Finding the correct training plan to meet your needs can be a challenge in itself! A good plan should incorporate at least 3 runs per week, along with cross training which includes strength and / or flexibility work. Runs should consist of “easy” mileage, economy or speed work, and then a long run which focuses on building endurance by increasing the distance each week. It’s important to ensure that you don’t do too much too soon and look to gradually increase your weekly mileage as you progress. Strength work and flexibility should be included to help you strengthen your muscles and prevent imbalances which and lead to injury. Cross training such as swimming or cycling may also be important, especially if you are injury prone or need to reduce the impact on your body.
Before choosing a plan you should consider the following:
It’s important to take your current ability and fitness levels into account when choosing a training plan. Some plans expect a certain level of fitness whilst others start from zero, such as the popular Couch 2 5k plan. Set reasonable expectations for yourself. If you can’t run for 30 seconds when first starting out then it may be best served to avoid a plan which expects your first long run to be 6 miles!
There is no point following a plan which requires you to train 7 days a week if you know that you have other commitments and would only be able to train for 4. Break down your free time to work out how much time you can reasonably allocate to training. This time must also take into account any travelling which may be involved, so if you have to travel to and from the gym or swimming baths. If you struggle to stick to schedules then try to avoid being over ambitious as you may be setting yourself up for failure. Instead, work on building consistency and making exercise a routine before adding more sessions.
Your chosen plan should reflect your target goal. A beginner’s plan would be a great choice if you are just looking to complete the distance and aren’t focused on hitting a certain time goal. If, however, you are aiming for a sub-3:30 marathon, you will require a more dedicated plan which covers a higher weekly mileage and focuses more on speed work and running economy. It’s important to keep your goals realistic as your goal will influence the training plan that you choose. It may do more harm than good if you try to follow a training plan which is too advanced for you as you put yourself at risk of injury from over-training or training at too fast of a pace.
Free Beginner’s Plans:
Below are some of the best free training plans for people who are just starting out on their running journey or who are increasing their distance:
- Couch to 5k – an NHS recommended program. This is where a lot of runners start out. It uses walk / run intervals to build up fitness until you can run for 5k or 30 minutes non-stop. It’s important to note that you may complete the plan and be able to run for 30 minutes non-stop, but fall short of the 5k distance depending on your pace.
- Runner’s World Beginner 5k – this 6 week plan uses a similar approach to the Couch to 5k plan. If this turns out to be too easy, they also offer an intermediate 5k plan.
- BUPA Beginner – this is an 8 week plan which recommends being able to run 5k (3.1 mile) in less than 40 minutes, however it does build up gradually. The first week starts with 2 easy 30 minute runs, stating that you can take a short walk break if needed. Sunday is the first long run day of 2 miles. The mid-week runs increase to a maximum time of 40 minutes, with the long runs increasing to 5 miles.
- Nike 10k – a well-balanced plan which incorporates speed, endurance and recovery. It also walks you through how to work out your starting paces and how to use the pacing charts. It’s a well-rounded and easy to follow plan for someone who wants to truly understand their pacing and runs.
- Vitality 10000 – this 8-week program starts by using run / walk intervals of 5 minutes. By week 7 the plan has you running 70 minutes, however it emphasizes that short walk breaks can be taken.
- Jeff Galloway Run / Walk Plan – this plan breaks down your run / walk interval splits depending on your desired pace. It’s a good option for those who are just starting out on their running or fitness journey but already have a half marathon in the works.
- BUPA 12 Week Plan – this 12 week plan incorporates tempo runs, intervals, easy runs and a weekly long run to build mileage. The longest training run is 12 miles which takes place 2 weeks before your target half marathon.
- POP Sugar 16 Week Plan – this is one of the longer half marathon training plans at 16 weeks. It incorporates strength training and stretching to reduce the risk of injury. Cross training is also recommended.
- VLM Beginner – this plan utilizes 3 running days per week, with 1 day set aside for core and stretching. Depending on your starting fitness and pace, the jump from week 5 to week 6 may prove difficult. Week 5 has a weekend run of 75 minutes, followed by a 10 mile run the following week. The longest run of the plan is 22 miles.
- BUPA – if you are able to commit to running an extra day then the BUPA plan may be of interest. It consists of 4 running days per week. Each week is slightly different as the plan utilizes steady runs, tempo runs, interval runs and a weekly long run. The one thing that I’m not keen on is how the plan increase the weekly long run mileage. For example, week 7 is a 10 mile long run, then week 8 this increases to 15 miles. Week 13 then goes up to 20-22 miles, despite the previous longest distance being 15 miles.
