Most people pick someone else’s training plan and just follow that to the letter. That’s probably alright for most, though having a life or other complications can make following most plans a problem.
For example, a Hal Higdon marathon plan follows a fairly set schedule. The intermediate plan has cross training Monday, three easily doable runs in a row on Tuesday through Thursday, Friday off, a moderate run Saturday and then the long run Sunday.
What if you run in the evenings after work but have a commitment on Thursday night that interferes with that run? Or what if you run in the mornings before work, but the 7-8 mile Wednesday runs later in the program are too long to do before work?
Or what happens if you’re exhausted and getting sick at the end of a week? Do you risk compounding that problem by getting your workouts in? Do you risk compromising your training by skipping the Saturday run (or heaven forbid, the very important long run)?
Never mind scheduling concerns: What if the weather is blazing hot and doing a 15 mile long run, even early in the morning when it’s cooler, simply is not do-able without risking serious health problems? What if doing the whole run on a treadmill or otherwise indoors just isn’t practical?
Conversely, what if it’s the dead of winter and windchills have dropped to a deadly low, or your locale just got hit with two feet of snow?
A lot of novice runners would just skip every workout that runs into such interference. And most will get to the start line of their goal race woefully undertrained.
This is the fundamental challenge of following a prewritten training plan. The plan may be perfect if little to nothing ever interferes with the schedule. Depending on a person’s privilege, there may be so little that can interfere in their lives that they can follow the plan with maybe two or three missed workouts.
But most of us have jobs, have school, have families that need our attention, not to mention any other commitments, relationships, and so on. Plus, all these competing priorities do tire us out. Sleep and good nutrition can only do so much (and that assumes our sleep and nutrition habits are sound to begin with).
One reason people find success with the Daniels Running Formula marathon plans is because the plan doesn’t tie any key workouts to a particular day or timing. For example, the popular 2Q Plan prescribes two long key workouts each week, but it’s entirely up to you where those two workouts go in your week, as well as when and how you run the remaining easy mileage around those workouts. You could in theory do the two workouts and then one other easy long run in a week, and that’s it.
But Daniels is in the minority in terms of scheduling rigidity. Virtually every other plan gives you a Monday-through-Sunday schedule and specifies each day which workout you need to do. Even Daniels Running Formula in itself sets 7 day workout schedules for training plans at shorter distances; only the marathon plans provide the aforementioned flexibility.
These training plan formats again are largely sound. The workouts are typically set in a pattern that fosters recovery and development. The only issue is that the schedules don’t fit everybody’s lifestyle. An elite runner with no other commitments can follow any schedule desired. Most of us don’t have that level of freedom… not even students (who still need to go to school and honor family commitments).
Years ago Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald wrote the book Run Faster, which is one of the only books that discuss how to craft a training plan, rather than preach a philosophy and then give you a specified training plan.
Anyone who aspires to either build their own training plans or coach other runners ought to get a copy and read their book, even given that Hudson’s approach to training is one view and you can diverge from that (for example, Hudson has runners do hill sprints and no strength training). Hudson’s approach to surveying a runner’s ability and building a plan from that information, meanwhile, is sound… regardless of how many hills you actually plan to run.
That resource aside, runners in general could benefit from building a training plan of their own and following it for at least one goal race. A training plan is not nearly as complex as running books can make it seem. You work out consistently, and week over week the workouts build upon what was done previously. In general, the mileage increases until about a week or two before the race. In general, you start out with mostly easy running, then add in one or two sessions per week of speed or tempo work after a few weeks.
The easiest and simplest form of a training plan is one long run on the weekend, and one quality workout in the middle of the week, with easy runs/workouts and rest days distributed around those. A quality workout of course is any run more demanding that a simple run at easy pace: A session of speedwork reps, a tempo run, an easy run with a fast finish, hill repeats, etc.
Many experienced runners will do multiple quality sessions each week in addition to the long run (as many pre-written plans and competitive coaches prescribe). You can, if that suits your training needs. Most of us do just fine with just one quality midweek session, though.
It’s also possible to make the long run a quasi-quality-session, e.g. a fast finish long run, a long run with speed or tempo segments in the middle, or a long run that is done entirely at a moderate effort or marathon pace.
Many also do what interscholastic cross country runners do, where they run a race or quality workout on Saturday, then do a long run the following day, leaving the rest of the week for easy runs and other brief workouts.
In their case, their hand is forced because of their school demands: Races or not, the two weekend days are their best chance to spend extended time working out hard. Ideally they’d take a day off after a Saturday race, but they need to get a long run in and Sunday’s the only available time that week to do it. On the flip side, back-loading their hardest training like that allows them several easy weekdays to recover and ingrain all that hard training.
If you don’t have a ton of weekday time, you could craft and follow such a schedule. However, if your weekdays are very stressful and busy, spending your weekends training hard could damage your health far too much for a 2Q Weekend to be worth it.
For most, the best approach is to do your speed/tempo/quality workout in the middle of the week, Tuesday Wednesday or Thursday, and then a long run on one of the weekend days. And then add in beneficial easy runs, rest days, strength workouts, and cross training throughout the rest of the week.
With a busy schedule full of commitments, this gives you flexibility to pick which day is best for your long run or your speed workout, rather than having to adjust a pre-written schedule that isn’t designed for adjustments.