How to Customize a Training Plan for Your Life

Most runners, all the triathletes, bikini competitors and all sorts of other athletes out there have worked a training plan once or twice. We’re all told trust the plan, work the plan and live the plan all very good and dramatic advice. But how do you actually do the plan and all the other stuff you have to do in a week? We see lots of people running marathons, completing triathlons and even the odd ironman all the time, at least on social media. But how do they do it? They’re parents, have full-time jobs and often are super involved in lots of other community stuff too. Are they superhuman? Do they even sleep? It was exactly this kind of thinking that put me off doing a half marathon when I was 25. Was I busy, sure. I was in grad school, running my own tutoring business and working 80 hour weeks so I told myself I didn’t have time. I went on to do that half, following that first plan to the freakin’ letter about 10 years later when I was 33. 

The thing is looking back I could have done 100% of my training runs during breaks in my research and I never had to put it off. Had I known how to think creatively about fitting in workouts and how to make a plan work for me I would have done it back then for sure! When I did finally tackle it It was when I was working 12 hour days physically every single day it wasn’t pouring and we would end up having a 100 years drought that summer. That first plan I followed if the plan said do X on Tuesday I did X on Tuesday no matter how my runner’s knee was feeling. Since then I’ve figured out how to make a plan fit into my life, pick the right one and set my life up, as best as I can to make it happen. Last year I spent 5 whole months in training for a half and then right after that an Olympic triathlon. The half plan was more intense than any other I’d done before and the triathlon was my biggest challenge to date. But the thing was that by customizing those plans to my life not only was it doable it was less disruptive to my life than it ever had been before.

Pick a doable goal at the right time

Sometimes it’s the right time to put off the ultimate goal there’s always next year. Harsh right? I’ve had to do it and it does totally suck. Two years ago now I made an attempt at the Olympic but I had to bail because my knee just wasn’t going to take it. I had taken all of December prior off and that really aggravated the old knee. I was pretty upset about it at the time but you know what I had a great season running fun 5k’s and 10k’s that I was always putting off for more ‘serious’ training goals. You know what I went on to accomplish it the very next season and more pain-free! Sometimes now just isn’t the right time. Use this season to get to where you need to be for the next one, now you just have more time to prepare. 

Not every runner following the same path takes the same journey and not everyone can. It’s not something you’re doing wrong and everyone can accomplish whatever they want eventually. Take my mom and stepdad, for example, they started off doing the same C25K time last March training for the same race which they did run with the exact same time. And great news they’ve stuck with it since and even participated in the same three races since. But … my mom has had a few running injuries along the way whether she wants to admit they were running related or not. They both did the Tire Trot with me in June but by the fall their paths had diverged. My mom stuck with the 5k at Valley Harvest and PEI. My stepdad who turned out to be more injury resistant was ready to do a 10k in the fall and he’s on track to tackle his first half this year! My mom didn’t really want to do a 10k last fall and truth be told she wasn’t ready yet but… she’s training for one this June. Since she’s had a few minor injury issues along the way she’s not ready to add a half this year even if she wanted to. If she decides to run an ultra one day I have no doubt she would get there eventually! As frustrating as it can be to have to hold back and we all compare ourselves to others it’s pretty foolish. I know you’re going to do it anyway but know that it is a waste of energy. Your journey is yours alone and you will get wherever you want to eventually.

Pick a doable realistic plan

Which plan you pick depends on your life, whether you’ve done it before and your specific goals. I think there are about three categories of athletes those that just aim to finish, those that are looking for a better time than last time and then finally the near-elites that are in it to try to win at least their age class. The thing is there are all sorts of plans out there and great plans do exist for every athlete. You should know that the vast majority are mostly made for the last category. Don’t always pick the first one or think anyone will do especially if you (mostly) fall into the first category. You’ll notice that if you google image search training plans they are all suspiciously similar and those are typically knockoffs of famous elite level plans, they’ll also be just a table. A decent plan will talk about the base you need to start training, injury prevention, cross training ideas and some idea of race day preparation. If your plan shopping chances are you’ll get an idea what you’re buying from the plan overview or philosophy. However feel free to ask questions about the plan as well, for example, I’d be happy to send someone two sample weeks so they had a better idea of what they were getting into. If you want to check out my realistic line of training plans check out my Etsy shop here.

Talk to your peeps about what training means

Do you try to do everything by yourself with absolutely no help from anyone? Me too! It’s pretty unrealistic to think that you can accomplish your goals without making some changes. It’s also unrealistic to think that your training won’t affect those closest to you. I’d like to say I figured this out on my own but that’s simply not the case. Partway through my first training program doing it all on my own honey pulled me aside and said it was all too much. Keeping up at work, doing all the housework, cooking and life stuff meant my training runs were regularly starting around 10 pm. He was awesome he reminded me that what was the point in working for yourself if you can’t dictate your own life at least a little. Towards the end of the cycle when I needed to once or twice a week I took some time during the day to get my run in and it made all the difference.

