How I write a Custom Training Plan
Part 1 - 20 standard questions
The process starts with a list of 20 questions.
1) What is your "A" goal? 2) What are some of your other running goals? 3) What are your lifetime PRs? 4) What are all of your race times in the last year? If any of the races had extenuating circumstances (weather, sick, super hilly, etc.) as to why they are not a good judge of your fitness please include that information as well. 5) What went wrong in your best races? What held you back from doing better? Did you feel the reason you couldn't go faster was because a) you were out of breath, b) your legs felt dead tired, or c) some other reason/combination of the two? 6) Have you had any recent injuries or do you feel over the long term you are injury prone? 7) If you've suffered chronic or a recent injury was the cause running related (because we want to avoid it then)? 8) How many and which days are you willing to run each week? How much time on those specific days are you willing to devote to running? (Most important question, so the more detailed response the better.) 9) What fueling do you do during runs? What fueling do you do after runs? What fueling do you do before you run? 10) Are there specific types of runs that make you feel more fatigued than others? 11) Why do you enjoy running? What is your motivation to run? 12) Why have you chosen the goals you've chosen? 13) What type of technology do you use to run? Treadmill, garmin, heart rate monitor, phone app run tracker, etc. 14) Are there any types of fuel pre-run, during run, or post-run that you like better than others? What led you to choose these items versus others on the market? 15) For races that provide splits, do you tend to be positive, negative, or even split? Why do you think that is? 16) What other training plans have you used in the past? 17) What kind of training have you been doing the last three weeks? Mileage, pace, etc? 18) If you run/walk. When you run about what pace do you do? When you walk about what pace do you do? 19) If I told you to run as slow as you can, how fast would you be running? This would be at a pace where you're barely breathing differently than normal walking. It feels like you're barely trying. 20) Most importantly, what is your upcoming race schedule? What/when is your next "A" goal race that you want to focus your training towards?
Here I'll pull back the magic curtain and explain the rationale to each and every one of these.
1) What is your "A" goal?
It's probably the single most important thing to me when writing a plan for someone else. Finding out what their "A" goal is and what their "A" race is. Because the entirety of the plan will be focused on that goal. Whether it be "to finish", "to have fun", "BQ", "to finish without dying or feeling like death", "a certain time goal", "a new distance", or some sort of lifetime achievement. From there, it's important to figure out - how much time do we have and how reasonable is the goal? If someone says they want to break a 2 hour HM in 8 weeks, and they've raced multiple HMs in the 3 hour range, then we need to find how how reasonable that goal is. Now it's certainly something that could be achievable later in time, but the timeframe between now and the "A" race is important. I try and help the person see the bigger picture and how long given a steady improvement an attempt at an "A" goal may take.
But even more important maybe than the information it provides me, is that it forces the person to write down whatever their "A" goal is. Research has shown that if you write down your goals you are significantly more likely to achieve them. And if you write them down in public or tell someone else, then it increases the odds even more. So while I use the information to tailor the plan towards their goals, I also use it as a method to force that person to commit to the goal to themselves.
2) What are some of your other running goals?
The "A" goal is important, but for some an "A" goal can be a lifetime achievement or long term aspiration. So if someone says a "BQ" is their "A" goal, but they're 80 minutes from the qualifying standard, then it's important to find out their other more immediate goals. It helps again focus the training and to look at the big picture. It also forces them to write down more goals to aid in success.
3) What are your lifetime PRs?
The purpose is assessing the possibilities. This question can go many routes depending on the running experience of the person and the age. Some people set amazing times in their 20s and now in their 40s aren't where they were anymore. Others have their lifetime PRs as more recent. This helps set the table for me to get a big picture PR history on a person. If someone was once capable of a 22 min 5k, but now they're running 30 min 5ks, then the follow-up question would be "what's the difference between now and then?"
