Would you like an advantage typically reserved for the best runners in the world? How much faster could you be if you used this advantage to its full potential?
That advantage is the foresight to create an annual running plan in advance. Have you ever planned an entire year of running? Not just a season (that’s fairly straightforward), but a full 12 months of training?
It’s not as easy as you might imagine. There are a lot of questions to consider:
- How many distinct seasons are in one year?
- How long should each season be (and can they vary)?
- How many races are within each season?
- How many days or weeks come between seasons?
- What type of races should be included in each season?
This is perhaps the most strategic approach to training: figuring out what you want years ahead of time to make the best possible plan over a long time period.
And it’s comforting to know that elite runners plan their running exactly the same way!
According to Forbes:
Many Olympic athletes plan out their training schedules annually and up to four years in advance to make sure they reach specific performance goals.
But we don’t need credible news outlets to tell us this Olympic-level strategy. Past guests on the Strength Running Podcast – like Shalane Flanagan and Nick Symmonds – agree that in an Olympic or World Championship year, everything is geared toward that one race.
Because with better planning comes better results.
And I want you to have better results with your running. So let’s start planning like the world’s best!
Why Should I Plan a Year of Running?
Planning an entire year of training has many benefits. But quite simply, planning a year has the same benefits as planning a season:
- You’ll know where you’re going – so you can better plan how to get there
- Everything about your running is geared toward one singular goal (making success far more likely)
- Workouts, mileage, and long runs progress during a season to get you in better shape
When this approach is applied annually, the results can be transformative.
First, you can use an entire season of training as a “tune-up” for your main season that includes your goal race. Just like you might run a half marathon before your marathon (even though the half is not your goal race), you might spend a season training for a 5k before a season dedicated to the marathon.
This allows you to work on different physical skills than your ultimate, annual goal.
If we’re using the example above, a marathoner rarely works on speed and power. But spending a season training for a 5k allows that marathoner to work on complementary skills that will transfer very well to racing 26.2 miles.
Because after all, running is running and fitness is fitness. Get fast in the 5k and you’re getting faster at the marathon, too.
As I like to say, PR’s lead to more PR’s!
How Many Seasons Per Year?
Depending on your goals, most years should have about four distinct “seasons” so that you’re cycling through the phases of training on a consistent basis.
This could be structured this way:
- Three seasons spanning 12-14 weeks geared toward a goal race
- One 7-13 week season focused exclusively on base training
- 2-4 weeks off from running, spread roughly evenly throughout the year after goal races are completed
A major benefit of this structure is that you don’t need to have so many long seasons of 20+ weeks. If you’re training consistently year-round, you won’t need to anyway – the fitness is always there!
There’s a lot of flexibility here but this approach to the annual running plan will ensure you’re focusing on varied goals throughout the year.
An important point about the nature of this approach is that it requires cycles – you’ll cycle through an entire season, recovery period, and another season seamlessly.
It’s a never ending merry-go-round of progression: multiple times during the year you’re attempting to take the “next logical step” with your training, allowing you to run more, train harder, and race faster as the year progresses.
Just remember: keep it cyclical. If you’re taking 2 months off every winter, you’re abandoning this principle and your progress will be slower.
What is the Purpose of Each Season?
When you’re planning out the year, start by determining the top goal. Do you want to…
- race a faster marathon?
- compete in your first ultramarathon?
- get your mile time under 7:00?
Whatever your goal might be, work backwards from that goal. If you’re using the structure I talked about above, that means one season is dedicated to base training, one is dedicated to your goal race, and there are two seasons left.
What should you focus on during those seasons?
Follow these two rules and you’ll always know:
- Run no more than two seasons per year focused on the same race distance.
- Run at least one season that is geared to a “complementary” race distance
For example, if your goal race is a marathon or ultra, your complementary season can focus on a short race like a 10k (or even shorter).
If your goal race is a mile, a complementary season should focus on the 10k or longer.
Here’s more guidance on how to plan an entire season:
If you want more guidance on season planning, download our free worksheet here!
While each season is focused on different race distances, your goal is always the same: race faster! Improvements in any race are going to help your performances in any other race distances.
Again: PR’s lead to more PR’s!
An Example Annual Running Plan
When I think about planning a year of running, it’s instructive to look back at a typical collegiate schedule:
- Winter is focused on indoor track (typically the season where you race the shortest events)
- Spring is focused on outdoor track (typically the season where you race longer track events)
- Summer is focused on base training (preparing you for cross country and more generally, the year as a whole)
- Fall is focused on cross country (typically a longer race distance that has a strength component because it’s run off-road on trails)
And in this schedule, we have four distinct seasons that focus on slightly different goals.
In my personal experience, this is what I focused on:
- Winter: 1500m and 3,000m (but included 800m and 400m races as well)
- Spring: 1500m and 5,000m (but also ran 3k steeplechase and the 800m)
- Summer: mileage!
- Fall: 8,000m cross country
For eight years (including high school) this was how my running was structured – a comprehensive, annual program centered on one specific goal: to get faster at all distances.
Your schedule is obviously going to be different, but here is another example for a marathoner:
- Winter: base training
- Spring: 10k – half marathon goal distances (or, another marathon cycle)
- Summer: 5k – 10k goal distances
- Fall: marathon
While there are many ways of designing a year of running, this is a tried and proven method for maximizing performance.
If you want to follow a Strength Running season of training, most of our coaching programs include training plans.
Now, over to you: do you plan out a year of running differently? How does it look? What goals do you work toward?
Leave your comments below and if you have any questions, I’m happy to respond!