Matt Phillips

Written by Matt Phillips


Preparing for a Race – Components of a Training Plan

You say “po-tay-toe”, I say “po-tah-to”; you say “Fall”, I say “Autumn”…

Whichever side of the pond you are on, with September upon us chances are you are about to begin preparation for a distance race, be it 10k, half marathon or marathon. For some of you, it may be the first time you race such a distance; for others it will be a long awaited chance to try and beat your PB (PR). Whatever your motivation, the key word as always is preparation.

For many runners, especially those new to racing against the clock, the secret to running a faster race is thought to be simply running it faster. However, in reality, distance running is not so much about running faster but rather being able to run at a certain pace for longer. Many of us can already run close to a 5min mile pace, but whether we could maintain it for a mile is another matter! Paula Radcliffe managed it for 26.2 miles and for that reason is still the current women’s world record holder in the marathon (2:15:25 hours).

Visualising your race as maintaining a certain pace over the full race distance can be a very useful way of embarking on race preparation and designing a suitable training plan. It can also help avoid the very common mistake of starting a race way too quickly and hitting a rather large wall half way through!

A quick search on Google results in a multitude of training plans offered for all race distances – Plans for beginners, intermediates, advanced; plans lasting 10weeks, 14weeks, 18 weeks; plans to beat certain race times; plans for the busy girl, busy mom, super dad, the list goes on. The huge selection offered suggests that there is a great demand from runners, especially first time racers, to get their hands on a training plan to help them prepare for a race. This can be both good and bad, as we will now see.

Why have a training plan?

A Training Plan is an essential part of race preparation. Although all types of running have benefits, successful preparation for a specific race distance will require targeting a suitable combination of all three components of running fitness, which though inter-related are stimulated by different types of training:

1. Aerobic fitness – the ability of the body to use oxygen

To sprint a short distance (less than 200 hundred metres), your body uses a system that very rapidly produces just enough energy to meet the short lasting, high intensity demand.  This system is anaerobic, i.e. it does not need oxygen. However, when energy is required to meet the demands of a longer lasting, sub maximal intensity such as distance running, the body uses an aerobic system (requires oxygen) as the amount of energy released is far greater, plus the system can use fat, the body’s most abundant energy source.

Therefore, as far as distance running goes, the more oxygen your body is able to use, the greater your ‘aerobic capacity’, the more energy can be created, and the faster the speed you will be able to maintain over a given distance.

The maximum amount of oxygen you can use in a given time is called your VO­2max. It improves as you build mileage volume, hence the need to get those long runs in to, depending on your level and race distance, gradually build your volume to a regular 35 to 70+ miles a week. Progression runs (adding a more intense, say, 20 minutes to the end of an otherwise easy run) and threshold runs (sets of sustained elevated pace over a certain distance) will also build aerobic capacity once you have built a sufficient foundation.

2. Neuromuscular fitness – communication between the brain and the muscles

In this article, we considered the importance of step (stride) frequency and step (stride) length in running speed. Both of these are dependent on the neuromuscular system, i.e. communication between the brain and the muscles in order to produce optimum power, efficiency and resistance to fatigue.

Fatigue is essentially the brain choosing to protect you from damage by inhibiting muscle impulses, in response to feedback it gets from the muscles. Once this kicks in, your running form will start to deteriorate and even if you have the aerobic capacity to continue, the fall in running economy will hinder your overall performance.

Therefore, although aerobic fitness is a huge factor in distance running, neuromuscular fitness must be developed alongside. Long runs improve aerobic capacity but they do not develop neuromuscular fitness.

This is where you will need your hill sprints and ancillary conditioning exercises (including plyometrics and technique drills). How much you need will depend on the race distance you are training for, and your own individual physiological makeup, which is why we created both the strength training for runners and the Improve Your Running Form course.

3. Specific endurance – the ability of your body to resist fatigue at your race pace

As I stated at the beginning of this article, distance running is not so much about running faster but rather maintaining a certain pace over the full race distance.

In other words, it is not lack of speed that limits you, it is lack of fatigue resistance.

Working to achieve a suitable combination of aerobic fitness and neuromuscular fitness to allow you to maintain race pace for the duration of your race’s distance is the primary goal of your training plan.

Initially this will involve building the foundations for each, but as you progress, the training you are doing will need to involve more and more specific endurance runs to get your body used to running at race pace, culminating in a session 2 weeks before your race that shows you will be able to sustain that pace on race day. This is where not peaking too early comes into play, and the importance of having a suitably designed training plan.

Your training plan is vital to ensure you are targeting each of the three areas of running fitness we have looked at in the right combination for the specific race distance you are training for so come race day you are at peak fitness and ready to do the business.

Potential pitfalls of a training plan

Regular visitors to Runners Connect will be aware that we frequently stress the fact that no two runners are the same. Though we all share the same passion for running, we are all individuals and products of a unique combination of experience, ability, injury patterns, recovery capacity, etc. It therefore follows that no two training plans should ever be exactly the same.

Following a training plan from a magazine or a book will always run the risk that you are missing necessary components that your body requires to reach your goal.