4) What are all of your race times in the last year? If any of the races had extenuating circumstances (weather, sick, super hilly, etc.) as to why they are not a good judge of your fitness please include that information as well.
A super important question when it comes to writing my custom training plans. The backbone of my philosophy is based on writing training plans based on time and current fitness. This question is used to assess current fitness. First off, the person informs me of all of the races in the last year. I then use a race equivalency calculator (like McMillan or Hansons) to compare those recent race performances. In general, I'm looking for the best performance. I also use the extenuating circumstances to decide why something should or should not be used as an assessment on current fitness.
So, for example. Let's say someone has the following recent races:
Marathon - 5:45:35 (first marathon) HM - 2:33:56 (in the snow, took it easy) 5K - 27:57 HM - 2:18:41 (unusually hot and I was anemic and didn't know it, felt awful but not a bad time for me) 25K - 2:42:54 5K - 28:20 (hot) 5K - 27:40 10K - 1:06:06 (stayed up too late the night before overindulging) 5K - 27:08 10 miler - 1:40:02 Marathon - 5:23:13 (bonked at mile 19, walked a lot those last few miles) 4.3 miles - 42:18 4 miles - 39:04
One of the first things I always try to do is peg current fitness. The best way to figure that out is to look at your current PRs and recent race results. Race results tell a story and allow a coach to figure out the runner's deficiency. Luckily for me, I specialize in long distance training plan writing (5k and up). Which means 95% of runners come with me with the exact same profile. Their shorter distances (5K) greatly out perform their longer distances (HM and M) when evaluated with a race equivalency. This example falls squarely in that category.
Their recent 5k - 27:08, suggests the following training paces:
From this, you can see that their 5k predicts a race equivalent HM of 2:04:37 and a M of 4:20:29.
Whereas the recent 10 mile - 1:40:02, suggests the following training paces:
From this, you can see that their 10 miler predicts a race equivalent HM of 2:13:24 and a M of 4:36:55.
As is common (95% of runners profile), as the distance increase this person falls further and further from the race equivalency. This means they currently have the "speed" to be capable of running a longer distance faster but they lack the endurance to do so. That's true of many recreational endurance runners. They lack the necessary endurance to match the race equivalency prediction. So how do you get more endurance? Lots of slow running, tempo running, and long runs maxing at 2.5 hours.
I've gotten two very useful pieces of information from this example. I now know that their current fitness is a 27:08 5k and that they perform better at the shorter distances than the longer distances. Therefore, endurance is a deficiency and a key for them to getting faster is working on that deficiency.
But it's not always so easy. Sometimes I get a response like this:
"I haven’t run a race since August 2015."
That makes the game of determining current fitness way more difficult. So in these cases, dependent on the amount of time between now and the "A" race, I might write a really short plan that errs on the slower side and then an assessment at the end. This type of plan is usually 6 weeks in duration and is just used as a measuring stick moving forward for current fitness.
Other times, I find that while the races have a relationship with each other, I don't trust the results. Someone might say this about their best 5k:
"5k recent PR - 28:50 - ran with someone else and chatted the whole way, felt tough, but took my mind off it I guess!"
But that screams to me they're likely capable of more. Then the game becomes asking them questions about different paces they run. What do they feel like? Describe the breathing? I use their descriptions of paces and the amount of time they hold a pace to better assess where their fitness may actually lie. There might be some underlying reason as to why they aren't hitting those faster paces and by asking follow-up questions it helps me dig a little deeper.
