Training Plans

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. 

  1. Don’t schedule hard workouts back to back.
  2. 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.

Training plans are great. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have built a company that sells them! Not a day goes by that I don’t see the proof of the usefulness of training plans in the feedback I see and hear from athletes who have gone from training without a plan or with a dodgy sort of plan to training with an 80/20 running plan or triathlon plan and experienced significant improvement.

Prebuilt training plans have obvious limitations, however. They have a fixed duration, a fixed weekly workout schedule, a fixed volume progression—everything about them is fixed. If it were possible to build an infinite number of such plans, then in principle there would be a training plan that fit the needs of each athlete. Alas, this is not possible.

Well, actually, it is. Training plan generators powered by computer algorithms or artificial intelligence can indeed create training plans for every athlete. Technically, though, these plans aren’t prebuilt, and we’re talking here about prebuilt plans, which for the moment remain more widely used that plan generators. So, back to the topic at hand . . .

Training Plan Limitations

If you spend time on this website’s forums, you will quickly learn the specific limitations of prebuilt plans that athletes encounter most commonly. Issue number one is that the plan is X weeks long, but the race the athlete is preparing for is either more or less than X weeks away. In other words, the plan is of the “wrong” length. Perhaps the second most common issue is that the athlete wants to do more than one race, whereas our prebuilt plans necessarily lead up to a single race at the end. The question in these cases is either “When is a good time within the plan to do a ‘B’ race?” or “How do I adjust the plan to accommodate my other race(s)?”

A third type of limitation has to do with how to string plans together over time for the sake of long-term progress. Most athletes want to not just do their best in their next race but get better year by year, and individual prebuilt training plans have nothing to say about that. In order to be as inclusive as possible, all of the plans we build for general use assume the athlete is starting at a fairly low level of fitness relative to their personal peak. This makes the early weeks of training “too easy” for some athletes in certain instances.

When I sat down to write this article I intended to provide specific guidelines for working through these various limitations. I realize now, however, that to do the job properly I would have to write the longest blog post ever written. After all, the whole issue is that you’re trying to individualize something that was not created for any single individual. Each case is unique. Whenever an athlete asks me for advice on how to modify a plan or a sequence of plans to make it better fit their unique circumstances, the answer I want to give is to go inside the plan, perform surgery on it, and then point at the result and say, “Here’s what I recommend.”

I suppose there are some broad guidelines that can be applied to these issues. Scheduling “B” races is relatively straightforward. The ideal timing for them 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, specifically 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 the plan, and when the athlete wishes to do more than one “B” race, and when a “B” race falls earlier within a plan than is ideal. . .

Scheduling "B" races into your training plan

The coach in me can’t help but want every user of the training plans offered on this website to get as much out of it as my individual clients get out of the plans I create for them. To this end, I’ve lately been thinking a lot about how to create a more customized experience for users of our prebuilt 80/20 endurance training plans. Here’s what we’ve got in the works:

Long Term

We’re in the early stages of developing a proprietary 80/20 Endurance coaching certification for in-person and online run and triathlon coaching. Once we have a critical mass of trained and certified coaches, we will begin to offer a new level of our subscription service that includes coach monitoring of training and run and triathlon training coaching. Whenever you need a plan adjusted, just let us know and one of our certified coaches will assist you. An expansion of our custom training place service is also likely.

Medium Term

If you liked the sound of an AI-driven training plan generator when I brought it up earlier, I’ve got good news for you. Well, not really. What I meant to say is that I will soon have good news for you on this front. That’s all I’m allowed to say at the moment, but stay tuned.

Short Term

In the meantime, keep doing what you’ve been doing, which is using our forums to ask questions about plan adjustments whenever necessary. My goal is to collect a few specific case studies over the next few weeks and mold them into a standing resource document that actually delivers on the promise hinted at in the title of this post!

If you’re like many other endurance athletes, you have probably followed a readymade training plan at one time or another. Perhaps you found it in a book, or maybe you purchased it online from a website such as Final Surge or TrainingPeaks. If so, then you know that readymade plans are generally classified by race distance and level. For example, if you’re a relatively new runner interested in training for your first marathon, you will likely choose a beginner-level marathon plan.

Choosing the right level is not always easy, though, especially when there are a lot of levels. I have online running and triathlon plans that come in as many as 10 levels at each major race distance. Not a week goes by without my receiving at leas one email from an athlete asking, “Which level should I choose?” These athletes always tell me a little about themselves so that I have something on which to base my recommendation. More often than not, the information these athletes choose to share with me is either their time goal for the distance at which they intend to race or their best or most recent time for the same distance. This has always seemed odd to me, because time goals are almost completely irrelevant to training plan selection.

To understand why, consider the hypothetical example of a runner who wants to run a marathon in 3:45. If this runner should come to me and ask which level of marathon plan I recommend for a runner who has this goal, and his name is Wilson Kipsang, I will tell him he does not need to train at all, because I know that Wilson Kipsang has run 2:03 for the marathon on four separate occasions, and a man who is capable of running a 2:03 marathon can run a 3:45 marathon on no formal training whatsoever.

Now suppose instead that the runner targeting a 3:45 marathon who comes to me for help with training plan selection is not Wilson Kipsang but a 44-year-old woman who has run six past marathons and has a current PR of 4:22. I would need a little more information to be sure, but it is likely that I would tell this athlete that no training plan could possibly deliver her to a 3:45 marathon. She could quit her job, send her children to live with their grandparents, and devote her life to pursuing this goal and never achieve it.

