Five Simple tips for putting together a training program

For those of you who race, putting together a training plan can sometimes be hard knowing what to do and when. If you sign up for a fast, flattish trail run, then you know that some form of speedwork is required, as opposed to a mountain run, where plenty of ups and downs will be the order of the day to condition the quads for the big day.

Until I took on the services of a coach, I use to think that my training was pretty good and that I had a good sense of what I needed to do – and for the most part, I was right. But using a coach has opened up my eyes to a number of things that I probably hadn’t considered before. You may have read our series of using running coaches from late last year, but if you haven’t you can find parts one and two here.

While this article isn’t specifically about using a coach, what we aim to do is provide some simple tips for you if you’re putting together your own plans to help you plan your big race:


It sounds such an easy thing to do. If you sign up for a race, then you should try to replicate that race in your training as much as possible in order to prepare yourself for that race. In an ideal world, you’d train on the course as much as you can to do that. However with the advent of so many races globally and racing being associated more and more with traveling to destinations, that makes it increasingly hard for many runners to actually do.

If you're climbing one of these in your race, then it probably makes sense to climb it in training
If you’re climbing one of these in your race, then it probably makes sense to climb it in training

What tends to occur is that all too often, we train based on our surroundings and where we live rather than what is ideal. I know this can be true for me, particularly living in a city and being a trail runner. Week day training is limited to grass ovals and bitumen (or tarmac), not ideal for running a mountain trail race.

I’ll try to get out to the trails, but sometimes it’s too easy to revert to my surroundings and run an easy loop on concrete, rather than actually do something that will benefit my race preparation.

Some races can be quite misleading too. Take for example Six Foot Track in Australia. Many people look at the course profile and assume they need to do plenty of hill training, which indeed they do. But closer inspection reveals that the race is actually a net downhill. How many people consider this as part of their training and do specific downhill training?

The point here is when building a plan, make sure you try to replicate as much of your race conditions and terrain as you can.

Go hard twice a week

How many of us appear to go through the motions with our training? Those 10-15km (6-10 mile) runs that clock up the distance somewhat, but are easy and don’t really do a lot. Sure, there’s a time and a place for easy runs – after the hard ones!

If you want to progress, get quicker and improve your times, you have to learn how to run quick first. Anyone can run ‘slow’, no need to practice that. But the guys at the pointy end have all been working out how to run quick first. So what do we mean by hard?

Running harder and faster gets your fitter and stronger - but watch the injures!
Running harder and faster gets your fitter and stronger – but watch the injures!

Simply, we mean get the heart rate up and pushing it a little more than you normally would. At a more advanced level, you’ll see people incorporating speedwork and hard hill training into their programs, but if you’re just starting out, diving head first into that kind of training can injure you. The easy way to incorporate some form of speed work into your training plan is to include it in your daily runs. If you’re doing a 10km (6 mile run), allocate 2-3 blocks of five minutes where you increase the pace to somewhere just below your 10km pace, slower back down again, then increase it back up.

You can keep doing this once or twice a week, building up the time you spend at that pace more and more as your body gets used to it. That way you’re working your heart rate, but doing it within the boundaries of something that keeps injury risk lower than say out and out speed sessions.

It’s also never to late to start some specific hill training too. Nothing gets you fitter, or the heart rate going more than an effort run up a hill. Uphill sprinting as its known not only gets the heart rate going strong, but it also works the body as far as resistance training is concerned. Again, don’t start like a bat out of hell, if you need to walk a hill in the first instance, do it. As your strength and fitness gradually improves, you’ll be able to run, judging your own heart rate to as to how hard you’re working.

Build in the easy runs

Of course, the mistake you can sometimes make when increasing the work rate is the temptation to want to keep doing it. Adrenalin is addictive. Don’t be afraid to run at a much slower pace and build in 1-2 easy runs a week.

Rest is also important and it’s how we make strides of improvement, but the easy runs also allow your body to be conditioned to more back-to-back running at a threshold that is acceptable and doesn’t put too much strain on the body.

Similarly, go easy in your long runs. Many people make the mistake of running their long runs too hard initially, which could blow out there next week’s training.

Adapt to change

When you sign up for a race, the temptation is to map out an entire program for the duration of your training. I know – I used to do it. The reality though is that things change, injures happen and so does life. Running isn’t front and centre of your life, there’s work, family and holidays to be had too.

Planning too far ahead can also set you up for failure by not meeting all of your training targets. It’s extremely hard to say what it is you’re going to be doing 12 weeks from now because so many other variables come into play. Our advice would be to take your training on a week by week basis, or perhaps every two weeks. Some people even plan their training in 10 day or 3 week blocks. The point is that trying to plan too far in advance can be very difficult unless you’ve decided to make running your career and sole focus. However we also understand that everyone is different, so if planning big blocks works for you, then great – but just be open to change and what life throws at you.

See the bigger picture

While we recommend planning your training in small bite-sized blocks, it’s important that the bigger picture doesn’t get lost too. If you’ve set yourself a goal race that’s 50kms (30 miles) for example, you need to think about what it’s going to take to be prepared for that race and the amount of miles you need to put in. I have a general rule of thumb that if I’m making a 50km race my big goal for the year, I know I need to put do at least 1,000-1,200kms of training for that race. If it’s a 100 miler, then my block should be around 2,000-2,500kms plus of training.

Signing up for a race is 1% of the battle, the other 98% is the training. The final 1% is running the race itself...
Signing up for a race is 1% of the battle, the other 98% is the training. The final 1% is running the race itself…

Then if it’s run with lots of ascent and descent too, I need to factor in the amount of vertical I think needs to be completed to get myself properly conditioned. There’s no rule of thumb here, it’s all about personal preference and what you think you need to do to get the result you want. As a guide for the recently held Six Foot track (45km) here in Australia (1,400m / 2,000m elevation/decent) I made a goal of doing 30,000m+/-  in my training. If I were doing something with more serious elevation/decent, again I’d up that considerably.

When you sign up for a race, start wide and far, then refine into bite-sized chunks that will see you deliver on that program.

We hope that helps you with some considerations for when you’re putting together your next plan. If you’ve any tips or pieces of advice to share, we’d be more than happy to hear them to help others reading this.

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Lucy Bartholomew
Lucy Bartholomew is one of Australia's most recognised female ultra and trail runners. She's a member of Team SALOMON, SUUNTO, CLIF bar and STRAVA

2 thoughts on “Five Simple tips for putting together a training program

  1. Nice article. I would add a 6th point and that is you have to be honest with yourself. You have to work out where your fitness actually is at the moment and work from there. For example your marathon PB may be 3:00, but did you set that 5 years ago and currently you’d struggle getting under 4 hours? I think this aspect is one of the best reasons that many need a coach or at least someone who can tell then how it is. Some us are able to do it for ourselves, but it is hard to really zero in honestly exactly how fit you are or aren’t at the moment. Sessions always look easier on paper.

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