Having a skilled coach is a luxury with a lot of benefits. When you have someone crafting a program just for you, one that plays to your strengths while still working on your weaknesses, and provides just enough workload and recovery, it can help you reach a level of performance you never thought possible.
As someone who creates custom training plans like this for my clients I also get to see some of the programs and habits of my client’s previous coaches. I’ve come away with the conclusion that more than 50% of “professional” coaches don’t tailor their programs to their clients needs — they rarely work actively on improving weak areas in the client’s fitness and opt for what I would consider to be a very general training program, but unfortunately at a “custom” price.
Additionally, the programs rarely scale or keep up with the client’s actual non-athletic schedule. If a client misses a workout because they have to work late one night, the coach isn’t available to make the changes for the next day or two after that, or they charge an extra fee to make such changes. So clients are usually left to fend for themselves and try to get themselves back on track with the schedule as it’s written.
On a number of occasions, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of these athletes would be better off writing their own programs. So I began to think that perhaps I should do a series of articles that helps athletes do just that — be there own coach.
Being your own coach is not as difficult a proposition as you might think. Most of it is about asking the right questions. The first set of questions can only be answered by you, the athlete, while the second set of questions are the ones I get asked most by athletes and aspiring coaches. With the answer to both sets of questions you can begint o write out your own detailed set of daily plans.
First you need to ask yourself:
- What are my goals?
- How many days a week do I have free to train?
- How much time do I have each day for training?
- What are my weaknesses in my given sport?
Is it a particular race or just a basic fitness goal, like losing 10 pounds? First and foremost, your goals will set your training plan’s duration, since usually you’ll have a particular day in mind. If your A-race or tour is on July 12th then you can write that date down as your finish and work backwards from there.
Be realistic here, don’t stretch yourself too thin by under-estimating your work and family obligations, or over-estimating your current level of fitness. This will determine the look of each week. If you only have time for 4 days per week then you’ll have to fill in only 4 days on your calender.
Again be realistic. This will determine the maximum duration of each day. Plain and simple. If you only have time for 90 minutes on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, you’re not going to have a 2+ hour workout scheduled on any of these days.
If you’re doing triathlons and your swim is very weak, that would be a key reason to spend more time in the pool, especially early in the season. If you’re a cyclist who wants to do some high alpine bike tours with lots of climbing, you might try to lose that extra 5 pounds you put on over the holidays and plan for more climbing intervals during your build phases.
This may not seem like a lot of information, but within the answers to these questions is 80-90% of your program. If you write these out and consult them consistently when you write each month of your training they will make sure that your program is focused, specific, and timely for your goals.
Now on to the questions that you may not know the answer to. These are the most common training queries I get asked and they provide the next brick in the foundation of your training plan.
- How many months ahead should you begin your program?
- What’s a safe amount of training to begin with in your first month?
- What is the longest workout should you progress up to in the course of your program?
- When should you begin speed or interval work?
- How much interval work do you need to do?
- How often should you take a rest or step-down week?
- Should you work on building your long distance endurance or your speed first?
- When should you begin to taper your workouts leading up to your event?
There will be variation for everyone on this, but here’s a minimum guideline:
If your race or goal event is between 30-90 minutes, then 3 months of preparation would work. If that event is 90 minutes to 3 hours then 4 months. 3-6 hours, then 5-6 months. Anything over 6 hours is 6-8 months. Which isn’t to say that more time isn’t out of the question. A high level 5K or 10K racer may train for more than 10 months for a given goal race, but these rules are mainly for serious age-groupers to an elite amateur or neo-pro.
This will depend on your sport. The more weight-bearing that’s involved, the slower you should begin. Cycling is pretty easy to do anywhere from 3-5 hours a week, even when starting from zero. Runners, need to be more careful to more gradually advance their time.
A runner starting from zero might only begin with 60 minutes a week (three 20-minute runs). For the runner starting from zero, remaining consistent in your runs, and advancing total duration by 10-15% each week, you will quickly work your mileage up: Even at 10% advancement per week and starting with just 60 minutes that first week, by the fourth week you’ll be at 80 minutes total (which might mean adding another run each week) and by week 8 you’ll be at an hour and 45 minutes each week (which might look like: three runs at 30 minutes, and one run at 20 minutes — which is a pretty good training week for someone who wasn’t running eight or nine weeks ago).
An intermediate runner who has consistently run at least 10-25 miles/week for most of the previous year could start with 2-3 hours of running (three 40-minute, and one 60-minute run) each week. Advancing from there would go rather quickly even with just 10% increases per week.
Of course this will depend on your goal race/even distance. The longer your goal event, the longer your longest workout will be. But conversely, the longer the goal race, then your longest workout will be a smaller percentage of that total event duration, and shorter events will have long workouts much closer to the full event duration.