What this rather extreme hypothetical example demonstrates is that there is no single training plan that fits all athletes pursuing any given race performance goal. So if time goals are not the appropriate basis for training plan selection, what is? Simple: training history.

Numbers aside, the goal that every athlete shares is improvement, which tends to occur in modest increments and is made possible by modest increases in training load. Your next training plan should therefore be one that administers a training load that is slightly greater than the highest training load you handled successfully in preparing for a prior race of the same distance you’re targeting this time around. For example, if you built up to 45 miles per week in preparing for your last marathon, build up to 50 miles next time.

Note that increasing the training load is not the only way to improve, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to keep training more and more each time you set your sights on a PR. You can also improve by making better use of the volume of training you’re already doing, for example by doing less training at moderate intensity and more at low and high intensities.

Indeed, if your current training formula is already a good fit for you, you can improve without changing it at all. That’s because you are not the same athlete at the end of a training cycle as you were at the beginning. For example, if you complete an 18-week marathon build-up, then take it easy for three weeks, and then repeat the same 18-week cycle, you will start the second cycle fitter than you did the previous one, so the same training will develop your running ability even further.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent so I’ll just stop here.

Easy runs get no love. Whenever a video is made of elite runners in training, it’s always some type of workout that’s filmed (a track session, hill repetitions, a long run at marathon pace), never an easy run. This is the case despite the fact that easy runs are the foundation of any good training program and collectively contribute more to race-day performance than any other type of run.

The tendency in our sport to take easy runs for granted has practical consequences. These runs are considered so basic that no one can possibly screw them up, and yet no run type is screwed up more often or with greater consequences. I’m referring to the moderate-intensity rut, of course—the almost universal tendency of runners to do their easy runs too fast, slightly above the ventilatory threshold (VT), making each session more stressful than it should be and creating a chronic burden of fatigue that inhibits fitness development and compromises performance in runs that are intended to be harder.

But I’m sick of talking about the moderate-intensity rut. Today I’d like to talk instead about another important element of easy run execution, which is allowing your easy run pace to vary wildly from day to day and even within individual easy runs based on how you’re feeling. Contradictory though it may seem, only by pacing yourself inconsistently in your easy runs will they consistently serve their intended purpose, which is to ensure that your overall training workload is close to, but within, the limit of your body’s present tolerance for training stress.

Erratically paced easy runs are essentially a method of ensuring that a good training plan is correctly applied. Before you start to train for any important race you should, of course, devise (or choose) a training plan. Your overarching goal in developing this plan is, as I just suggested, to prescribe a workload that is near to, but less than, the limit of your body’s tolerance for training stress. To achieve this goal, you need to decide on an appropriate volume of training, design key workouts that are hard but not too hard, and determine the right target paces for these key workouts.

If you are experienced and knowledgeable enough, it’s not too difficult to come up with a training plan that fits. But no matter how experienced and knowledgeable you are, you cannot design a plan that prescribes the perfect workload every day for its entire length. This would require an almost godlike degree of foresight. The power of planning is limited by the impossibility of knowing exactly how your body will respond to the training you plan. Therefore your plan must have built-in flexibility, allowing for a certain amount of responsiveness in its execution.

It’s best not to change things unnecessarily, though. You had specific reasons for deciding how much running you would do and what your key workouts would be and how fast you would run in those sessions. These elements of your training are not the first ones that you should alter in response a discrepancy between expectation and reality, such as not feeling good in several consecutive runs. A much better way to tweak your training on the fly is to adjust your easy run paces to ensure that your workload is at every point high enough but not excessive. This approach makes a lot of sense because whereas no single easy run is terribly important, collectively easy runs account for the bulk of your total training stress, so they present a lot of opportunity to fine-tune your workload.

The way to do this is to try to maintain a consistent comfort level throughout all of your easy runs regardless of pace. Ideally, you will feel very comfortable from the beginning to the end of every easy run you do. On days when you are carrying fatigue from recent hard training or you’re just feeling flat for no particular reason, staying comfortable may require you to run one or even two minutes per mile slower than your ventilatory threshold pace. And on days when you’re feeling good, your legs may want to carry you right at VT pace, and there’s no reason not to do so in this situation. And if you’re like me and you often feel bad and good at different points within a single easy run, you should allow your pace to fluctuate.

How you feel during your easy runs is not arbitrary. It’s information about how your body is doing and what sort of training stimulus is appropriate. By allowing comfort to set your pace, you will not miss out on opportunities to run faster and get a bigger training stimulus when your body’s up to it but at the same time you will avoid overtaxing your body when it requires a gentler training stimulus. And the long-term effect will be that your overall training workload is in the Goldilocks Zone—high enough but not too high.

The pros practice erratic easy run pacing. For example, during an easy run I did with the Northern Arizona Elite team a few weeks before the Chicago Marathon, Aaron Braun observed that as his key workouts were getting faster and faster, his easy runs were getting slower and slower. (I think we were jogging at just under 8:00/mile at the time, or more than 2.5 minutes per mile slower than Aaron’s VT pace.) Of course, Aaron wasn’t slowing down in his easy runs because he was physically incapable of going faster. He was slowing down because he chose to, and he chose to because like most pros he habitually paces his easy runs by feel, aiming to maintain a consistent comfort level throughout all of them.

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