Ideally when deciding to run a goal race, you find or write a training plan (with or without a coach), and then you follow it.
But maybe no training plan out there is an ideal fit and you don’t have a coach. Maybe you had a plan and found out much too late that the plan is not working for you (and because none of us can rewind time, you can’t start over!).
Of course, it is entirely possible for a runner to train for a race without following a hard-set defined training plan. It might not adequately prepare you for the race, and therein lies the risk.
But then again there’s always a non-zero chance that following a given training plan doesn’t quite prepare you for a goal race either. Any approach to training comes with its set of risks. What would be the fun and accomplishment in training for a race if any recipe or approach made doing it foolproof or easy?
Still, if you want to run a race and you have at least a couple months to generally train, you could prepare for that race without a specified written training plan. It’s as simple as a consistent habit of multiple workouts per week, with as many of them as reasonably possible being specific endurance workouts: Workouts that specifically work on things you need to do in the actual race.
It helps if you’re already running regularly and in some degree of condition to race, but even if not you could adequately train with a general, consistent schedule provided you have enough time before the race.
Again, training for a race involves executing with these acute factors:
Frequency and consistency
Running is a discipline where (more than many others) you need to do it as frequently as possible to get as good at it as possible. Running once a week is better for learning to run than never running, and running 3-7 times a week is way better than just once a week.
Of course, your body’s limits are a consideration in how often you can train, let alone personal life matters. If you can’t run 7 days a week without injury, then it makes sense to run fewer days. But that aside you get the most results from running as often as possible.
Moderation of intensity
Not every workout should be as hard as possible, and not every workout should be a super easy run. You get the most benefit from doing a mix of easy runs with some more intense or otherwise demanding running. As with above, your body has limits and you want to push yourself within those limits without exceeding them and risking injury/burnout/illness/death.
Stephen Seiler and Matt Fitzgerald are the leading proponents of what has become the ideal standard ratio of easy to hard workouts: 80% of your running should be comfortably easy intensity, and the other 20% should be faster/harder or otherwise more challenging.
If you put no other thought into your training aside from just getting out there as often as possible, you’d do quite well if 3/4 or 4/5 of your workouts were at entirely easy intensity, with 1/4 or 1/5 of your workouts either being a mix of harder and easy running or entirely a workout of challenging running.
(Side note: Given the 7 day week isn’t divisible by 4 or by 5, your best bet if winging a training plan is to either do 1 entirely hard workout per week, or 2 workouts with mixed easy/hard intensity per week)
Any training plan, mapped out or not, produces the most results when the workouts are focused on specific endurance: Developing the particular type of endurance or performance you will need in your goal race itself.
For example, if training for a marathon, it won’t help you so much to do fast 200-400 meter repeats at 1-mile pace. While these workouts have a general benefit, you’re not going to need to run that hard in the marathon.
However, the long run and longer marathon-goal-pace workouts will help you a lot, since for the marathon you will need to be able to run long without stopping as well as run for long periods at marathon-goal-pace.
On the flip side, if you’re training for a 5K, then the 200-400 meter repeats might be more helpful, since fast leg turnover and anaerobic work (the focus of such workouts) will be specifically used in that race.
However, 12+ mile runs and marathon-pace running won’t help you much because you need to run faster than marathon pace, and since 5K’s are only 3.11 miles long you don’t need to be able to run 12+ miles to run them.
Your workouts need not be complex, so long as they mostly work on the actual qualities you need to run your goal race.
A marathon trainee can probably do fine with 3-5 lengthy, easy runs per week, one of which is at least 2 hours long or more, and 1-2 harder workouts that involve lengthy marathon pace or other extended tempo segments. The focus can be on maintaining endurance or tempo for a bit longer each week.
A 5K trainee can probably do fine running 2-5 miles a few days a week, and mixing in some speed reps, fartlek runs or fast finish runs 1-2 times per week. The focus week to week can be on developing speed technique (sound mechanics, fast turnover, consistent breathing) and maintaining race pace for a bit longer, or making it a bit faster. Given its shortness as a race, you could even race a 5K every week as your speed training if that worked best for you (hello, Parkruns!).
Consider the needs of your goal race, and just make sure your weekly workouts are working on or towards the endurance or tempo you need.
Aerobically productive workouts
For your easy runs, you want to make sure they either develop the needed endurance or facilitate recovery for your next challenging workout.
A marathoner won’t get much out of daily 2-4 mile runs with maybe one long run a week. The development from the long run will be limited because that’s the only time the marathoner works specifically on a unique element they need for the race (the long endurance). The other runs are too short to develop aerobic fitness beyond their too-short distance.
While you don’t want *every* easy training run to be a long, marathon length run, you do want to either a) go far enough to maximize aerobic development that will key your race, or b) to do just enough running to spur recovery, and only that much.
If doing recovery runs, a common trap is to make them too long or otherwise too challenging. These are just circulation runs, to spur hormonal production and blood circulation that will help drive recovery. They don’t need to be long just because you’re a high mileage runner. I’m with Pete Magill on this: They should only be about 20-40 minutes long, and feel way too easy. Otherwise, if you’re simply looking to recover that day, it may be better for you to just take the day off.
Otherwise, if training for long distance, make sure your easy runs are (or work up to) long distance. If your goal race will take an hour or more, you want to work up to an hour to 90 minutes on your weekly runs. If that’s not comfortable for you yet, then there’s your goal: Gradually, week over week, build up the length of your midweek runs until they’re that long and feel reasonably comfortable.
On the flip side, training for shorter races is a lot simpler on this front. As long as your midweek/long runs generally mirror the distance and/or time you’ll cover in the race, you’re fine. Keep doing these runs for aerobic fitness, and mix in more challenging speed or hill work (even strength training) if these runs start to get too easy or monotonous.
Training for races deep down isn’t rocket science. A plan need not be written down to the day or the letter. As long as you consistently practice running at the length, intensity and other conditions you need to follow in your goal race, you can effectively train for your goal race.
If your marathon training plan is as simple as “For 4 months I’ll run 5 days a week, each run at least 60 minutes, do one run at a faster than easy pace, and do the last run long at 2 hours or more,” you’re probably going to be alright. You could even do everything in a different order every week as long as you listened to your body and made sure to work out as frequently and as long as you needed.
If your 10K training plan is as simple as “For 2-3 months I’ll run 4 days a week, 45-60 minutes each time, one of those workouts will either be at tempo or a bunch of 10K pace reps, and I’ll take the day off following that workout,” you’ll probably be fine.
Now, if you need the accountability and structure of a written training plan, then yes go for it. This is by no means an indictment of coaching or written training plans, which are still quite valuable for virtually anyone.
But for people who thrive with more adaptability, a training plan can be as simple as a general plan with a few specific goals tied around your specific endurance needs for the goal race.