How to Build Your Own Training Schedule

The basics of building your own trail running and ultrarunning training schedule.

By on March 26, 2019 | Comments

An article on building your run-training schedule is a bit like an article tackling the art of baking. Thousands of different breads, desserts, and snacks exists for a range of tastes, and there are many different ways to prepare each of them. While the topic of building a training block is broad, some general guidelines will allow runners of all experience levels to make something great, rather than a metaphorical a mess in the kitchen. Our general goal in baking–and training–is to mix the right ingredients in the right order, heat them for the right amount of time, and cool them slightly. If done well, the result is a treat that is neither undercooked or overcooked but delicious and done to perfection. Hopefully this article will serve as an elementary cookbook containing concepts and guidelines to empower you to create your own training plan or improve one you already have without getting stuck in a cookie-cutter training plan.

When building a season of training, first take inventory of your personal resources. Consider your family commitments, work obligations, general life priorities, training and running history, injury history, current fitness, motivations, and race goals. Have you raced recently? Ask yourself if you are rested, injury free, and ready to begin training again. If not, rest until you are healthy and ready to tackle the increased training. Be introspective and honest with yourself. Much like reading a road map, you first have to figure out where you are and where you want to go before planning a successful route between these two points. You may already have a goal race or event in mind, but if you don’t this is a great time to choose that goal based on the above. If you need help deciding how to choose your next race, check out these two articles which tackle this exact subject!

Next, get out a calendar (a spreadsheet works too) and mark today’s date and your race date. With our proverbial start and finish line, we now get to fill in all the hard work that makes up the journey in between.

For simplicity, imagine three distinct phases of training. (These can be more specifically drawn out as one develops in their training.) Similar to a workout that has a warm-up, hard session, and a cool-down, your training season has what we will call a base-building phase, a core-training phase, and a taper phase. These phases each have distinct qualities and components but should blend together smoothly and there should be no abrupt changes transitioning from phase to phase. The duration of the first two training phases varies significantly, but plan to allocate at least six to eight weeks each to the base-building and core-training phases. Again, the duration of these phases depends on the above self-assessment, your current fitness, and your specific race or and goal for it.

Here’s a general example of what six weeks of training amidst a block of training could look like:

Week 5 – Base-Building Phase: Total volume 200 minutes
Week 6 – Base-Building Phase: Total volume 220 minutes
Week 7 – Base-Building Phase: Total volume 245 minutes
Week 8 – Base-Building Phase: Total volume 215 minutes
Week 9 – Core-Training Phase: Total volume 220 minutes with one workout
Week 10 – Core-Training Phase: Total volume 240 minutes with one workout

In the below examples and descriptions, I use a seven-day cycle (including one long run and one workout) to map out the training block. For many that works best as the weekends are free for a longer sessions and a higher-intensity session can fit in during the week. But don’t get stuck on seven days being the standard. Some people need more than two days between a workout and a long run, so adjust as needed. A 10-day training cycle with three to four days after each quality session works great for many people.

Building a training schedule is a little like baking! All photos: David Laney

Base-Building Phase

The base-building phase focuses primarily on aerobic and soft-tissue development. We focus on easy-effort running, long runs, and gradually increasing your overall volume. During this phase, try to run on terrain and in conditions that mirror your goal race–or as best you can find where you live. If you have averaged 40 miles per week or 360 minutes of running per week in your previous training, start a little below there. You can always add volume as the season progresses. Don’t start out at 30 miles or 315 minutes a week just because that was your peak last year. Aim to increase your volume by about 10% a week for three weeks in a row, followed by a week of recovery at a lower volume. If you are brand new to running, start out with short, easy runs and build very gradually.

Staying injury free is always goal #1. Keeping a detailed training log online or on paper will help you keep track of exactly what you did during a previous season. Don’t just trust your mind, because your mind remembers the workouts you crushed and the peak volume you logged, rather than the long road of base training that it took to get there.

Here’s what a typical week of training in this base-building phase could look like:

Monday Off/rest
Tuesday Easy run
Wednesday Easy medium/long run on hilly terrain
Thursday Recovery run plus 4 x 20-second strides (see this article for a how-to on strides)
Friday Easy run
Saturday Long run ideally on race-specific terrain
Sunday Recovery run or cross training (learn about cross training in this article)

As you can see, we follow harder sessions with easy sessions, allowing a recovery day after a higher-stress day.

Since our long run provides a lot of the week’s volume, start with deciding the number of minutes allocated to that run. If you have experience doing long runs, start out near or a little below where you have been comfortable early on in past seasons, ideally no more than 30% of your total weekly volume. The long run being about 20 to 30% of your weekly volume provides a reference point for building out the rest of the week.

Core-Training Phase

In the core-training phase, we focus on gradually increasing intensity and volume. When planning volume increases, as we did in the base-building phase, it’s smart to have two to three weeks where volume increases by 10% each week followed by a week of reduced volume. Because you are now adding intensity, start this overall volume at about 10% less than your highest week of in the base phase. Also be mindful in adding an appropriate minutes of running at intensity from week to week.

Be flexible; if the workouts are beating you up, either back off the intensity or volume. Being a little sore and tired occasionally comes with the territory, being beat up for more than a day or two or on the verge of injury is not normal. Remember, cookies that are a little gooey in the center are much better than those that are burnt! Don’t over cook yourself!

