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The Workout: Running Training Programs

An abundance of training programs means that there's one out there for you, whether you're looking to try your first 5k or run your fastest marathon.

Although we're currently stuck in the heat of summer, the cooler weather of autumn will soon be here, and along with it will come plenty of running races: 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and even the queen of the Illinois running calendar, the Chicago Marathon. But if you're planning on a fall event of any distance, you should be doing some kind of training program.

The first time I did a half marathon, I didn't train for it. Oh, sure, I prepared, but I didn't follow a training plan. In fact, I didn't even know training plans existed. I just ran on a regular basis and tried to make my weekend runs progressively longer, adding more mileage until I finally ran 13 miles the weekend before the race.

When I got to the start line, I still hadn't recovered from my long run seven days earlier. My legs were tired, and I faded early in the race. I got to the finish line, but I didn't enjoy it. I hadn't “trained” for the race, and I paid the price.

Fortunately, there are plenty of training programs out there, for distances from 5k to marathon and beyond, and they are easily found online. Most training programs also offer different options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced runners. So whether you are just starting and want to finish your first 5k, or you are trying to improve your marathon time, you can find a program to help you get there.

The most popular training programs are Hal Higdon's. Higdon offers programs for a variety of distances and experience levels, and they are based on the two-week build, one-week step back formula. The Higdon model, like many training plans, lumps a significant portion of a runner's weekly miles into one “long slow run” on the weekend. There's no question that long runs are great training tools. But for someone like me who gets bored easily, the long runs can be something to dread.

This year, I'm doing the Hanson training program, and I love it. Instead of relying on one long run to pack on the miles, the Hanson plan has me doing significant but moderate runs runs six days a week. The point of the training program is to do what they call “Something of Substance” every day. If you have a busy schedule, or want to cross-train, the Hanson plan is challenging, since every day requires a chunk of time to run. For example, I've found it hard to keep up my cycling because all my daily exercise time needs to go towards running. But I love the consistency, and my daily runs have become just that: something I do every day without thinking about it.

Another popular plan is the Galloway training program, which is basically the opposite of the Hanson program in that the training strongly emphasizes a once-a-week long distance run. Galloway also has his adherents combine walking and running, with the ratio varying based on desired pace. The theory is that the walking breaks during the long runs allow the body to recover, preventing fatigue and injury. The Galloway plan is becoming increasingly popular and people swear by it. Personally, however, I find the walking breaks to be challenging. Once I start walking, I'm unlikely to start running again, so instead of feeling refreshed, they make me feel beleaguered. But for those who enjoy the walking breaks, and don't mind the once-a-week long sessions, Galloway might be just the ticket.

The Cool Running program is bound to get anyone in tip-top shape, since it has significant runs on most days, plus long runs on the weekend. In fact, their long runs equal, or sometimes exceed, the race distance. For example, their half marathon plan has 14- and 15-mile runs in the weeks leading up to the 13.1 mile race. I understand the logic behind the program, and certainly race day itself will feel easy if you know you've already covered the required distance, and maybe more. But the plan requires a high level of commitment.

For those looking for something less intense and more flexible, Run Less Run Faster, also known as the FIRST program, has devotees running three, and only three, times each week. On the off days, it focuses on cross training. For people who want variety, and don't want to feel like they have to run all the time, it can be a great program.

There are plenty of plans out there, many more than I could ever cover here. A lot of them can be found for free online, but others, such as McMillan, Runner's World, and Active.com, charge a fee for users who want to try them. Given the plethora of free programs, it doesn’t seem wise to pay for a program when you don't know what you'll be getting. Instead, I'd suggest taking a look at the schedules that are available online and see which ones might work best for you. If you think you know which one you want, you can then consider buying the book or paying for a customized plan based on it.

Fortunately, regardless of your experience level or the distance of your goal race, there are plenty of programs to choose from. Keep in mind that there is no “best” program. Pick one that works well for your style and schedule, and then stick with it, because the right training program for you is whatever one you'll actually do.

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