- Jeff Galloway – this is the longest training plan on the list at 30 weeks (32 including the 2 week post-marathon). It’s a 4 day plan consisting of a weekly long run, 2 30 minute mid-week runs, and a walk day. Unlike any of the other plans, this one incorporates a 26 mile training run as the longest run 4 week before the marathon. Some may find this mentally beneficial as you know that you are capable of going the distance, others may find this unnecessary.
Free Improver’s Plans:
These plans are suited for people who have previously completed the distance and are now looking to improve their race time:
- Prostate Cancer UK – this 10 week plan incorporates interval runs, hills and threshold training with recovery runs and rest days in between. The plan also builds up a weekly long run to build endurance.
- Runner’s World – a shorter 6 week improver’s plan. This plan is for people who can easily run for 30 minutes or more, and run at least 4 times per week. It utilizes easy and tempo runs, as well as fartlek runs to improve your speed. The longest weekly run is 45 minutes.
- Women’s Running – don’t be put off by the name as this is certainly applicable to men also! There are 2 plans available here – one for a sub-60 and the other for a sub-50 minute 10k. Unlike the below plans, these operate on a 5 run day schedule. Both incorporate hill repeats, long runs, race pace runs, tempo runs, easy runs and strength training,
- Vitality 10000 Improver’s Plan – this is a 10 week plan which also provides racing advice. The plan uses 4 running days and mixes in speed work with recovery days, as well as building on a weekly long run up to 80 minutes.
- BUPA Advanced – this plan alternates weeks of 4 and 5 running days. Mid-week runs are between 30-40 minutes, with weekends being for longer efforts of 40-50 minutes on a Saturday and up to 10 miles on a Sunday. Like the other improver plans, there is a mixture of easy, steady, intervals, tempo and long runs.
- BUPA Advanced – for those who liked the BUPA beginner plan, this is the next step up. It can also be useful to those who have ran a half marathon before using a different plan, or who are running their first half marathon but starting with a stronger fitness base.
- Front Runner Events Improver – this is a 16 week plan which is split into 3 phases: pre-conditioning, long, and tapering. The pre-conditioning phase lasts 3 weeks and utilizes 4 running days, with an optional fifth day. For this phase, each week is identical with the longest run being 5 miles. Next up is a 10 week long phase. The focus is to build up the weekly mileage whilst continuing with the speed, recovery and tempo runs from the pre-conditioning phase. Finally comes the taper phase where mileage is reduced to allow the body to recover and peak on race day. The longest run of the plan is 12 miles, with the highest weekly mileage being 26 miles.
- Milton Keynes Half Improver – this is a 12 week plan which utilizes intervals, threshold runs, long runs, easy and steady runs. It also explains the terms and effort required for each type of run to ensure that they are completed at the correct intensity. This is a 5 day per week plan, with the longest run in week 1 being 45-50 minutes. It then builds up to a 2 hour long run in week 10.
- Front Runner Events Improver – just like their half marathon improver plan, this plan is also 16 weeks and utilizes the same 3 phases: pre-conditioning, long, and taper. As above, the pre-conditioning phase lasts 3 weeks and is to build up base endurance and strength. The long phase works on increasing the weekly long run and overall mileage. Week 13 utilizes the longest run of the plan at 24 miles before the 3 week taper phase starts. This week reduces the mileage to help recovery before race day.
- Martin Yelling VLM Improver – this plan works in time rather than distance. It’s a 16 week plan which builds up from a long run of 60 minutes to 3 and a half hours. Each week consists of 4 running days, with a mixture of mid-week easy and steady runs and a weekly long run. From week 6 onwards, intervals and tempo runs are introduced.
- Ultra Running Ltd – there are 2 options of improver’s plans available. Both utilize 5 running days per week, however the first starts out a little easier. They are both similar, however option 1 starts with a lower mileage first week and the first long run is 6 miles compared to 9 miles in option 2. Option 1 also only has 2 20 mile long runs across the 16 week plan compared to the 3 (and a 19) in option 2. Both incorporate a half marathon race in week 7.
Training plans are not “one shoe fits all”, and as such, a plan which works for your friend may not be suitable for you. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to copy a successful runner’s plan just because it works for them. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t be able to follow Mo Farah’s plan or match his weekly mileage! It’s important to consider your time constraints when it comes to training, but also what your goals are. If you are training for a specific time then your plan would look very different to someone who is training to follow a run / walk (Jeffing) method to complete their first marathon. It’s important to find a plan which matches your goals, however it is far more important to actually follow that plan and train consistently!