Runners love to set goals. Whether it’s for a new personal best or attempting to run further than you ever have before, goals provide you with motivation and inspiration to work hard and try new things.
Often we create goals that fall within the time interval of a training plan — usually 16–24 weeks at most. But what if you were to take this to the next level? When you plan your training by looking at an entire year (or longer), you might be surprised by the benefits.
The less time you spend stopping and restarting your training, the more you’ll continue to improve on a steady trajectory.
Success in running is based on consistency and fitness built over time. Since fitness is cumulative, the less time you spend stopping and restarting your training, the more you’ll continue to improve on a steady trajectory. When your down time is planned and distributed over the course of a year, you’ll never feel like you are starting from scratch since your fitness remains intact.
If you have not done any long-term race planning in the past, you may wonder how you can benefit. The majority of benefits come from the idea you are starting with one primary goal to give you a singular focus for the year. This allows you to know exactly where you are going so you can better plan how to get there.
Elite runners exemplify this singular focus in their planning. When working toward an enormous goal like a world championship or Olympic qualifying race, they often plan their training and racing out for years. Working in a focused way toward one major goal makes success far more likely than if you are spreading yourself too thin toward several competing goals.
Prior to deciding on your goal for the year ahead, it’s essential to take some time and think about your previous training:
- Did you struggle with injury?
- Did you feel undertrained for your races or overtrained and burnt out?
- Are you a beginner with minimal experience, trying to figure out a future training and racing schedule?
Always be honest about where you are starting. If you have taken a month off, don’t expect to run a marathon PR eight weeks after getting back to running. If you struggled with injuries in the past, allow yourself time to build slowly before adding too much mileage or fast workouts.
If you raced in high school or college, the concept of racing seasons is probably familiar. There is spring and winter (indoor) track, fall cross-country and typically a summer of base training. But your racing seasons don’t necessarily have to follow this pattern, nor do they have to precisely follow the seasons of the year.
We’ll use the term “season” here to mean a period of time where you are focused on one type of training — base training, marathon training, 5K or 10K training, etc. No matter how you structure them, the idea is they all support your ultimate goal for the year. Four seasons are common within a year, and should be interspersed with periods of rest and recovery.
When you begin planning your year, start by thinking about what inspires you. If you were unexcited about the races you chose last year, add variety. Trying different distances or trails instead of road running can help energize you to tackle a new, ambitious goal. Begin by determining your top goal for the year and work backward from there.
While your various seasons of running may each have a different focus, they should ultimately support your top priority. For instance, if you are planning a late fall marathon, you may want to spend the early months of the year honing your speed in 5K or 10K races. Building fitness in these shorter races benefits you later on during your marathon-focused season, as your mileage increases and workouts become more race-specific.
Once you have determined the goal that is your top priority, it’s time to structure your year. While four seasons are a typical time frame for the year, you may find your needs vary. The length of each season may differ depending on how much base building you require and how much time you need to focus on race-specific training.
Here are some guidelines:
- Spend one season on base training and one focused on your goal race (leaving the other two open to different types of training).
- Run no more than two seasons per year focused on the same race distance.
- Run at least one season geared toward a “complementary” race distance (e.g., a 10K for a half-marathon, or a half-marathon for a full-marathon goal).
- Train different energy systems — it’s important to change the stimulus so your body keeps responding to new challenges.
Your base training season may be your shortest, especially if you are already fit and uninjured, while you may have longer cycles that are race-focused. Ideally you’ll schedule at least 2–3 weeks off from running, spread throughout the year after completing your goal races.
While it’s essential to include tune-up races to improve your mental racing toughness, try not to race too often or you’ll risk burnout and injury. Your race-focused seasons should include a tune up race prior to your primary race. If you are training for a shorter distance (such as a 10K), you could schedule 1–2 additional races during the season as long as you allow for adequate recovery.
Sure, planning a year in advance sounds daunting. But by starting with your top goal and working your way through your seasons, you’ll find the planning may be easier than you think.
Take the time to schedule an annual framework while also allowing for flexibility along the way, and you’ll maximize your performance in the months ahead.