I spend a lot of time on this question (and asking follow ups) because it's my belief that the pace and duration of training matters far more than the mileage. So by figuring out someone's current fitness I can best help them train at where they currently are. Now it might cause some follow questions. "I want to run a sub-2:30 HM, but you want me to continue to train at a 2:45 HM? How does that work?" Just keep in mind that the body recognizes what your current 5k, 10k, HM, M or physiologically relevant pacing is. It doesn't know future goals. But by training at where you are, you can reduce the chances for injury and continue to make consistent and sustained improvement over time. Since many of the common recreational distances (5k, 10k, HM or M) are mostly endurance events (5k is 80% endurance and M is 99% endurance), then lots of endurance pacing will help improve everything across the board. Those endurance paces are a wide zone of slow pacing. But the faster end of the spectrum is really tight. Which means if you choose goal HM pace instead of current fitness HM pace, you might actually be training at current fitness 10k pace. Which means you're unlikely to elicit the benefits of the training you were hoping for.
5) What went wrong in your best races? What held you back from doing better? Did you feel the reason you couldn't go faster was because a) you were out of breath, b) your legs felt dead tired, or c) some other reason/combination of the two?
Mostly I'm trying to get them to figure out for themselves why a race didn't go as planned. But these reasons help me determine to a smaller extent additional deficiencies. I'll usually defer to the race equivalency recent races first, and then use this answer to support my hypothesis.
Out of breath = speed pacing Legs felt tired = endurance pacing
This isn't always the case, but it's sometimes helpful additional info.
6) Have you had any recent injuries or do you feel over the long term you are injury prone? 7) If you've suffered chronic or a recent injury was the cause running related (because we want to avoid it then)?
I need to find out where this person is right now and in the past in terms of injuries. If they've had them, how did they occur? What were the warning signs? This is a question that I come back to later in working with someone to see if this was a prior issue or something new. If they've got running related injuries, then we need to figure out the cause so we can best avoid having it occur again.
8) How many and which days are you willing to run each week? How much time on those specific days are you willing to devote to running? (Most important question, so the more detailed response the better.)
The other piece to the major puzzle. Pace is important, but so is the duration or time available to train. I always say let me know what you can commit to. Because a custom training plan that is followed near 100% is far better than a plan with more time/days per week that's followed 75% of the time. I can write a good 4 day plan and if followed 100%, can outperform a good 5 day plan that's followed 75% of the time.
How much and what days plays a big role in how the training is developed. There are golden time durations in terms of writing a plan:
30 min or less: minimal training time 30 min to 45 min: reasonable, still low 45 to 60 min: good easy training availability 60 min to 90 min: great mid-week endurance 90 min to 150 min: endurance golden zone
I don't schedule people over 150 min when they're continuous runners. For run/walk runners, I've been doing 180 min max and seen good results thus far. But my cap on run/walk runners is still in flux as I continue to gather more data. The key to the 150 min max is understanding the physiology of the running system. It is my understanding that aerobic gains cost/benefit ratio is maximized at around 150 min. Beyond that, and you'll continue to make smaller and smaller gains but the risk climbs at a much higher rate. If you want a more in-depth answer as to why, try reading this material:
LINKS TO COME!
So when I build a training plan I use the following guidelines -
Hard Workouts 1) Long Run (for endurance) 2) Tempo (either Marathon or HM dependent on race distance) 3) 5k, 10k, CV, or LT pacing (for speed work)
You get #1 for doing 3 days per week. You get #1 and 2 for doing 4 days per week. You get #1, 2 and 3 if doing 5 days per week with enough time allotted and experience. You get #1, 2 and 3 if doing 6 days per week.
Depending on the time available and the days per week starts a back and forth to determine the best course of action for them.
I think a big player in training is "cumulative fatigue" or the stacking of runs on top of each other. So for anyone looking to make gains in a HM or M, I try to place back to back runs every week. Primarily, this back to back is with the long run. So for example, a 90 min Saturday and 150 min Sunday. This stacking means that Sunday is no longer training for miles 0-10 of a race, but more like training for 10-20 or 7-13. This means you don't enter the long run at 100% freshness but rather just a little extra fatigue is carried over. It helps reduce the timeframe of recovery and thus forces an adaptation mentally and physically in your body to better prepare yourself for the rigors of race day.