So if your goal race is only an hour and a half, then your longest workout might be 100% of this — or an hour and a half. If your goal race is a 50K run, then your longest run might be only 30-40% of this. For the ultra side of racing I’ve found that the magic number is 33%. If you can do an effort that’s one-third of your goal event duration, then you can probably finish the event. This doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the optimal long workout distance; it just means that you could probably finish the race. But the best determinant of being able to finish an ultra-endurance race (or any race for that matter) is having done that entire distance before.
Doing a 24-hour race? Well, on your first try you could get yourself pretty well prepared by performing an 8-hour training ride. But you’ll generally be in a better position to be assured of a finish after you’ve done a 24-hour race or two and have that experience under your belt.
This is another one that depends on your sport. For cycling, it’s pretty safe to begin small amounts of intense intervals very early — within just a few weeks, if you’d like. As a cyclist, you’re still going to fare better by spending 3-4 weeks just getting in easy miles, if you have the time to do so. If not, then I recommend taking advantage of the endurance-building nature of interval work and mix in some threshold and above-threshold efforts sooner rather than later into your plan. This can give you more bang for your buck on your workouts when you might not have the time to do a 3 hour bike ride, you can get nearly the same training effect with a 90-minute effort sprinkled with high-intensity intervals.
For running, more caution needs to be exercised since adding in speed work too soon (or to intensely) is more likely to lead to injury. Starting from zero a runner might be able to begin an easy speed work progression after getting in 6-8 weeks of easy running with our “10% advancement rule”. An intermediate runner should be able to jump back into some beginning speed efforts after 3-5 weeks of easy accommodative running. No matter how advanced or beginner the runner is, more intense speed workouts should begin only after doing a lighter speed work progression.
For cyclists in a speed building period, 2-3 interval sessions a week isn’t rare at all. These sessions can consist of very short (30 seconds to 3 minutes) intense repeats of above-threshold efforts (I like to begin my cyclists with around 6-7 minutes total of high-intensity work and slowly progress there) or they might entail very long (8-30 minutes) threshold efforts depending on what type of fitness boost is desired for that particular period. With cyclists I like to do the shorter more intense efforts first to get the Central Nervous System (CNS) cranking and lean more heavily on threshold efforts as we get closer to the goal event.
For runners it’s a different story. Many runners will only tolerate a maximum of two speed sessions per week. Any more and the body will begin to break down, since most runners can’t recover quickly enough to handle more. With my runners I take a different approach and start with threshold efforts (since they are easier on the body to begin with), progress to above-threshold efforts (where we spend most of our interval periods) and then perhaps settle back into a period of threshold work as we begin to zero in on our goal event.
Many runners, but especially those that are undertaking distances from 10K to the marathon (including the enormous group focusing on the half-marathon distance), benefit the most from above-threshold repeats from 400m – 1000m in distance. Much shorter than 400m, and it seems harder for many athletes to absorb because cadence is so much higher than their goal pace. Much longer than 1000m and we settle a bit too close to our threshold effort and the idea is to do the repeats well above threshold.
I’m a big proponent of rest, since this is when we actually build our fitness. Workouts are merely the stimulus, but our rest and recovery actually makes us stronger and faster. So I believe rest should be given high priority. As the old cliche (accurately) says “I’d rather be 10% under-trained than 1% over-trained”. A simple rule of thumb, though is to take 4-7 days of “step-down” (with scaled back workouts and an additional day off) every 3-4 weeks
This is a tricky one, but I believe in an alternating schedule of speed-building followed by endurance-building. I think there’s benefit to building speed tolerance and creating more “gears” for yourself first in a block of training and then progress to some endurance training with longer workouts that take advantage of this new speed. In fact, a simple way to craft your programs is to alternate 2-3 week cycles of speed training (either at threshold or above-threshold efforts) and endurance workouts.
A taper is a progressive decrease in workout intensity and duration as you lead up to your goal event. The purpose is to rest more and bring you to the start line fresh, healthy and ready to go as fast as possible. Two to four weeks is typical for a taper with more of an emphasis on the two and four week tapers. It seems many people have less success with a three week taper, as this seems to be the time when the body can sometimes be at it’s lowest because it’s begun to perform more in depth repairs. After two weeks, we seem to have fixed most of the small things, and after 4 weeks, we’re in a good spot after the repair of some of the larger issues, but that 3 week point for some is problematic.
Being your own coach is not without it’s dangers, because sometimes we can have blinders on when trying to make decisions about how much training we can safely perform. But by following a few rules nearly anyone can write a training plan.
In my next post, Part 2 of the “Be Your Own Coach” series, I’ll lay down some more of the ground rules for training and give you all the tools you need to begin writing your first month of training.
I’ll also be giving away for free the simple spreadsheet tool I developed and use with my own clients in writing their training plans.