McMillan Running System (Part 3)

This article was provided by McMillan Running, a recommended resource for distance coaches and runners. This is part 3 of a three parts series dedicated to the McMillan Running System

To see the first two parts of this article click on the following links:  Part 1  and Part 2

By Greg McMillan, MS

Step #5: Building Your Plan, Part I

The first four sections provided the building blocks for optimal training, now you just need to arrange them in the proper order to build an individualized and optimal training schedule. In this section, you’ll do just that. You’ll first learn how to critique yourself. You’ll examine how your body responds and adapts to different types of training. Then, in Part II, you’ll see how I develop training programs “from the ground up”. Using what you learn in Part I of this section, you can then build your training plan. Finally, in the last section, you’ll learn how to continually mold the plan as your body and performances progress.

3 Steps to a Perfect Plan

In building your training plan, I believe there are three important steps. First, you have to evaluate your particular strengths and weaknesses as a runner. How can a program be optimal if it doesn’t take into account your individual physical and mental traits?

Second, you must evaluate the physiological and psychological demands of your chosen race distance as well as the race’s physiological and psychological limiting factors. Training for a marathon necessitates a slightly different approach than training for a 5K.

Finally, you need to account for your particular goal, whether the goal is achieving a certain time, executing a new race strategy or simply placing has high as possible. For example, if your goal is to win a championship in the 5000m, you will need to prepare not only to have a fast time but also to execute or react to varying race strategies (surging, negative splits, going out hard and hanging on, etc.). Since championship races are often tactical, you’ll also want to improve your finishing kick.

Utilizing these three steps may seem like common sense, but in my experience, these easy steps are lacking in most runners’ plans. The tendency is to find a training program in a book, magazine or on the internet and simply follow it. This may work for the general population but not for high performance athletes like you. You require (and deserve!) better. You deserve a schedule that will help you fulfill your potential and race your fastest.

For example, you should know why there are four weeks of speedwork instead of six. You should know why for you, more stamina training is needed but your training partner needs less. In an earlier section, I stated that you should know the purpose for each and every run you do. This idea carries over into this section as well. You should know why your program is designed the way it is.

Step #1: Evaluating Your Strengths and Weaknesses

The first step is critiquing yourself. Are you a “speedster” or a “the-longer-the-better” runner? Do you easily handle lots of miles per week or do you get fatigued? Do you adapt faster to speed training or stamina training? Love the 5K, hate the marathon? Love the marathon, hate the 5K?

These are the types of questions that you need to answer to get a handle on just what your strengths and weaknesses as a runner are. In general (and this is a big generalization), you’ll find that most people are either tortoises or hares. Tortoises are those who race better the longer the event. They often enjoy long hard runs but find that speedwork is difficult and leaves their legs flat for a few days. You know them. They are the runners who seem to just roll along effortlessly for long distances but seem to have trouble generating much power on the track.

Hares on the other hand, like the shorter races. They run can run well off lower mileage and find that speedwork invigorates their legs. They may not be as “effortless” as the tortoise at the long stuff but get them on the track for some fast running and the power is impressive. They will simply eat you alive.

Knowing whether you tend to be a tortoise or hare plays into how your training program will be created. They are related to how much of each type of training you should include, the amount of recovery time necessary after a certain type of workout and how to avoid overtraining.

For example, if you are naturally more of a “speedster” than an “endurance monster” runner, you will likely excel at faster speed- and sprint-type training. You will perform well in the workouts and find that you quickly adapt or gain speed, power and sprinting ability. However, you may find that longer, more endurance training is more demanding on your mind and body. You may find it more difficult to execute these workouts and adapt to the training.

In this case, it will take longer to fully develop your stamina (lactate threshold pace) since you must take longer between workouts for your body to adapt to this type of training. On the other hand, you won’t need to plan as many weeks of speed training since your body needs less time to “consolidate,” or recover, from the workouts. It may only take six or eight workouts over three or four weeks to reach your full potential in workouts that match the type of runner you are.

