How to Build a Workout Plan From Scratch

Setting a goal to run a race without having a workout plan to follow is somewhat like embarking on a road trip to a new destination, where you only know where you want to end up but not what route you need to take to get there. 

Working with a good running coach or purchasing a pre-made workout plan are both great ways to get your running roadmap, but with a little education, contemplation, and planning, you can also build your own. 

Whether you want to finish your first 5K, run a PR in your next half marathon, or break the 4:00 barrier in the marathon, optimizing your chance of success hinges on dedicated training and adherence to a smart training plan. 

A good workout plan will not only prepare you to achieve your running goals but will also get you to the starting and finishing line healthy and strong.

Factors to Consider Before Building a Workout Plan

Since training for a race can be a big endeavour, it’s not typically something you should jump into on a whim. Before building a workout program, you should consider your goals, availability, and your physical abilities. Ask yourself the following questions:

What is my goal?

The first thing that must be nailed down before building a workout program is your goal, as this determines the metaphorical destination and shapes the program itself. Pick a goal that is meaningful to you and realistic. 

Be as specific as possible, using the well-known SMART acronym for goal setting: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Pick a race and realistic goal time or goal distance based on past performances. 

Do I have time?

Unless you’re already running plenty for the distance you want to train for, starting a workout program may be a step up in terms of time demands than your current running schedule. 

The amount of time you’ll need to devote to your training depends on the race distance, your pace and fitness level, and your goals. The following guidelines are considered to be the typical weekly mileage for each of the major race distances listed for the average runner:

  • 5K: 15 to 25 miles
  • 10K: 20 to 30 miles 
  • Half-marathon: 30 to 40 miles
  • Marathon: 35 to 60 miles 

Of course, your pace will dictate the time commitment for this mileage, and there are certainly exceptions on both ends for these mileage ranges, but the numbers can be used as a guide. 

As mentioned, you’ll probably also need at least 6 weeks for your workout program, so if you’re going to be doing a lot of travelling for work, have a big vacation scheduled, getting ready to move, or are preparing for a new baby at home, it might not be the best time to get your formal training program underway.

How to decide on work days and rest days

Consistency in training is the number one factor in getting results. You have to train often, and across a long period. Therefore, the first thing you need to consider: creating a program that will keep you in the game. 

The best workout routine in the world is useless if you don’t actually do it. Sidelined, whether for lack of progress, motivation, or a nagging injury, is a surefire way to miss your goals. With daily accountability to the workouts, you want to do.

This means we need to build a doable program, with the right mixture of activity and rest.  There is a bit of art to this, but the first step is simple: write a general schedule. What are you going to do each day, Monday through Sunday?

Get a piece of paper, and write the days of the week along the side, then choose what you’ll do each day: workout or rest. To begin, plan to work out five days per week and rest two days. For most people, this is more than adequate for getting good results.

Keep in mind that every workout day will not be a day of intense training or insane mileage: some days will involve hard training, and others will involve only recovery or accessory work.  

There are many factors involved in deciding what happens on each day, but for now, just decide which days you’ll train and which you’ll rest.

Is my body physically able to handle the training?

Training for a race takes time, dedication, and physical fortitude to complete the workouts and making it through the race without quitting or getting injured somewhere along the way isn’t as easy as anyone might hope.

Running is demanding on the body and the training puts a lot of wear and tear on not just your running shoes, but your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments, too.

An unfortunate number of runners get injured during their training, and to prevent yourself from joining that dreaded club, you need to not only train smart and listen to your body but ensure your body is fit and strong enough to take on the demands of training.

If you’ve recently had an injury, or are an injury-prone runner, you might want to wait a while and spend some time working with a physical therapist to correct any imbalances and weaknesses first. 

How to add active recovery days to your workout plan

You’ve charted out five days for workouts and two days for rest. Next, you’ll want to pick two days for active recovery: one “workout” day and one “rest” day. Active recovery is meant to help you recover from your more intense training.

The point of these days is simple:  you want to keep moving, improve your range of motion, repair your muscles, and maintain a habit of activity. A long walk burns energy reduces stress and gets your muscles and joints warm.

It relieves soreness from previous workouts, and if combined with light stretching, helps maintain your range of motion (your ability to move fully around any given joint). Swimming and yoga accomplish much the same thing: you’ll improve your body’s dynamic abilities while staying active, and you’ll have fun to boot.

