How do you choose a training plan?

Do you find it overwhelming to select a training plan? A quick google search yields dozens of options, with various mileage recommendations, speed work plans, rest days, cross-training recommendations, etc.

My first half marathon was a last minute thought with some college friends over ten years ago.  We printed off the first half marathon training plan we came across, and followed it pretty religiously.  We did no speed work or tempo runs, but ran for fun with no worries about our final time or race goals.

Over the next five years, I settled into a comfortable 20-30 miles a week and signed up for one or two races a year.  I thought of myself as a runner but wasn’t too competitive with myself or others.  I used training plans as guidelines, but rarely followed one particular plan. I knew the basics I needed to do to race comfortably, and it wasn’t until the last few years (post-baby) that I started paying more attention to speed work, tempo runs and pacing.


Here’s a quick overview of some of the most popular training plans:


Couch to 5k– For beginners, this plan prepares a new runner to finish a 5k in 9 weeks.  I’ve never done the program, but it is highly recommended as a place to start for brand new runners.

Hal Higdon I believe it was Hal Higdon’s plan that got me across the finish line at my first half marathon in Philadelphia.  His popular site has plans for the 5k up to the full marathon, and are divided into novice plans, intermediate or advanced with low or high mileage options.  He also explains the running terminology that he uses and provides many helpful tips.  And they’re all free!

Runner’s World – The popular magazine’s website is packed with training plan options for all distances, although most come with a small fee.  They also offer a Smart Coach training tool that will customize a training plan for you.

Galloway – Galloway’s method is unique because of the planned walk breaks, but many people swear by his run-walk method.  Galloway also has options for beginners, and training plans are free and available online with plans from the 5k up to the marathon.

Bart Yasso– This isn’t a training plan exactly, but he coined the Yasso 800s. The idea is to build up to ten sets of 800m repeats over the course of marathon training in order to help predict your estimated time.  Bart found that running 10 800s in 2:50 each told him he was in shape to run a 2:50 marathon, and it’s been suggested that this may hold true for other paces as well.

Run Less, Run Faster – This book is based on the Furman FIRST training program where runners trained for a marathon on only 3 days of running a week.  It’s written for runners who want to improve, need to maximize their time to train, and/or tend to be injury prone.  The training is based on three quality runs a week (speed, tempo and a long run) with two days of cross training.  Each run is demanding, but the plan has been shown to get results and is great for lower mileage runners. (Includes 5k and 10k plans as well).

Advanced MarathoningWritten by Pete Pfitzinger, this book lays out options with higher mileage plans to assist advanced runners in getting faster and stronger.  I respect Pfitzinger and enjoyed this book, but have not attempted the training plans.  Runners have the option of plans up to 55, 70, or over 70 miles per week.

 Run Less, Run Faster


Another alternative is to hire a coach to help tailor a plan to fit your individual race goals and training abilities.

I am still determining what works best for me, and generally combine a few plans to design my own.  Currently, I’ve been loosely working off Run Less, Run Faster and using spin as my cross training, but three intense runs a week has been challenging.  I’ve found that my body does best on 3-5 days of running a week, so I’m going to start adding an “easy” day and drop the expectation for both a tempo and interval run every week, as I am determined to stay injury-free.

What am I training for? I still haven’t registered for the Houston Marathon (January).  If my shins sail happily through an 18 miler in the next few weeks, I’ll sign up for the full. In the meantime, I have a Turkey Trot 5k around the corner, and the Tri Girls half marathon on December 9th.

It’s hard not to be tempted to compare training plans when I follow so many talented blogging runners.  Comparison is rarely helpful. Some of my friends have been inching up to 80 or 90 miles a week! Part of me wishes I could do the same, but another part knows my limits.  I’m happy to remain a lower-mileage runner (it’s all relative, of course!)  with lots of cross training, as it seems to be where my body is happiest and can still perform well.

Finally, the winner of the Pink Ribbon Reebok shoes is… #108… Alyssa K!  Congrats!!

I’m curious, how do you find your training plan? What other plans would you add to the list?


68 thoughts on “How do you choose a training plan?