Here’s a general example of what four weeks in the core-training phase could look like:

Week 9 – Core-Training Phase: Total volume 315 minutes
Week 10 – Core-Training Phase: Total volume 345 minutes
Week 11 – Core-Training Phase: Total volume 380 minutes
Week 12 – Core-Training Phase: Total volume 350 minutes

And here’s what a week of running in the core-training phase might be:

Monday Off/rest
Tuesday Easy run plus strides
Wednesday Hill workout at perceived effort of 5 or 6 (perceived effort and workouts are explained in this article)
Thursday Recovery run or cross training
Friday Easy run plus strides
Saturday Long run on race-specific terrain
Sunday Easy recovery run

In this block of training, we again cycle hard sessions followed by at least one recovery day and one easy day. In terms of workouts, there should be consistency and variety. Don’t do the exact same workout for the entire block. Instead focus on a few types of workouts and develop them as you become fitter.

Again, when divvying up minutes for this phase, start with the long run (20 to 30% of the total weekly volume) taking the biggest chunk of the pie. Your workout, including the warm-up, workout, and cool-down, will probably take 10 to possibly 20% of your weekly volume. Fill in your rest days at a very important 0% of your weekly volume. Recovery days should be differentiated between easy days, so make sure each recovery day is truly recovery and shorter than your easy days. Block out your remaining volume using these guidelines along with your work and life schedule.

Taper Phase

During the taper phase, we focus on reducing our training volume and making time for event-specific preparation. The taper is a time for the mind and body to refresh and prepare for race day. This period varies from person to person and the race you are tapering for, but will generally vary from seven to 20 days. If you have been dealing with a little niggle or feeling on the verge of overdoing it, push that taper toward the long end. Reduce your running volume gradually during this time but keep the intensity near where it has been for the training block; do some shorter workouts at the same intensity you have been training at during this time. Keep the legs feeling fresh by continuing to do strides if you have been doing them throughout the training block.

Don’t overdo or overthink the taper. To use a baking analogy, if you eat cookies that just came out of the oven, you’ll burn your mouth. (Believe me, I’ve done it. You know you have, too!) Sure, it’s hard to let the cookies cool for a minute or two, because you are anxious to reap the rewards of your efforts, but trust in the cooling. Trust the taper! Your fitness won’t disappear, so roll with the pre-race anxiety and use that nervous energy for strength.

Two weeks will provide most of your taper, but you can start backing off volume slightly three weeks out if you feel you need additional time to rest. The week prior to race week should be 60 to 75% of your peak training volume. And total volume for race week (not counting the race itself) should be about 25 to 40% of your peak volume.

Here’s an example of what race week while tapering could look like:

Monday Easy run at 60% of usual time with four light hill strides at the end
Tuesday Easy run at 45% of usual time
Wednesday Easy run plus 4 x 20-second strides
Thursday Off/rest
Friday Short, very easy run
Saturday Race
Sunday Off/rest

The taper phase is also your opportunity to make event-specific preparations, such as heat training for a hot race or altitude training for a race taking place up in the mountains. You can also use the extra time that you are not running to research all the details of your race.

Rest Season and Season Cycling

Following a race’s completion, your body and mind deserve and need a break–even if you don’t want one. Often we consider recovering from the race, but forget that we are actually recovering also from the last 10 to 20 weeks of training. Rest season should be characterized by a significant reduction in running and total exercise and a prioritization of sleep and recovery. This is a great time for alternative training like skiing, biking, hiking, and anything else you enjoy. Don’t feel like you can’t go running during this time, but keep the overall running volume to a minimum. For some, this season may be three to four weeks, for others three to four months. Again, be honest with yourself about when you are ready to resume base training. Your training should have seasons. Race season is followed by rest season, which is usually followed by base-training season and then a hard-training season. Following this basic cycle of training seasons is one step closer to avoiding overtraining or injury.

With the right knowledge, anyone can build their own training schedule.

Additional Guidelines

  • Adapt – So now you’ve written out your training and have a great plan! But let’s be real, life happens. Allow yourself flexibility within your schedule. Unplanned conflicts arise during a season just like they do in a race. Adapting to conflicts logically will yield far better results than sticking to the training plan or race plan no matter what.
  • Stress is stress – If you have a crazy week at work and get no sleep, your performance in and recovery from running will take a hit. Adjust your training accordingly. Planned rest days usually keep runners from the injury or sickness that results in more significant unplanned rest days. When writing your training, plan your rest days!
  • Know what you are training for – Research your goal race and understand its unique demands. Know the course terrain, elevation profile, likely weather conditions, and aid-station locations. Prepare for the demands you will face. If it’s a hot race, heat train. If the course has significant technical running, train on technical terrain. If you will have to carry a pack with food and water, get used to it.
  • Rest follows hard work – Did you have a great workout? Are you feeling fit? That’s great, upwardly adjusting your training to challenge your newly found fitness is good, but tread lightly. Don’t neglect recovery and necessary rest just because you feel invincible. Keep that invincible feeling going by training smart and that still includes rest.
  • If in doubt, ask – Nobody knows everything about running. Don’t be intimidated to ask someone experienced for help, coaching, or mentorship. Read, research, and become a student of the sport. Understanding basic principles of training will allow you to better listen to and understand your body and how you respond to training.
  • Follow your plan – This isn’t to say that logical experimentation isn’t allowed, it is! But before we go adding cinnamon to chocolate cake (which is delicious), it’s important to understand basic guidelines. If you skip the last five miles of your long run, you can’t just make up for it the next day by adding five miles to your recovery day. Well, you can, but it’s a little like substituting brussels sprouts for chocolate chips in cookies; it’s not going to work out.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Leave a comment to share what’s worked–and what hasn’t–in creating and then carrying out your training plans. What tips and tricks have you learned through the years that translate well from training log to real life?

David Laney
David Laney was born and raised in Oregon, and that just about covers it. David runs for Nike Trail and coaches with Trails and Tarmac. You can follow him from mountain tops to donut shops on his Instagram account.