If you want to develop your potential as a runner and don’t work with a coach, you need to learn how to plan your running year. This is especially true if you are running ultra-marathons, as ultra-running programs are usually longer and, on top of that, differ from training plans for shorter distances and even marathons.
Plus, ultra-marathon training involves some aspects that are unique to this distance.
This article will give an overview of the process you can use to plan your running year.
It is the same framework I use for myself and the athletes I coach. While many coaches for shorter distances base the start and end of an annual training plan on the race dates, I use a standard calendar year. I have found this is more intuitive for myself and makes it easier to integrate running into other areas of my life.
You might say, alright, but why do I even need a training plan for the whole year?
And can I not just use one of those pre-made templates to structure my training?
Let’s look at each of those questions in turn before we dive into the details of the planning process.
Why You Need An Annual Training Plan
If you want to develop your potential as an ultra-runner, you must practice patience and consistency.
You use the most strategic approach to reach your running goals by creating a yearly running plan.
Instead of trying to get in “race-shape” over a couple of months, you take a long-term and systematic approach to running and have a better chance of developing your best running potential.
With proper planning, you will break through plateaus, run further and faster than you ever thought possible, and will be able to finish that dream race you’ve been fantasizing about.
And finally, by keeping the big picture in mind, you can respond to setbacks and roadblocks more efficiently and adapt quicker.
Why You Shouldn’t Rely On Pre-Made Training Plan Templates
The biggest drawback of pre-made training plans is that they are not tailored to your running background, life circumstances, and injury susceptibility.
They can not account for possible short-term changes in your work schedule, family commitments, or delayed recovery from workouts.
While they may work for beginner runners, such as “Couch-to-5K” programs, they don’t work well for longer distances, and I believe they are not suitable at all for ultra-running distances.
Training for an ultra-marathon is a long-term project, and too many variables need to be factored in for an extended time.
A Simple Framework To Plan Your Running Year
Now let’s have a look at how to plan your running year. As already mentioned, this is the framework that I personally use. Adapt it to your needs and if you have any questions or would like feedback on your plan, feel free to contact me.
1. Assess Your Strengths And Weaknesses
Before pulling out a calendar, you should quickly analyze your strengths and weaknesses. This will help you plan out when to work on which aspects of your running abilities.
Relevant factors for ultra-running you might focus on include:
- mindset / mental strength to keep going for hours,
- nutrition on the run,
- technical skill on trails or hilly terrain,
- being comfortable or uncomfortable with running through the night
You don’t need to be super precise and develop a rating system. Simply note down how you feel about yourself in each of those areas.
For example, for myself, I noted the following down:
- I am mentally strong and can go for long hours; I tend to finish my planned long runs.
- I am still figuring out the nutrition part. My biggest weakness is not fueling early in the run and probably not eating enough overall. However, I am very good with hydration and have never had issues with dehydration on hyponatremia so far.
- I am used to running on trails, though not overly technical, for next year, there’s probably nothing to worry about because I have only planned timed races and one 100 – miler in a flat area on roads.
- I don’t feel too comfortable running through the night, but I am used to running in the dark due to my early morning runs.
Also, assess your current fitness level to have a realistic picture of which races you will tackle and what goals are achievable for you.
2. Pick Your Races And Set Goals
You might have picked your goal race or several already. If you did, then pull out your calendar and mark the dates. If you haven’t, use your fitness assessment to define when you would be ready to race what distance or event type.
Dare to dream big, but also be realistic. If you haven’t been running at all for the past six months, then a 100-mile race 12 weeks away is probably not an event you should be targeting.
Also, factor in the time you will have weekly for training. While you can train for an ultra-marathon with less time than many people assume, the time you spend training is still considerable, especially for the longer distances. For a 50 K, on the other hand, a good marathon training program might be all that you need.
Once you have your races fixed, you can start to set goals for them. There is a lot of information and advice about goal setting for runners and ultra-marathon runners.
Often ultra-running newbies hear the recommendation that they shouldn’t set any other goal than simply finishing their first ultra.
I think this is a mistake.
The goal-setting process is highly individual, and some people feel discouraged or will not train as hard and consistently as they could if they limit themselves to “just finishing” from the start. Be realistic but don’t be afraid to dream big. Many of us are capable of much more than we realize.
3. Create Your Long-Term Strategy
Planning for long-distance running should be done with long-term progress and goals in mind. You can not wake up one day and decide out of the blue that in two months, you will run UTMB and finish in the top ten.