I’ll use myself as real life an example. My individual strengths as a runner are my high aerobic capacity and natural sprint speed. (My VO2 max has been recorded as high as 78 ml/kg/min and I’ve run under 53 seconds for 400m.) As such, I develop my speed with only a few speed workouts and can always perform well at 5K and shorter distances.

However, my individual weakness is that my lactate threshold speed is very slow. If my goal race is the marathon where the key demands are a high lactate threshold and the key limitation being glycogen depletion, then I would need to alter my training plan to include more lactate threshold-building workouts. I would spend more time on my base phase and my stamina phases and less on my speed. After all, I only need three to five speed workouts to optimize this aspect of my running. So for me, a stamina phase lasting eight weeks works well. However, for a person with a high lactate threshold speed, eight weeks would likely be too long. They would get stale. This happens to me with speed training. Since my body adapts readily and quickly to speed training, I find that I can’t tolerate too much speedwork, too frequently or I get fatigued and feel “flat”.

You can probably think back across your training and notice some of these trends in your training. It’s likely that your favorite types of training are the ones that take advantage of your strengths, while the training that you dislike indicates your weaknesses. You should build your schedule to maximize your strengths but also to begin to overcome your inherent weaknesses. Using myself again, I now spend much more time building a base and doing stamina training to begin to overcome these limitations. My speed continues to develop quickly so across my training plan, I can now very easily maximize all my energy systems and peak on demand. Though it may take a little experimentation, you can now do the same.

Understanding what type of runner you are and how your body tolerates each type of training (as evidenced by how you perform in workouts and how your body recovers from them) is a fundamental key to optimal training.

Step #2: Evaluating Your Race Distance

Step 1 is just the start though as you’ll also need to account for the physiological and psychological demands and limitations of your chosen event. It’s no secret that the demands of a 5K are quite different from a marathon. Likewise, the limiting factors in your success are also different. The table below lists a few of the most common race distances and describe their demands and limitations. From this overview, you get an idea of what every race distance requires and what limits performance. You’ll adjust your training plan to address these issues in order to maximize your chance of success. For shorter races, you’ll emphasize more speed and sprint training while for longer races, you’ll emphasize more endurance and stamina training. For all races, you’ll need to include some of each type of training but the table gives you insight into which types of training deserve emphasis.


Step #3: Evaluating Your Goal

The third step involves your goal. Is it to run as fast as possible or to achieve a certain placing? Are you trying to execute a different approach to racing this year, maybe going out easier and running negative splits versus your normal front-running tactic?

Whatever your goal, you’ll need to adjust your training program to address this. It will be important to set up specific workouts that teach your body how to achieve your goal. Running fast is pretty easy and simply is about training the body to maximize its speed over your race distance. You will, however, benefit from some goal pace training so that the body and mind are familiar with this pace come race day.

When it comes to achieving a certain place or executing a particular race strategy, runners often forget to adjust their plans accordingly. For instance, say you are going to compete in a championship race and you know that (1) the race will most likely be tactical with the finish time slower than your maximum performance at that distance and (2) that you want to employ the strategy of surging at the two-thirds point in the race with a long finishing drive to the tape. In addition to the normal training to maximize your finish time for this particular race distance, you would need to include training that teaches your body and mind this method of starting even but then surging at the end. It’s helpful then to structure your workouts to mimic this trend. Interval workouts can always begin slowly and get faster and faster with each repeat. You might run your tempo runs evenly for the first two-thirds then finish with the last one-third as an aerobic capacity interval.

There are, of course, a myriad of strategies that can be used in racing and thus you will have to develop some workouts to address these. The main point is that your goal should also factor into how you build your plan.

Using this Information

I know that this first part is a little vague with respect to offering specific recommendations but it has to be. We’re talking about the individuality of you and your racing. However, with a little evaluation of yourself and your chosen race distance, you can better modify and adapt the general techniques for building your plan described in Part II of this section. Always go through this critique before you build each of your training plans. With several cycles of optimal training, you’ll find that your body changes and you will need to “tweak” the quantity, quality and “flow” of training in successive plans.


