FACT: There is no single training plan that is “the best.” The best training plan is the one that works for you.
It’s a good news/bad news situation with so many plans available. To further complicate matters, a plan that worked well for you once may not be the right one next time because your fitness is never static. What I can do is offer some suggestions on what to consider when trying to select a training plan for yourself.
Starting out conservatively rather than too aggressively is never wrong, especially for first time distance runners. You can always increase your training as you go, but if you start out doing too much, too soon, it can result in injury or burnout and totally derail your race plans.
Keep in mind that fitness adaptations to training take weeks to even months, so be patient with your progress. And, if the plan you have chosen doesn’t seem to be working for you, simply choose another one. It’s fine to change it up.
Look for a plan that is most appropriate for you at this moment in time. To do this, you must perform a very honest and realistic personal assessment. Consider your overall health and current fitness level, including your running background, age, health history, and injury history.
Next, write down your running goals. What do you expect from your training and this race? For example, do you simply want to finish the race? Or, do you have a time goal in mind? And, if you have a time goal in mind, does it align with your personal assessment?
The basic components of any training plan are frequency, duration, and intensity. Frequency refers to how often or how many times per week you will run. Duration is how long you will run, whether that be time or mileage. Intensity refers to how hard or easy each run will be, which may be indicated by training pace, heart rate, or exertion level.
While all training plans are a combination of these three components, most plans emphasise one component over another. For example, three day-a-week plans generally emphasise intensity or duration. Conversely, five or six day-a-week plans rely more heavily on frequency. What is your running preference: running more often, running long, or running more intensely? Also, some training plans encourage cross-training two or more days a week. Some runners love that and others do not.
Next, consider how much time you have to devote to training. Include all of your other obligations like work, family, and any other responsibilities or commitments you might have. If it doesn’t seem realistic to run five or six days a week, is it a practical plan?
In summary, three day a week programs are almost always a great place for a beginner to start because they offer a minimal time commitment and they have built in recovery days. The negative is when training three days a week, it becomes very important not to miss a workout and to train at the recommended intensity levels.
Plans that call for five or more days a week of running are usually best for someone who has already been running consistently. Running more frequently helps establish a consistent routine. The downside of running more days a week is that it can be time-consuming and may not provide enough recovery time between workouts for some.
If you are feeling good several weeks into a three day-a-week plan, add one more day of running with one easy paced run of 30 to 45 minutes in duration. Train four days a week for several more weeks and, again, if all is well, you may be ready to try a five day a week plan.