Developing endurance takes time and consistent training.
When planning your running year, always keep the big picture in mind. What are your long-term goals? What races do you dream about, and what are their requirements for participating? Start to plan your running year backward from your goal race.
The 1-3 weeks before the race should be your taper period. There are no hard and fast rules for how long your taper period needs to be.
While many people recommend three weeks, you can taper too much. And apparently, Eliud Kipchoge – doesn’t seem to taper much at all.
Three weeks is way too long for me, and I usually opt for a 7-10 day period to reduce volume, but not intensity.
After adding in your taper periods, you can decide which weeks you can commit more time to train and during which weeks less time—factor in other aspects of your life that play a role.
Maybe you are a teacher and can devote more time to training during the school holidays. Perhaps you are a firefighter and know that the summer months are always the busiest time of year for you. Or you have important family events coming up this year that require you to travel.
Avoid a myopic view at this stage and roughly note in your calendar during which weeks you may have less time than usual to train.
4. Plan Your Training Blocks
Now that you have a macro-view of your year, you can plan your training blocks. What are training blocks?
A training block is simply a period when you focus on one specific area of your running physiology.
For example, you will have some weeks to focus on VO2 max development and include more interval sessions in your plan. During a period where you focus on endurance, on the other hand, you will run fewer, if any, interval sessions.
Note that you don’t have to shift your focus for two consecutive blocks.
For example, suppose you want to start your training year by regaining some base endurance since you have been running on relatively low mileage for the past few months. Then you could add a block of 4 weeks, where your main focus is endurance and where you gradually up the volume you run. The 5th week is a recovery week. After this week, you start a second 4-week block, focusing on endurance.
You don’t need to plan any detailed workouts at this point. Simply note what physiology you want to focus on during that period in your training plan.
You also can keep it very simple and just use “speed,” “endurance,” “recovery,” and “taper” as categories.
The level of detail will depend on your knowledge about running physiology and how detailed you want to be at this point.
Be aware, though, that endurance training will require more time and volume than speed development. Hence your VO2-max blocks should be shorter than your endurance blocks.
Besides, your highest volume weeks should not be your weeks with the highest intensity. Keep in mind that there is an inverse relationship between intensity and volume. When running intensity goes up, the running volume should go down.
5. Plan Your Tune-Up Races
Many runners like to add tune-up races to their calendars. If you target a 100-mile distance, you could add a 50-miler, a 100-K, or both to your plan.
It is also possible to add shorter races to your training plan – within your respective training blocks. For example, you could add a 5K to your training plan during your VO2-max (or speed training) block.
If and which races you add to your calendar is a very individual choice.
You need to factor in your tendency to “go-all-out” during races. This could be detrimental to your goal race if your tune-up race is too close. Besides, logistical factors, such as time available to travel and costs, play a role.
The benefit of running a tune-up race is that you can practice racing and test-drive your kit and nutrition plan.
You can also do a long solo run in place of a tune-up race and arrange your wake-up time, pre-race fueling, and everything else like in an actual race. However, you’ll probably lack pre-race anxiety and other challenges that come with race-related travel.
Don’t Forget Other Aspects Of Ultra-Marathon Training
Physical fitness is undoubtedly the most critical factor for your successful ultra-marathon finish. However, factors that play a minor role in shorter distances become essential during an ultra-marathon.
And that means you need to consider them in your preparation.
One aspect is running through the night. While you don’t have to do overnight runs during training, you might want to include them if you feel you need them to build confidence. At the very least, you should practice running a few hours in the dark.
You also need to practice running with your gear to find out if and where you are prone to chafing. And you must practice fueling during your key workouts. Use your long runs to test out which foods agree with you and train your gut. You may also test-drive your run-walk strategy, if you have one, during your long runs.
Plan Your Running Year And Crush Your Running Goals
If you set big running goals, a yearly plan is fundamental to your training. I hope this article gave you a helpful framework to create your own annual training plan.
I have developed a unique program that teaches you the ins and outs of ultra-running. You will receive weekly video lessons and worksheets that cover all aspects of ultra-marathon training. Weekly calls with me will clear up any questions you have.
On top of that, you will receive 1:1 coaching and a custom training plan tailored to your life circumstances and goals. I will adapt your training plan every week to account for changes in your schedule, recovery, and other factors if needed.
If you are looking for 1:1 coaching only – I offer that as well 😉 .