You can fulfil your daily exercise commitment with easy movement or a workout at a relaxed pace if that’s what your body needs. There’s no need to push yourself to the limits every day. 

Foam rolling and myofascial release are keystones to recovery and should be sprinkled liberally throughout your program. Using external implements like rollers, lacrosse balls, and massage sticks, you’ll break down accumulated adhesions and scar tissue in your muscles, restoring their natural ability to lengthen and shorten without difficulty.

Myofascial release will help you avoid injury and maintain your athletic ability. You can think of it like changing the oil in your car, making sure the tires are properly inflated, and keeping the gas tank full: it’s the basic maintenance that keeps things running for a long, long time.

While it will get its own day in my sample schedule, note that you should take ten to fifteen minutes before or after every workout to do some myofascial release. If this is your first exposure to the concept, go over to YouTube and search “foam rolling”. You’ll hit a trove of information on the topic.

Take your schedule, and choose one of your rest days and one of your five workout days for active recovery. Ideally, place active recovery days throughout the week, breaking up your more intense training days. Then, pick a few of the recovery activities that appeal to you, and pencil them in for the selected active recovery days.

How to create workout routines that reduce injury and help you train consistently

Avoid too many workouts that follow the same pattern. Rep schemes, times, miles, loads, and activities need to be altered regularly.  Doing the same thing every day is an excellent way to induce mental burnout and bodily injury.

Going through the same movements over and over, you’ll batter the same muscles, beat the same joints, and eventually, you’ll break, the repetitive stress overcoming your ability to recover.

Therefore, we want to choose several different activities across workout days, choosing those that address our athletic deficiencies while building up our strengths.

Put sufficient variety in your workout days. Choose what specific activity you’ll do each day, along with the appropriate variation to help you avoid repetitive injury, reinforce your strengths, and build up your deficiencies.  

Elements of a Good Workout Plan or Training Program

Although any two runners will likely have quite different training plans based on differences in goals, fitness level, availability to train, injury risk, and preferences, most workout programs contain the same basic elements in varying proportions, paces, and distances. 

  • Long runs: You’ll have a long run just about every week no matter what race distance you have your eye on. This is your primary endurance-building workout that gets progressively longer and closer to the goal race distance or beyond. If you’re training for your first attempt at a certain distance, to simply finish, your long runs will progressively approach this distance, though you might not hit the full distance until race day. Don’t worry though; you’ll be physically prepared on race day even at these shorter distances. For example, the longest run on most marathon training plans maxes out at 20-24 miles. You’ll want to do one long run per week, gradually increasing the distance each week, with a drop back every four weeks or so to give your body a break. The distance should also taper starting 2-3 weeks out from race day.
  • Pace work: Your workout plan should include plenty of runs done at goal race pace so that you can get a feel for it and train your body to run comfortably at that pace. Build on the distance or length of time you work at the goal pace as the weeks progress in your training plan. For example, if you’re training to run a half marathon at 8:30 pace, start with 2-3 miles at that pace in week one or two, then add a mile or so to that weekly tempo run each week. Typically, tempo runs should occur once per week, but more advanced runners may throw in goal race pace miles during long runs as well. 
  • Speed: If you’re trying to chase a specific goal time, your training program should also have workouts that are run faster than the goal race pace to improve your speed and lactate threshold. Track intervals, hill repeats, and fartlek runs are good examples. These should only be done once per week unless you’re training for a very short race.
  • Easy runs: Easy runs or recovery runs should follow long runs and hard workouts, or you may choose to program in cross-training or a rest day instead, depending on your goal distance, level of fitness, injury history, personal preferences, and availability.
  • Cross-training: Cross-training is a great way to get an aerobic workout while using different muscles and reducing the impact of your activity. Low-impact exercises like cycling, pool running, swimming, elliptical, and rowing can supplement your running and help prevent overuse injuries. Depending on your experience level, injury history, and goal race distance, you may want 1-2 cross-training workouts per week. These typically follow hard workouts.
  • Rest days: A smart workout program should have at least one rest day per week. Your legs need time off to recover and rebound from training. Be sure to build in at least one rest day per week, and more if you’re a newer runner or injury prone. Rest days should follow hard efforts like tempo runs, long runs, or intervals.
  • Strength training: A good workout program should be balanced and develop your strength as a well-rounded athlete. Make sure you are doing core work, mobility exercises, and strength training, doing full-body workouts 2-3 times per week. Resistance training helps prevent injuries by correcting strength imbalances and building functional stability so that your body can handle the miles of running.



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