In other words, although you may feel you have struck gold by finding an online training plan designed for a busy mom wanting to complete her second marathon in under four hours, the template cannot possibly take account of your current levels of aerobic or neuromuscular fitness, or capacity for specific endurance. It will also fail to address your unique running history, injury patterns, recovery capacity, and more. With this in mind, I will now offer you some pieces of advice:

1. Have a running coach create you a training plan specific to your needs

If you seriously want to get the most out of the 10-20 weeks you are about to devote to race training, I truly recommend getting help from an experienced, recommended Running Coach. It may not be as expensive as you think. You are not going to need them to be at every single training session you do (unless you want them to be!) but they will be able to devise you a training plan unique to your specific needs and the needs of the race you are entering.

If you are happy with Runners Connect and would like us to help you create a training plan and provide you with as much support you as you wish during your race preparation, you can read about the personal coaching service our our custom training plans.

2. Listen to your body – a training plan is not set in stone

A training plan cannot predict how your body is going to react to the individual components of training.

Brad Hudson, coach to Olympians and co-author (with Matt Fitzgerald) of “Run Faster From The 5k To The Marathon” recommends drawing up training plans in pencil as you have to be ready to modify a day’s training if need be. This obviously does not mean taking a day off because you fancy a lie in one morning but it can mean replacing say a planned session of steep hill sprints with an easy run if you suddenly find yourself with unexpected muscle/joint pain, or unfamiliar levels of fatigue.

As Hudson says in his book (which I totally recommend):

The shortest distance to your destination is a straight line, but the fastest way to get there will involve many zigzags.

So much of running performance development and injury avoidance boils down to listening to your body. The more sensitive and receptive you are to what your body is telling you, the more productive your training will be.

3. Update your training plan. Keep a running diary

Though I appreciate that for many of you, the idea of getting home and scribbling down what you have done may sound geeky, it can be the source of invaluable information. Having a record of what you actually achieved each running session will allow you to track what works for you and what doesn’t and make necessary tweaks to your current and future training plans.

There is no magic generic formula that will provide you with the perfect training plan. How you best organize your training, the time of day, choice of day, order of days, quantity and position of rest days, etc. is individual to you. Keeping a running diary and tweaking your training plan based on what gives you the best results is the only way to create your optimum formula.

4. Don’t skip your warm-ups, cool-downs, or ancillary strength exercises

We looked at the importance of warm ups here. As a Run Conditioning Coach and Sports Therapist, I cannot stress how valuable a tool the warm up can be to not only reduce risk of injury, but also to add a few of the all important ancillary strengthening exercises that will allow your body to efficiently stabilise your joints during running and maintain good form.

Too many runners think that by sacrificing the warm up, cool down, or strength exercises they will gain more time to devote to maintaining a high weekly mileage. We have already seen that though progressing to a suitable weekly mileage volume is necessary to improve aerobic capacity, neuromuscular fitness is just as important if you wish to increase your volume whilst maintaining efficient form and avoiding injury.

Sacrificing the warm up, cool down, or strength exercises is not the answer. I would go so far to say at you’re better off running for 15 minutes less and doing your warm up/cool down, rather than skimping on them. Alternatively, try getting up 15 minutes earlier, maybe spend less time on Facebook, whatever it takes!

The power of variation

Hopefully this article has given you a better idea of how to go about preparing for a race. I will leave you with one last thought. We mentioned earlier the important role of the brain in running fitness. Muscles are simply ropes that pull on bones. How they work and how well they work relies on efficiency of communication with the brain.

Training to improve running performance is about stimulating the brain, encouraging it to communicate and activate more muscle fibers, to improve timing so that the movements involved in stride mechanics become more coordinated and efficient. The primary factor that stimulates the brain is variation. We have looked at this in past articles with regards to the rationale behind varying the surfaces you run on and the shoes you wear in order to reduce risk of injury.

Your training plan needs to incorporate variety to stimulate the brain – different paces, gradients, durations and intensities.

By safely and progressively challenging the brain, you increase communication with the muscles and lead to adaption and improvement.

Easy runs, moderate runs, progression runs, threshold runs, speed intervals, hill intervals, ladder intervals, hill sprints… all of these should be appearing on your training plan on a weekly basis. Maintaining variety also encourages you to listen to your body; to pay attention to how your body responds to different stimuli. That’s how you progress, and that’s how you will make this next race one to remember…

Happy running!

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK & Studio57clinic. Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt

Recommended Reading

1. Fitzgerald, M.: Brain Training For Runners (2007)
2. Hudson B. & Fitzgerald, M.: Run Faster From The 5k To The Marathon (2008) 

Free Run Faster Course

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Here’s what you'll learn in this course

The scientific demands of your race distance so you know exactly how to target your workouts and training.

6 Race specific workouts that will help up you crush your next race

The most common mistakes you're making in training and in your race plan (and how to fix them)


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2 Responses on “Preparing for a Race – Components of a Training Plan

  1. Thanks for the article. Especially the sailing quote

    The shortest distance to your destination is a straight line, but the fastest way to get there will involve many zigzags.

    But thanks for the reinforcing the need to do strength add ons. I do them during injury recovery and then start to let them slip when I’m well and strong. The last thing in should do.


    • Hey Matt, glad you enjoyed the article!
      The sailing analogy is indeed a great one. Not sure which of Brad or Matt came up with it but definitely hits the nail right on the head. Totally recommend their book, as well as the many others Matt Fitzgerald has either been involved in or written.
      What you say also makes great sense too. The majority of rehab exercises continue to serve as run conditioning and preventative exercises so we really should try to keep them up!
      All the best, another Matt.

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