Step #6: Building Your Plan, Part II

Step #1 – How Many Weeks till Race Day

Now we get to the nuts and bolts of how to build your training plan. To get started, take out a calendar and locate the date of your key race (or series of races). Next, count backwards by week until you get to the current week. You now know the number of weeks of training you have leading up to your key event. At this time, it’s important for you to evaluate if the number of weeks is reasonable. You don’t want to do “crash training” nor do you want the training cycle to be so long that you feel like the event will never arrive.

If you’re just getting started after your recovery from your most recent peak racing season or a marathon, then you’ll need 22-28 weeks before your next peak performance. This is because you need at least 12 weeks to build your base before you begin to work on specific training phases for racing. And, please, don’t skimp on the base building. It’s much better to include more base (endurance training) and less stamina, speed and sprint training than the other way around. Believe me, you can still run well in races off of base training and the more base training you do, the greater your potential for success in your important race(s).

If you’ve put in the necessary 12 weeks of base, then you’re ready for specific training phases. In general, I like the specific part of the training cycle to last anywhere from eight to 16 weeks. My experience has been that this length of time is short enough to keep your attention and motivation yet long enough to allow the necessary adaptations to occur.

For Step #1, I’ve developed a worksheet for you to use as you follow along with this section. The worksheet is a pdf file that you can download and print out. Click here to download this file.* Print it out in landscape format.

The illustrations below show this worksheet and how it’s used to create a training plan. For Step #1, insert the start date of each week leading from the start of the upcoming week to the start of my race week. This starts what will become your skeleton view of the training cycle. This will give you, on one page, an overview of the entire training cycle – week by week. I find that runners often get too caught up in the details of workouts when doing long-term planning instead of starting with an overview of the training and filling in the details later.

As you can see in the sample below, this athlete has 14 weeks until his goal 10K race. The training will begin the week of December 27th with the goal race held the first week of April.


Step #2 – Assigning Phases for Each Week

For the remainder of this discussion, let’s assume that you’ve built your 12-week base and are ready for specific training. Given this assumption, the next step is to divide up the weeks from now until your race(s) and assign different “phases” to each. Following the system I’ve outlined in earlier parts of this article, I’ve categorized training phases by their purpose – to develop Endurance (also called Base), Stamina, Speed or Sprinting ability. Therefore, you should assign one of these phases to each week of the training plan. The specific phase will indicate the training on which you will focus for that week.

Step #2 is where you’ll really need to put some thought into your training. It’s not as easy as saying, “I’ve got 12 weeks until my 10K and I’ve just finished my base so I’ll do 4 weeks of Stamina, 4 weeks of Speed and 4 Weeks of Sprint”. When portioning out the weeks for each type of training, you need to use the information from the previous section of this article. Are you a tortoise or hare? Are you training for a 5K or a marathon? Training for shorter races like the 5K and 10K are somewhat different than training for longer races like the half-marathon and marathon. Plus, maybe you need to improve your stamina in this cycle more than your speed or vice versa. Whatever your situation, think it through and play around with different proportions of each phase until you are comfortable. Taking a look at the sample below gives an idea of how, at least for this sample runner, the phases are proportioned.

One note, I always designate the final 2-3 weeks before a peak performance as Peak – a time when training volume is reduced in order to allow the body to achieve its best performance. I sometimes also include a few more weeks of Endurance/Base training to serve as a transition to more intense training. If I want to use Hill workouts to serve as the transitional phase, I sometimes list it as well. This is all part of the “art” of designing a schedule and varies with each athlete.

Also, my experience has been that you should not have more than eight weeks of any one type of training excluding Endurance training. In other words, don’t list 12 weeks of Speed training. The body and mind simply can’t take it. You get stale, your performances begin to suffer and your risk of injury increases. Keep the number of weeks for each phase within a reasonable amount.

For the remainder of this article, I’m going to use, as a specific example, a program that I designed for an athlete who was training for the 10K. He was a good athlete but wanted some direction in his training so he could produce a peak performance at an important regional race.