But, it's not always the case that someone has the day available prior to the LR. Sometimes it's a 4 day plan with TWR and S available. Then I write the cumulative fatigue into the mid-week runs rather than the LR.
This question builds the structure of the plan. Based on this and current fitness, it also helps me go back to question 1 and 2 to help determine the current feasibility of goals.
9) What fueling do you do during runs? What fueling do you do after runs? What fueling do you do before you run?
Helps me determine what they're using and if there are any tweaks I can offer to maximize the use of fueling in races or training. I limit the use of carbs in training to runs over 90 minutes. If the run is warm/hot you are allowed to take in (and suggested to do so) electrolytes. But keep the carbs to only the runs above 90 min. Taking in any carbs when the training run is less than 90 minutes is a dampener of adaptations because it doesn't teach your body to run on fat. However, runs longer than 90 minutes require carbs because you start to increase necessary recovery time the more you starve the muscles. There are glycogen depletion training runs, but I focus on other aspects of improving performance before I pull that type of run out.
At the end of the day, most of all of us can complete a HM before we reach a state of glycogen depletion. So the use of carbs when running could be for medical reasons or as a vehicle for electrolytes. But for the purpose of glucose replenishment, it's really only the marathon that needs it. There are a few cases where it may be necessary for a HM, but it's not as common. Now it certainly won't hurt to take it in (if done correctly). Now in a training situation it's different than racing because of the repeated multiple bouts and the use in aiding in recovery. So fuel in training and racing serve slightly different purposes.
I use a calculator I built from several sources (Hansons and Benjamin Rapport's paper [Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners]) to come up with a general system for carb recommendations. It can be accomplished either mid-race or in a sophisticated carb loading procedure prior to race day.
10) Are there specific types of runs that make you feel more fatigued than others?
Typically, but not always - runs you don't enjoy could be a sign of a deficiency. So I read these answers on a case by case basis to see if I can tease apart a possible deficiency that can be improved. Because deficiency improvement is the fastest way to overall performance improvement.
11) Why do you enjoy running? What is your motivation to run? 12) Why have you chosen the goals you've chosen?
This gets to the personal level. It's important to learn about someone from the running and math side, but knowing how/why someone does what they do is highly important. It helps me learn about the runner as a person. Plus, when days come up and they may be struggling with things mid-plan, I pull this answer back up and try to use it to help motivate them back on track.
13) What type of technology do you use to run? Treadmill, garmin, heart rate monitor, phone app run tracker, etc.
To an extent, it helps me figure out how sophisticated I can get. If they've got a Garmin 235 vs a Garmin 10 vs a Timex stopwatch vs phone GPS dictates what kind of workouts I can write. Are they planning treadmill runs on certain days per week? Well then those wouldn't be great for "blind runs" where they are done by perceived effort. If they're using a heart rate monitor monitor then maybe they'd want to collect data or evaluate things from that end as well:
LINK TO COME
This question can go lots of ways dependent on what is available to them for tech.
14) Are there any types of fuel pre-run, during run, or post-run that you like better than others? What led you to choose these items versus others on the market?
I'm a big believer in post-workout nutrition supplementation. So finding out what they're using and whether I can offer assistance based on their answer starts here. I usually include this tidbit in my instructions:
"Lastly, I used to use chocolate milk after every run (8-16 oz milk with Nesquik powder). You can use commercial products instead of chocolate milk, but it gets expensive. And if something is only slightly better (commercial is better than milk), then it isn't worth nearly double the price. A carb protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 has been shown to decrease recovery time and rebuild muscle faster than nothing. I consume my chocolate milk within 15 minutes of finishing the run. In addition, I attempt to get a full meal within 90 minutes of finishing the run. If you consistently do the chocolate milk (or FairLife) and full meals within time, then you will see massive gains to your ability to recover between workouts and ability to store more energy in your leg muscles. I'm currently using a commercial product to try and reduce my sugar intake and feel quite confident i