  1. What a great post! I ran my first race using the Galloway method and I think it worked well for me but I’m more like you, I haven’t found a specific plan that I swear by and adhere to all the time. I like to take ideas and formulate my own plans based on my own schedule and how I know my body responds. I tend to be injury prone so I stick with fewer days as well but the three intensive runs are too much for me too. Sometimes I run 3 days sometimes 4. But all I know is I’m a happy runner and it gets me from point A to point B.
    Good luck with your 18 miles! 🙂
    Lauren @ The Unlikely Runners recently posted..The One About Week 18 of Marathon TrainingMy Profile

  2. You listed all the plans I know about – The Galloway Method is the only one I don’t really get – I see people doing it during races sometimes (5ks) and we end up “playing tag” for a little while but I always end up picking up speed and out running them. I started off on the couch to 5K through a local running store back in April. After that was over I did the Runners World Memorial Day – July 4th one mile a day streak. Then I made my own plan and just steadily increase my mileage every week. So far it’s worked for me – I run 4-5 days a week and try to cross train 1-2 times a week.

    • Sounds like you’ve got it down! Galloway’s method does look unusual in a race setting, especially something as short as a 5k. The theory for longer races is that it allows your legs to remain fresher- the walking breaks prevent some of the fatigue of continuous running so that you can go faster when you are running, and have more endurance. I’ve never tried it…
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  3. I am definitely a serial monogamist when it comes to training plans! My first marathon was done with a group called HoustonFit. They wrote the plan, I followed it (skipping the speedwork). That was back in 1997. In subsequent years I raced a lot at shorter distances but didn’t follow another plan until I trained for the NYC Marathon in 2005, when I used the Galloway plan. I didn’t run/walk during the race, but I ran/walked all the long runs and it worked well, getting me a huge PR over the 1997 race. After that I got pregnant…..and when I resumed running I did Galloway, then Run Less Run Faster for halves. Run Less Run Faster works, but I got bored and was sort of plateauing, so I switched to Greg McMillan’s custom plans for my next two marathons. And now I am doing actual coaching with Darren De Reuck and Boulder Coaching.

    I can say good things about all of these plans. Coaching (as long as you mesh with your coach and he/she understands you) is the best, but it’s also the most expensive. Darren, though, is pretty reasonable and he has staggered payment options–I’m using the “Silver Star” one, which is mid-range. I plan to stay with him for a while. He’s tough but conservative–which means I work hard, but I also back off hard (he makes me!) if something hurts or I get sick or family stuff comes up.

    I could see myself doing Galloway as I get older, but for now I don’t have to and I enjoy running without walking…Like you, though, I break down with too many miles and I don’t have time for so much running anyway with my job, my two kids and my enjoyment of sleeping in sometimes.
    Terzah recently posted..A Hilly Long RunMy Profile

    • I know some people here doing HoustonFit! It’s still alive and well. I often see them at Memorial if I’m there early on a Sat. 🙂
      Wow- you’ve definitely sampled them all. I love that you’re having such a good experience with your coach. The closest I’ve had to a coach is the local running group I’ve been meeting up with, and running my plan/miles/etc by the leader (“coach”) of the group. As much as I love the online plans and community, it’s really helpful to have a real-life expert to turn to!
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  4. my first marathon training plan was designed for a marathon PE class i took in college! i had a lot of guidance and incorporated speed work, hills, tempo runs and long runs. since then, i’ve run the gamut of plans but if i had to pick, I’d go with Pete pfitzinger. his advanced marathoning book was very helpful when i trained for philly. i followed the 55 miles/week plan and adjusted when necessary. it’s pretty high mileage, but it worked for me.
    runner26 recently posted..When disaster strikesMy Profile

    • That sounds like the ideal way to train for your first! I trained very poorly for my first marathon- I only got in one 18 and one 20 in prep, and really struggled through the final 3-4 miles. I really like what I’ve read from Pfitzinger, and if my body decides it’s happy with that kind of mileage at some point, I’d definitely give it a try.
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  5. My first 1/2 was a Hal Higdon plan. Boring, but got the job done. Over the years I’ve tried quite a few but now make my own combination from the plans. I try for 4 days running with 1 speed or temp, long run and easy runs. It works for me and gives me days to cross train. If I run more than 4 days, I get burned out.
    Angela @ Happy Fit Mama recently posted..Do You Run to Compete or Complete?My Profile

    • We have very similar plans. When I cut back to three days with RLRF, I thought I’d like the speed and tempo each week, but it’s too much work- I like that you do one or the other every week. That’s what I’ve switched to lately and my body is much happier!
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  6. I tend to create my plan after looking at 3-5 other plans. (But it is largely based on the plan my running group uses). I feel comfortable enough now to modify as needed, which I think it really important for injury prevention. 😉
    Mandy recently posted..Second ChancesMy Profile

  7. This is such a great post, I Evernote-ed it for the future! I completely agree with you about doing a plan that’s best for you. And it is so hard with all the blogs out there – makes you want to just run as hard and fast as you can!

