How to Build a Sustainable Training Plan

Experts offer tips on prepping for your next race—without feeling overwhelmed.


BY ELIZABETH MILLARD |

A quick Google search of “5K training plan” brings up a dizzying array of programs, apps, videos, and schedules. Some emphasise injury prevention with numerous rest days built in, while others put you on an intermediate track with tempo runs and intervals designed to boost speed. What do you choose?

No matter what distance you are preparing to race in the months ahead, it’s important to build a sustainable training plan you can stick to—and especially develop one you can actually enjoy.

Sometimes, adopting a strict schedule can feel like freedom because it’s a no-hassle way to know what to do next. But what happens if your schedule gets busy and you miss a couple days? Or if you’d prefer to cross-train one day instead of running those intervals? That’s when a rigid plan can feel restrictive, according to Timothy Miller, M.D., a sports medicine orthopaedic surgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“Some of the most common barriers to sticking with a training plan are finding the time and energy to perform the training,” he tells Runner’s World. “If you miss or modify parts of a strict training plan, it’s easy to feel like you’re off track, and that makes it harder to get back to the plan.”

Developing a more personalised plan can be sustainable, as well as enjoyable. Here are four tips for turning any race prep schedule into your own.

1. Ask the right questions

With any type of fitness effort, especially one involving an endpoint like a race, it’s standard advice to set a goal and to know your reason. But finding your “why” for what you’re doing isn’t the only question to ask, suggests Miller. Others include:

  • Is my goal simply to complete the race or am I aiming to finish faster than a certain time?
  • What is my current baseline level of fitness? Am I starting from being sedentary, which means my training period should be longer?
  • How long do I have until the race? Is that enough time to build rest days into my training schedule? (Spoiler: Rest days are non-negotiable, especially for beginners.)
  • In what way do I want to progress during training? Miller says that will help determine levels of intensity, frequency, volume, and length of a training program.

The most important of those four as a starting point is an honest assessment of your baseline fitness level, according to Amy Morris, C.P.T.

An easy way to determine that is to simply run a kilometre, she tells Runner’s World. That will give you an idea of your pace, level of effort, and how to set intensity and progression goals into your training plan.

2. Know the signs of early burnout

Many people start a training program at full force, Morris says, and it’s easy to feel excited. But the “too much, too soon” effect can raise injury risk and tank your motivation. That’s why it’s important to be aware of what it feels like if you’re overwhelming your system. Morris suggests keeping an eye out for overtraining problems like:

  • Constant fatigue or tiredness even on non-training days
  • Trouble sleeping
  • You don’t feel better (or you feel worse) after working out
  • Indifference about your training program
  • Higher than normal perceived effort during workouts
  • Increased inflammation, such as aching joints
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Catching colds or being sick more often than usual

“If you’re not experiencing these but you’re still not seeing results, then it’s time to look at other factors, such as too much repetition of the same thing every day, not enough rest and recovery, poor diet or sleep, or giving up too soon,” Morris says.

3. Mix it up

One way to stave off injury and burnout is to vary your training, even if it’s not in your plan, says Miller. That includes not only varying individual workouts and intensity, but also your running routes and terrain.

“No one will likely enjoy running counterclockwise around a track day after day,” he says. “Add in workouts or runs that offer something fresh, whether that means playing with variables like pace, doing strength training, or running somewhere new.”

A tactic he uses to prevent boredom is to cut up small pieces of paper and then write down a different type of workout on each. He folds them up, throws them in a hat or bowl, and chooses one the night before.

“The majority of the workouts may be running or another favourite form of cross-training, but make sure to include at least a couple workouts that aren’t your favourite,” he says. “These workouts help to shock the body and give additional benefits from your standard training techniques.”

4. Find a running community or buddy

Running groups are great for camaraderie, but they also allow you to find training partners at the same or slightly higher levels of fitness, says Miller. There’s plenty of research showing that a running pal can boost your enthusiasm and accountability, especially on those days when you’re just not feeling it.

“Nothing motivates people more than other motivated people,” Miller says. “If there’s no one near you, there are innumerable social media groups that share ideas for training and competition. Utilise these to optimise your training and performance.”

Signing up for a race tied to a cause—especially one that’s meaningful to you—is another key way to enjoy your training, he added.

“Everyone hits occasional doldrums during training, so having goals and a community to support you can go a long way toward pushing through those and creating a sustainable training plan that works for you,” he says.

 

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