Last year before I started I talked about my plans with honey and some of my students. I fessed up that doing this would mean less cleaning, the odd dropped ball, I would be tired and occasionally ever so slightly cranky. I also asked that when my speed workouts got long could I take that time from work. And my plan was once the was all over I was immediately going to do it again. Of course, honey was totally supportive he even cleaned the house a few times and the whole thing went off without a hitch for the most part. Not only is it only fair to give your peeps a heads up you’ll need some support and help eventually.

View a training plan as week-long chunks

It doesn’t have to be a week long but that’s going to work best for well over 90% of people out there. When someone sets out to write a training plan they are looking at the week as a whole and so you should too. The first few times I did what the plan said on that day of the week just because it said so. That meant my speed work happened on Tuesdays during my favorite yoga class. After a few, I got wise and figured out how to customize the plan week to fit my weeks.

So as you’re looking at your plans notice trends within those weeks. Mine often include 5 workouts a week in a three-day chunk a rest day and then a 2-day chunk. Usually, there is one hard workout a week and one long one and the other ones support those two very important workouts. We pretty much have to assign the workouts to a day of the week but no one says you have to do them on those days. You’ll also notice that those long workouts are usually centered around weekends. Because that does tend to work well for most work schedules. Try to maintain the same sort of spacing as much as you can but if Monday ends up being the new Thursday more power to you!

No one says that every week has to have the same schedule either if that’s not how you roll. It’s worth it to sit down when you start with a paper calendar. Slot in your ‘have toos’ from life first, then schedule your workouts around those. If one week has to look a whole lot different from the rest that’s okay too. This method helps you not only set the day each one will happen but as you start filling in all the other stuff the time of day your workout will happen starts to emerge too. Am I the only one who feels like no app ever will compare to a weekly paper schedule?

Set your weekly schedule for your life to get it done

No one said in the last section that you weren’t going to have to make some changes to your to-do list every week to get it done and that’s the next step. You’ll likely have one longer workout to get done during your work week and no amount of customizing and scheduling is going to make that not true. It might even get long enough in later weeks that it’s just not feasible to get it done before work. Say you’re the one who comes home every day and cooks and then takes the kids to their activities well you no matter your gender deserve more flowers, but one day a week you might have to get your honey, your mom or a babysitter to take over and maybe order take out. You could also schedule a few hours off work in the morning or afternoon or pull a me and sleep less and start running at 9 pm, sucks but it can be done. Don’t feel too bad for me though I also go on housework strike and order a lot of pizza while running for honey to pay for when it arrives! So this is the step where you make some tweaks and changes to your everyday life to get your training plan done.

Pick a pull-out point before you start

This one is especially important for previously injured athletes so listen up! Before you ever start a training program you should pick out some specific life events that will make you abandon it. Spend some time before you start to think about your specific pull-out point triggers. These are really personal for you and potentially your doctor so I can’t make an exhaustive list. But use these as thinking points to start your own list:

  • An old injury acts up, what specific thing would make you pull out
  • I won’t train against doctor’s advice
  • If my relationships are suffering significantly
  • Training is negatively affecting your mental health.
  • I’m sleeping less than 6 hours a night
  • I find myself too grumpy with the kids/work/friends/partner
  • I’ve skipped X number of workouts

Start with a back-up plan

Shite inevitably happens no matter how hard you plan. Something goes sideways, someone lets you down or all of a sudden work gets crazy. This pretty much happens to everyone in every single training cycle. A good plan will get that and tell you that every workout is important but if you have to skip one which one is skip-able and ones that are cornerstones. In case yours doesn’t remember those long and hard workouts every week, yeah those are the most important. Shake-outs, recovery runs, and other workouts are less so and are better candidates to drop should you need to. But… It’s also good to work some backups into your schedule form the start. So if you’re planned week is going off the rails fast what are you going to do. If you decide this from the start you won’t be left scrambling with another thing to figure out this week. Things like if Wednesday comes and I have yet to go for a run I’m going to ask my mom to give the kids dinner each night for the rest of the week or pay the daycare overtime rates.

Nurse old injuries early

When you get your shiny new training plan it might not talk about how to deal with your specific injury and that’s pretty fair. A good one will touch on the idea of injury at least. It really is up to you to deal with old injuries, after all, it’s your body. Think about how you’ve dealt with it in the past whether it be foam rolling, PT exercises, strength training or something else it’s a good idea to make sure you do that super special thing from the START of training. That way you’re increasing the chances it never flares up in the first place.

How do you customize a training plan for your life? Or do you just follow it to the letter no matter what? What is the make to break thing you do that helps or hinders you from getting through a plan? You can check out my line of realistic, designed to fit your life plans here!

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