    I started the Couch to 5k program with visions of races galore in my head only to get bursitis in my left knee the second week out. So I’m doing all the stuff my ortho doc and physical therapist want me to do and trying to be patient.

    While I’m waiting to run again I’m going to go through all these programs you linked to stay motivated. Plus you have book recommendations! Did I tell you I love this post? 😀
    Lisa recently posted..I am a Sweaty PersonMy Profile

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful, Lisa! I have several other books I could email you as well, if you’re looking for more. Run Like a Mother/ Train Like a Mother are two great books, and Runner’s World just put out a really helpful book, RW’s Big Book of Marathon and Half Marathon training that includes several training plans and has a thorough description of training basics, tips, etc.
      I’m glad you have an ortho and PT helping you out- you’ll get there! 🙂
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  8. Perusing training plans is one of my favorite hobbies : ) I actually just blogged about this, too – I’m trying to transition to running 5 days a week, and am hoping to use the TLAM Own It plan for Boston. I’m a little nervous about abandoning the RLRF plans, but at the same time, they are so, so intense, which is one of the reasons I’m hoping to do a 5-day plan. It would be much nicer if I had at least one or two runs a week where I was able to just go out and run easy. Hope you shins hold up so you can officially sign up for Houston!
    Michelle recently posted..We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled ProgrammingMy Profile

    • Me, too! I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets giddy about sitting down to compare and plan out a training plan. 🙂 Thanks for the shin well wishes. And hope your body likes the 5 day plan- like you, I’m so ready for those easy run days. It’s too easy to get burnt out on RLRF.
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  9. You know you’ve been running for a while when you’ve tried almost all the plans on this list! 🙂 C25K is how I got started with running – my favorite!

    For me, I write my own plans now (as a coach), but I actually enjoy reading other plans, getting ideas, testing things out, and just because I’m a running nerd. Great summary!
    Heather @ Better With Veggies recently posted..MMAZ: Miso Potato BallsMy Profile

    • Thanks, Tina! I’m excited for you… I was actually considering NOLA as well. (I think that’s what you said you’re doing??) 16 weeks gives you time to nail it down, while you start building your long runs up for now. I hope I’ll be joining you in “offical” marathon training soon… Houston is only 9 weeks away. Double eeep!
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  10. I only ever really used something I tore out of RW for my first half then RLRF for everything else, because it worked so darn well for me. I dabbled with a touch of Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning but got almost instantly injured.
    Marcia recently posted..Marathon BrainMy Profile

    • It’s so amazing to me how individual we all are when it comes to running. I’m glad you found what worked for you relatively quickly. I think I’ve found it, too. It seems like every time I mess with it, I;ve also gotten injured!
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  11. My husband always comes up with our training plans, but they most closely resemble Hal Higdon with changes based on our life and what goals we are trying to accomplish. I agree with the high mileage plans…definitely not for me! And I’ve never been able to get through a walk/run program, but I know so many people swear by it!
    Amy recently posted..Giuseppe’s First 5-KMy Profile

  12. My first plan my husband had found through runner’s world. It was no joke hard too. The next time I used SmartCoach to set up a more personalized plan. The 3rd half I used the same plan but ended up injured and had to scrap training (ended up running in the end). this last race, I didn’t follow a set plan but my running workouts were naturally falling into the short run, long run, tempo, speed patterns.
    Heather (Where’s the Beach) recently posted..Running WeekendMy Profile

  13. I have always used the Advanced Marathoning book with success. I love his 70 mile training plan but my body doesn’t love it. 🙂 I tend to top out at 60 miles a week before the added miles actually seem to slow me down. Crossing my fingers for a happy shin on your upcoming 18 miler!
    Robin recently posted..Racing Too MuchMy Profile

    • I’ve felt that way with higher mileage, too- my body gets more tired and my runs feel less productive. Although I’ve never given my body a solid chance to adapt to it (and often got injured anyway). Thank you for the 18 miler best wishes- I feel like I’ve been talking about doing another marathon for months and months, but I’m trying to be realistic. I don’t want to register if I’ll have to pull out!
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

    • I’ve never used a coach… but it is tempting. Especially because now I stay away from some of the things that I associate with causing me injury, when in reality, those things in and of themselves may not be a bad thing… but your right, it’s hard to justify that expense when there are so many other good options.
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  14. I understand your comment about trying to NOT compare ourselves to others. It is so tempting to feel not up to par or that one is doing the wrong thing by reading so many blogs at times! On the flip, we gain so much knowledge too. I’ve come to a place where I loosely follow my chosen plan for the weekly runs, often running either more or slower/faster, choosing to run based on how I’m physically feeling and what life has going on, but I make sure to get that long run in specifically according to the plan. I feel if I can arrange my week days on my own needs, I have less stress trying to stick to a plan. Mommy stuff gets in the way at times 🙂
    Christina recently posted..Indianapolis Monumental Half Marathon 2012 recapMy Profile

