes, and runs three times each per week. In adjusting your training plan to fit your schedule, avoid setting up your week so that you swim on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, bike on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday! Obviously, this is an extreme example, but milder forms of workout “bunching” should be avoided as well.
Adjusting Plan Length
Suppose you’ve selected a training plan and aligned its end date with the date of your event, but there’s a gap between now and the plan’s start date. How should you fill the time? If you haven’t been training recently, or if you’ve been training at a lower level than will be required of you in Week 1, the answer is obvious: use the time to gradually ready yourself for a smooth transition to the plan. If you’re already fit enough to handle Week 1, use the time instead to focus on another priority that will help set you up for success. Examples of such alternative priorities are strength training, technique work, and dietary improvements.
In cases where you don’t have enough time to complete the entire training plan before your race, the simplest solution is just to skip the first part. If your plan is 17 weeks long, for example, and your race is 15 weeks away, go ahead and start at Week 3. But this solution only works if your recent training is similar to the weeks you’re skipping. If it’s not, you might be getting in over your head or setting yourself up for injury.
When you find yourself in this type of situation, your best move is to modify the first few weeks of the plan, beginning at the point where you pick it up, in such a way as to give yourself a chance to catch up to the training. Specifically, you’ll want to reduce the overall volume and the difficulty level of key workouts so that you’re not required to make big leaps in training load. Returning to the example I gave above, suppose Week 3 of the plan includes a high-intensity interval workout and a tempo workout, but your recent training has consisted entirely of low-intensity work. A sensible adjustment here would be to replace the interval workout with a fartlek-type session containing just a handful of brief surges and to replace the tempo workout with a “cruise intervals” workout containing a few short efforts at threshold intensity instead of one or two big blocks.
Adding “B” Races
Scheduling “B” races can be either simple or complicated, depending on when these events fall within your training plan and how many you wish to add. The ideal timing for such events is in recovery weeks, where they simply replace the workouts planned for that particular weekend. The two days preceding the race should also be replaced with lighter training, and the three days immediately following the race should be replaced with a combination of rest and lighter training.
Things get more complicated, though, when a planned “B” race does not align with a designated recovery week. In these cases, dialing back the training that precedes and follows the event is likely to result in too much time away from harder training, especially when the week in question comes right before or right after a designated recovery week. To avoid this issue, make your adjustments more nuanced with half-recovery weeks (i.e., weeks in which the first few days are heavy and the last few are light or vice versa) and partial recovery weeks (i.e., weeks in which the training load is reduced, but only slightly). Consider both the logic of your plan’s training load variation and your own sense of what your body can handle in making these types of adjustments.
Things get even more complicated when you want to do more than one “B” race. But the same principles apply, with the basic idea being to preserve the plan’s intended balance of heavier training periods (typically two to three weeks of gradually increasing load) and lighter periods (typically one week of recovery every third or fourth week that’s about 20% lower in volume than the preceding week).
Planning for Anticipated Missed Training
When you know ahead of time that your training is going to be restricted during a certain period, your best strategy is to bookend this period with sensibly modified training. For example, suppose you are following a triathlon training plan and you are planning to take your family on vacation to Yosemite National Park during Week 9. In this seven-day period, you will be able to squeeze in a little running but your swim and bike training will be paused.
In this scenario, it would be wise to reduce your run training and increase your swim and bike training in the week that immediately precedes your vacation as well as in the week that immediately follows it. These adjustments will not only minimize any negative effect of the trip on your swim and bike fitness but should also help you worry less about it.
The Future of Plan Customization
Some athletes are more comfortable than others in using the guidelines I’ve just shared to customize their readymade training plans. And, to be honest, even some athletes who are relatively comfortable making their own adjustments don’t do it quite as well as an experienced coach would. It sure would be nice if there were another option — some kind of app that creates training plans that are not only fully customized to you at the outset but also adapts over time based on changes in your availability, fitness, and goals.
Guess what: this option now exists! The app is called PACE, and I am proud to be one of the coaches involved in creating the adaptive training plans it provides. Powered by TrainingPeaks technology, PACE makes exactly the same planning decisions I or another experienced coach would make on an athlete’s behalf. The app is for runners only initially, but plans for other athlete types will be added soon. Learn more about PACE here.