He had good speed so I knew that he would not need too many weeks of Speed training. Instead I wanted to shift emphasis of this training cycle to Stamina – an area where I thought he could most benefit. Plus the race course for his goal race was hilly so I wanted him to be especially strong to match the demands of the course. In his program which will be outlined in the next few images, I used the first three weeks of Base (aka Endurance) as a transition to more intense training. He had just completed his base period and I wanted to ease him into the faster workouts. The Stamina phase lasted five weeks, the Speed phase four weeks followed by a two-week Peak phase.


Step #3 Weekly Mileage

The third step is to insert the goal mileage levels for each week across the training plan. This is the best part of assembling your schedule using this system. You’ll find that you are much more reasonable with your mileage increases when you fill them in this way instead of going on a whim from week to week or simply saying, “I’m going to run 80 miles per week this time.” And please realize that the mileage levels in this example are just for this athlete. I coach athletes that run 25 miles per week and some that run 125 miles per week. What you need to take from the example is not the actual mileage but the pattern of the mileage and then adapt this to your particular mileage level.

As you’ll notice from the example below, the weekly mileage will often cycle up and down. I’ve found that this works very well and allows the body to handle more mileage across the training plan than if you simply increased your mileage and held it there. Most often, I cycle three “up” weeks followed by one “down” week though this can vary with the athlete. If you’ve had injury problems or are trying to increase your training to new mileage levels, I recommend one “down” week for every “two” up weeks. Also, I like to include a race once every three to six weeks, and race weeks offer a great time for your “down” weeks.

One final note specific to the sample plan below, I will often reduce the weekly mileage slightly for the Speed and Sprint phases since these are harder on the body. I’ve noticed a reduction in sore muscles and injuries by doing this.

This athlete usually trains from 70 to 90 miles per week throughout the year with some down time in late spring and late fall. His base-building training which occurred before this training plan included mostly 75- to 90-mile weeks. No matter what your mileage level, you can use this same principle, adjusted to your mileage level, when building your plan.


Step #4 Your Long Run

I am a big believer in the long run. My experience has been that being consistent with your weekly long runs throughout your training will result in better performances than if you miss long runs but get in all the other training. In my own training, I will rearrange my schedule, omitting secondary workouts during the week at times, just to get my long run in.

The long runs listed in the sample program are appropriate for this 10K runner. Obviously, if he were training for the marathon, the long runs would be considerably different. Also, I should note that the term “long run” as I use it means a run lasting at least one hour and 45 minutes. You have to run long enough to get the metabolism of fat cranked up, and this won’t occur until after one and a half hours. Two hours is better and should be the rule during the base-building weeks prior to beginning the specific training part of your program.

Sometimes a long run will conflict with a race. In these circumstances, I’ll move the long run to earlier in the week if possible or with some races, I’ll omit the long run as you will see later in this article.

I usually offer a distance or time range for the long run so the athlete can adjust as he feels on the day. As with weekly mileage, I will reduce the long run as the race nears for shorter distance runners. This is different than for marathoners who increase their long runs as the race nears.

As you build your program, make sure to be consistent with your long runs and try to get in at least one run per week that lasts one hour and 45 minutes to two and a half hours. The distance of this run, of course, will vary based on your running pace.


Step #5 The Primary Workout

The primary workout (Workout #1) should match the phase for each week. If the phase is Stamina then the primary workout will be a Stamina workout. If the phase is Speed, then the primary workout will be a Speed workout. In an earlier part of this article, I discussed the many different types of workouts within each phase of training – Endurance, Stamina, Speed and Sprint. Use these varying workouts to create your primary workout for the week. I suggest you include many different types of each kind of workout in your plan to keep your training exciting.

Along with the variety of workouts, I like to insert a “marker” workout which is repeated from time to time throughout the program so that the athlete can see objectively, how he is progressing toward his goal. It’s very motivating to see your times getting faster for the same effort in workouts. For our sample athlete, shown below, his performance in the Cruise Interval workout that occurred in weeks 4, 8 and 13 was his marker workout. In this workout, he saw his times for each repeat dropping from workout to workout, even though his effort was the same. This was matched by a drop in heart rate during each repeat as well. It was a nice way to track his improvement through the program and gave him a lot of confidence in the training and for the race. It also gave me an idea of what pace would be attainable for his goal 10K at the end of the program. You should also schedule a “marker” workout every few weeks throughout your program.