    • Yes- you’re right, we definitely gain a lot of knowledge from each other. And the confirmation that it is totally okay to change up the training plan, I do that too week by week. It’s much less stressful giving yourself that flexibility.
      Laura recently posted..How do you choose a training plan?My Profile

  15. This is a great post! I’ve used couch-to-5K, bridge-to-10K, Hal Higdon’s half marathon and marathon training plans, and a triathlon training plan that I modified.

    I’m not sure what I am going to do next time, I am using Hal Higdon’s Intermediate I training plan but I will have to also combine a half Ironman training plan, should be fun!
    Jamie @ couchtoironwoman recently posted..East Ave Grocery Run 5K Race RecapMy Profile

  16. Great recap- there are TONS of training plans out there. When I trained for my first marathon in 2008 and for Boston in 2010 I used the smart coach application on Runner’s World. When I was training for CIM I used RLRF, which I LOVED. Now my coach comes up with workouts for me. Usually (when I am not injured) they are based off of my lactate threshold results.
    Tasha @ Healthy Diva recently posted..Featured Runner: Lora @ Crazy Running GirlMy Profile

  17. Hi there! So glad I clicked over through SITS! I’ve never been athletic, and it takes me months to prepare for even a 5k. And considering I’ve committed myself to another 5k in March, this couldn’t be timed any better. Thanks for the tips and the links!
    Leslie recently posted..Four Months Old & Our HalloweenMy Profile

  18. As a Furman grad, I really like the run less, run faster concept! Especially now that I seem to find it difficult to squeeze in work outs, I like that there is some science to make me feel a little less guilty about my quality over quantity mileage. 🙂 Great post!!
    Mary Helen recently posted..NovemberMy Profile

  19. This is a really comprehensive list of plans! I’ve used Higdon and Runner’s World plans in the past when training for half-marathons and my two full marathons. I’m curious about trying out the Run Less, Run Faster at some point, but will probably go with another Runner’s World plan for Vancouver in May.
    Raquelita recently posted..November GoalsMy Profile

  20. First off, thanks for putting so many great plans in one place! I think you have an excellent point about comparison. One runner’s body can handle things that another’s can;t, and no body gets results the same way.
    Kate recently posted..Goodbye Leaf LadyMy Profile

  21. I’ve been running 3 X a week and my body LOVES IT! I usually only take one complete rest day a week and up my strength and Xtraining. My body loves it. I’ve never read the book, but it’s on my list.

    I never did couch to 5k. I started on the couch but hated those run/walk plans. I felt great doing whatever I could and going from there.

    I usually make my own plans 🙂 I know my self really well now and I hope to eventually add in a 4th day of running 🙂
    Ali Mc recently posted..Road2Hope Recap – My First Half MarathonMy Profile

  22. I really like this post because I am in the middle of this same thought process right now. I am using a cross over between Run Less, Run Faster and making up my own plan to add some additional days/mileage. I think I want to check out that Advanced Marathoning book. Curious to see what your plan looks like though?!
    Corey recently posted..Woofstock 2012My Profile

  23. I’m at the same place as you, Corey! I’ve been using RLRF as a guide, but missed a lot of the speed work the last 3 weeks since the 10 miler made my shin cranky. It’s feeling good again, but I don’t think I can do such an intense plan, so I’m aiming for four days/week with two easy, one either int or tempo and one long. If you’re not on the verge of injury, you could probably just add one easy to RLRF if you want slightly more miles… I always stress over these decisions, but in the end, I don’t think it makes a huge difference, as long as you’re challenging your body and getting adequate recovery/rest.
    Laura recently posted..Halloween eats and Quinoa Veggie Stuffed PeppersMy Profile

  24. I really just experiment with all sorts of plans and do what ends up working best for me. I have done every single one of those plans except the couch to 5K. I would one day like to get up to those high mileage weeks, but I find it too difficult these days. My last training plan was my most successful. I exceeded my goal, stayed injury free and didn’t burn out. One day of speed (using various speed workouts), 1 medium effort run (tempo or just marathon pace), 1 long run, and 1-2 easy, recovery runs (no more than 5 miles). Strength and yoga played a bigger role in my plan this time too. I would spin 1 day a week too.
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