Planning Your Training and Racing Year

Next year is now. Ready Set Go.

Set Your Goals

What do you want to achieve in your racing season?

Your goals can obviously cover a wide range, from participating in a race for the first time, to trying a new endurance sport, to competing in a new/different/longer/faster race, to setting new personal bests, to simply having fun. Take your pick, all potential goals have great merits.

I can honestly say that in the last 14 years of training for endurance events, I have had each of the above goals at one time or another. Some examples of my goals in different years:
  • Finish a marathon.
  • Knock 90 minutes off my marathon time to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
  • Complete an Ironman triathlon.
  • Run a sub-3 hour marathon.
  • Qualify for the Ironman World Championships.
  • Set an Ironman triathlon Personal Best.
  • Enjoy training and racing for fun again.
  • Racing with a new perspective, photographing ultramarathons, Ironmans, and marathons while racing in them.
  • Honestly, just to finish the Boston Marathon, and cover the Chicago Marathon as a journalist
  • A comeback, with planned races Boston Marathon and Ironman Cozumel
Whatever your goal, I applaud it. Good for you. Now, let’s set some parameters to help you get there.

Pick Your Race(s)

Nothing helps focus the pursuit of athletic goals like a target date or event. Races, with a clear deadline staring at you from your calendar, can be the motivating factor that helps guide your training.

Further, you probably have so sign up for your chosen event(s) pretty soon, even though the season may be months away. Popular races, including the Chicago Marathon and Chicago Triathlon, are reaching capacity limits earlier each year, and thousands of hopefuls are shut out of registration. Have to act fast these days.

You may also want to consider scheduling other races before the Big Event(s), just for practice. For me – but not necessarily for others – competing in a race per month during the season has many benefits, including gauging your fitness at that point and providing practice during race conditions but in an event that means less to you.

For example, when my goal was to complete an Ironman, it was a daunting challenge. I had never done anything that was remotely as difficult or time-consuming. That was part of the appeal of the goal, but it also had me worried about preparation.

So what I did was schedule a series of race events that would help build endurance and experience at longer races month after month, as well as sharpening speed later in the season.

As a guide of how I approached that Ironman debut season, here is the partial race schedule I followed.

  • April: Boston Marathon: rarely a fast race, coming so early in the year; just a first long endurance effort
  • April: Lake County Marathon (since discontinued): a week after Boston, this second marathon (you could insert a long run) simulated the challenge of an endurance effort without recovery time
  • May: Ice Age Trail 50 mile race, in Wisconsin. Not that I was really inspired to run 50 miles, but I wanted to find out what it was like to remain in continuous motion longer than I had ever tried, with aid stations along the way.
  • June: North Shore ½ Marathon, Highland Park, IL. After a series of endurance efforts, this race was a great one for what I call speed training. A high intensity workout but less time on your feet, still practicing race conditions.
  • July: Find a favorite 4th of July 5k race and hammer it. But ride your bike for an hour first. Make this run the end of a speed brick, where you give it all you can on the bike and on the run. You are fine tuning for your triathlon.
  • August: Chicago Triathlon. Moving from a speed brick race scenario in July, I used the Chicago Triathlon Olympic Distance event as full-on swim, bike and run speed training, just two weeks before my first Ironman triathlon. It gave me the confidence to know I was ready
  • August: Ironman Canada: with several positive events behind me – long endurance efforts and shorter faster ones, I stepped on an Ironman course that had intimidated me greatly months earlier, and turned my goal into a reality.

A couple of notes on the above schedule. First, it’s probably not something you should worry about mirroring if you have a schedule that allows reasonable training time. During that year, including time in races, I averaged less than 6 hours training per week, so I had to lean on race experience to make up for limited training. What you might be able to invest in terms of time in long training days, I effectively turned into race days.

Second, of course, adjust the types of events, and frequency, according to your goal. If your big event is a 10k earlier in the year, adjust relative to your timing, with the main point remaining the same: build up to your goal with appropriate training and/or events.

Map Your Plan

Whether you’re pursuing two races or twelve, having your season outlined gives you the structure to take the next step: mapping the training plan to meet your goal.

Creating a training plan seems deceptively simple. Millions of hopeful athletes do it every January. Take a spreadsheet, create a row for each week in the year, a column for each day, and start to fill in the blanks. It can look amazing when done, and so obvious: all you need to do is what’s on the spreadsheet, and you’re all set.

Problem is, it will never happen the way you plan it. Trust me. Unless you’re a professional athlete, or among the small minority who have the luxury of putting your endurance hobby ahead of other important things.

The rest of us have to deal with Real Life – jobs, family, everything else. And real life can get in the way of our extra-curricular plans, including training for the Big Event.

The answer: plan your training year in phases. You can follow three phases while building your training base to achieve your goals later in the season:

1. Running Phase 1: Between January and May, I tend to an average six hours training time per week. My training mix is roughly 55% running, 30% biking and 15% swimming. Running is the focus, cycling serve as great cross training, and a little swimming helps to break things up. This approach prepares me for solid Spring running races.

2. Triathlon Phase: June through mid-September. With a solid running base in place, transition to biking as your primary training focus beginning in June, to carry a strong running and biking base into summer triathlons. The days are warmer and longer, allowing more hours for longer training rides and outdoor swimming. The mix of swim, bike and running training should shift directly, with running and cycling almost trading direct emphasis: biking 60%, running 30%, and swimming 10%. I probably underemphasize swimming more than you should; it’s a personal preference. Modify as needed, but keep cycling top priority.

3. Running Phase 2: Mid-September through December. With a solid triathlon training mix, and a good running season already behind you, now is the time to fine tune. Daylight is declining, there are fewer hours in the day, so I shoot to average about six hours training per week, as in the first part of the year. But the training mix, this time, is much more balanced: 50% running, 45% cycling, 5% swimming.

With these phases wrapped around your racing schedule, you can then begin to think about how your weekly training plans should look with a format called Periodization, four week cycles that increase your time and distance over the first three weeks, with the last week as a recovery week.

Now you can go back to create a rough week-by-week plan and give yourself general time and distance targets. Since you know where you’re headed in terms of your training and racing cycle, you’ll feel more comfortable having a flexible schedule that allows you to do important things like earn a living, spend time with friends and family, and generally live a happy life.

And as a result, your training and racing year can then be a source of great enjoyment instead of one of anxiety. Have fun. Train Well. Race Happy.

For more, see:
- How to Train for Triathlon
- How to Race an Ironman Triathlon
- How to Run a Marathon
- Raymond Britt's Training Plans