As you’ll notice in the sample below, at this point in the planning process, you should not worry about the specifics of any workout. That comes later. Right now, just focus on the general overview of training.


As you read the sample plan, the following abbreviations are used for workouts: SS is a steady-state workout, CI is a cruise interval workout, Tempo is a tempo run, AC is an aerobic capacity interval workout and ANC is an anaerobic capacity interval workout.

Step #6 The Secondary Workout

I use the secondary workout as a reminder of the previous training phase and a look forward to the upcoming training phase as well as an opportunity for some race-specific training. Often, the secondary workout for one week will be the same type of training from the previous phase then the next week will be a workout for the upcoming phase. This helps maintain the results from your previous phase as well as preparing your body for the upcoming phase. This also keeps you from pounding one system too much. While there are times when the primary and secondary may be the same type of training, I more often use them as a bridge from past to future workouts. This works quite well, in my experience.

Another use for secondary workout is for race-specific training. In the case of the sample runner, his race was going to be held on a course that went up and over two large bridges. We decided to include several Hill workouts to simulate this race challenge and get specific adaptations that he would need in the race. You can also use the secondary workout to practice with different racing strategies – going out fast, pushing in the middle, sit-and-kick, etc.

As you can see, in each training phase some secondary workouts are repeats from an earlier phase, some work on race-specific training and some are of the same type as an upcoming training phase.


Step #7 Notes, Races, etc.

Now that you have most of the skeleton plan filled in, you get to some of the specifics for which you may have to adjust what you’ve just planned. One of the first things to do is insert races which are listed in the “Notes” column. Sometimes, I list a race where I want it to occur and sometimes an athlete already has a race schedule so I’m just filling in the races on the appropriate weeks. No matter what the case, the insertion of a race necessitates that you take a look at the week of training leading up to the race. First, you may want to lower the weekly mileage. Second, you may have to move or omit the long run if the race conflicts with it. And third, you may want to adjust the type of secondary workout that was planned since this workout may negatively affect the race.

For our sample runner, you’ll notice that we planned several races during this training cycle and that on race weeks, the weekly mileage was lowered – using them as “down” weeks, the long runs were decreased or omitted if necessary and that the secondary workout was often a lighter workout that wouldn’t overly tax the runner yet gave him some training stimulus.

Also for this runner, I included a “Strides” column in planning his training. I am a big fan of strides as this type of running (1) greatly enhances your finishing kick, (2) helps remind you to use good form while running and (3), in my experience, helps keep injuries away by keeping the muscles strong and loose. For this runner, I wanted to remind him to include a set of strides after a few runs each week and since this was his first introduction to strides, I wanted to gradually increase the quantity of them, hence the Strides column.


Step #8 Go for a Run

Once you complete Steps 1 through 7, close your notebook and go for a run. This gives things time to settle in and for the brain to “get off its track” or line of thought which invariably skewed the planning process. After a run, stretching, eating, etc., come back to the plan and look it over. Usually at this point, things will start to jump out at you. Mileage too high here, conflict between long run and race, feel like there needs to be more Stamina training, etc. Whatever the case, begin to edit the program, switching things around, increasing, decreasing until you get it where you’re comfortable.

The next step I recommend is to sleep on it. Come back to it the next day. You’ll be more objective. It’s also a good idea, unless you’re doing “super secret” training, to get someone else to take a glance at it. Choose someone you trust and who knows you. They may help in areas where you’re being too aggressive. Remember, it’s a lot harder to actually run the workouts than to simply right them down on paper so be realistic.

Well, there you have it. In a few easy steps using my Training Plan Worksheet, you can create the road map leading to top performances. The next step I take for my runners is to fill in the specifics making a detailed, day-by-day training schedule incorporating the ideas from the skeleton plan.

As you go through this process with yourself or others you coach, you’ll begin to see how putting thought into the why’s and how’s of training and, like I have seen with my runners, blending art with science can lead to personal records, top places and even National Championships.

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