I’m pretty happy being able to run on tricky trails for 10+ hours straight. In all the races I’ve done in the past ten years, from my first 5k up to 60k mountain races, I was able to reach the finish line. To be honest, I love planning a running goal, training towards it for months and finally succeed.
And that’s not just true for a single race or year but also in the long-term. If you stick to a regular running routine you can see amazing improvement over the years. Not only regarding your overall health and fitness but also seeing what your body is actually capable of is an awesome experience.
After a decade of endurance running I took some time to look back and gather the lessons I’ve learned and the mistakes I made. With this particular article I give you a shortcut because you can learn from my experience and mistakes without making them yourself.
So what is this post all about?
For quite a while now I regularly write about different aspects of running on this blog. With this guide I will give you a comprehensive roundup of all the aspects around endurance running training. Building on the information you’ll find here, I’ve created 30 training plans for the popular running distances 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon. You can get them right into your inbox buy signing up at the end of this post.
In this guide I will dig into the whole process of training from finding a running goal that suits you, over training and how to succeed, right up to planning your training for year-over-year improvement. I’ll talk about some training fundamentals and outline how you should structure your training.
Of course in the center of each training plan are the single workouts. I’ll reveal the different types of running workouts and describe what are the benefits and how you should combine the different workouts for maximum improvement.
Often novice runners only focus on running alone. This can work quite well for some but I generally recommend to complement running with other habits like stretching, strength and cross training, as well as nutrition and equipment.
So let’s waste no time and get started right away.
Before you can plan and carry out your training, you have to define what you actually train for. In other words: You need a running goal.
For many runners having a rough idea what they want to achieve isn’t too hard. Finishing a race of a specific distance or running a new PB are the most common running goals. But also try to think a bit outside the box. Loosing a certain amount of weight, being outside for a defined amount of hours each week, or reduce your stress level are also goals you can easily achieve with running. You can think about way more than just races and finishing times.
The most important thing about a running goal is that it suits you. Your goal and the training towards achieving it, need to fit into your lifestyle. If you’re not a pro runner you have many other things going on in your life. Your job, your family and friends as well as your health should always come first. Choose a goal and an amount of training that gives your life balance and energy and not the contrary.
Also a goal needs to respect your current fitness level. There’s no sense in training for a sub 3h marathon right after your first 5k run. If you need an idea for which distance and time goals you are ready, check out the trainings plans that come along with this guide. You can find them at the end of this article.
Recently I’ve published a post that is all about finding your next running goal. You can find it here:
How To Set Your Next Running Goal
Before digging deep into training structure and different workouts, I’d like to give you an introduction into some basics of endurance running. As trivial as this information may seem, it is still what I consider the foundation of any running training program.
Even after a decade of running these principles and fundamentals are what drive my running training.
This is the basic training principle that you have to internalize. Why? Because it shows you how improvement actually works. This is absolutely key to understand in order to design a good training program and get the most out of the hours you are working out.
As you can see in the graphic below, your body goes through different phases during and after a workout. These are:
As you can see timing your training is very important. But to know when your body is ready for the next training stimulus is not that easy. Experience and constant reflection on your training and how your body reacts to it is needed.
If you wanna know more about supercompensation, check out this post:
5 Reasons Why Supercompensation Is Important
Many think of running or most other endurance sports as just simply train your heart and muscles. Without a doubt are these body parts very important when it comes to running. But it’s only part of the full story.
I rather think of endurance running as a full body sport. You land on your feet which triggers the whole suspension chain. The dozens of bones, ligaments and muscles of your foot are the first stage of reducing the impact force of the step you just took. After that your calf muscles fire as well as your quads that stabilize your knee. Also your hips and back are important parts of your suspension chain.
The core of your body maintains a proper upright running posture and the swing of your arms fosters a constant forward motion. Your musculoskeletal system with hundreds of ligaments, tendons, bones, fascia and muscles supports the movement of running.
Fresh oxygen goes through your respiratory track to your lungs where it is fetched by red blood cells. Your heart pumps your blood and transports oxygen and nutrients to your muscles and organs. Your muscles transform the energy you took in and your dietary system processed, into muscle contraction and therefore motion.
And then on top of it all there’s your head containing the central processing unit that controls everything mentioned before. And don’t underestimate the role of your psyche when it comes to endurance running. Being mentally tough is crucial when going for the marathon or ultra marathon distances.
As you can see running is more complex than many think and needs your entire body in order to be carried out. So always keep in mind that you not only have to train these different aspects of your body but that you can run into issues with all of them if you don’t train properly.
After these basics let’s dig into structuring your training. For planning I usually consider different levels as far as time. The smallest is of course the workout itself. Over your training weeks and structuring 4-6 week training blocks per year, the most long-term view would be your entire running career.
These levels affect each other and I recommend you to start with your long-term structure and go top down right to your single training session. Having a clear vision and multi-year plan in place, makes planning your training block and weeks much easier.
Success doesn’t come overnight. If you wanna get somewhere you need to work towards it for a long time. As I mentioned many times, having a running dream is one of the best ways to keep your motivation up over the years. Having a clear vision about where you wanna go is what drives you forward and defines intermediate goals that you can train for in different training blocks.
You can be quite ambitious with your long-term running goal. Consider that endurance running is a sport you can do for decades. And if you keep training consistently for many years, you can achieve awesome things.
Whether it is running a crazy adventure race, participating in Boston or another major marathon or even winning races, can be realistic goals if you’re willing to invest time and hard work.
Having a long-term vision requires you to stay on track over many years and therefore stay healthy. Due to the fact that running can be done up to an advanced age, there’s no need to hurry. After each year look back at what you achieved and define a realistic goal for the next year.
Let’s say you wanna run the Boston Marathon and you’re currently a couch potato without running experience whatsoever. Try to run 5k and 10k races in the first year and work towards establishing a sustainable running habit. In the second year you can go to the half marathon distance and run two or three races. After that you can take a year time to transform to the full marathon distance. Run your first marathon and adapt your body and habits to this distance and the training efforts. And then finally you can keep improving, gather experience and train for qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It’s much better to work towards your big goal over some years and don’t rush into anything. If you want too much too fast you just get injured and frustrated.
Sure you might be able to achieve this in half the time, but would this be reasonable? In my opinion a runner’s health should always be in the focus. Just consider that amateur runners do not have the same resources as pro athletes. But that can be an advantage as far as health. You have to learn a feeling for your body and learn to be adaptable yourself. No team doctors, therapists, coaches and pro team mates. It’s mostly up to you and you can define the next steps yourself without having external pressure.
After having a long-term idea in place of where you wanna go as a runner, it’s time to set specific training goals and plan out your running year. I usually divide a running year into 4-6 training blocks with 8-12 weeks of training.
But why this fragmentation of a training year into several blocks? A training block gives you time to specifically train a certain aspect like endurance or speed. Within the weeks of training you have a heavy workload with distinct improvement. And after a training block it’s again time to give your body a couple of days (10-15 days) for recovery.
Between the training blocks you can measure your fitness level, figure out if you met your expectations and find weak spots you want to improve in the next training block. Having four to six of these blocks gives you the chance to prepare for different races with different requirements within a single running season.
Let me give you a few examples of training goals you can focus on within a training block:
Within the weeks of training you should also have a certain structure. To reduce the chance of overtraining and injury and give your body time to react to the training stimulus you set with your workouts, you should plan a recovery week after 2-3 weeks of hard training. I usually go with two weeks of heavy training followed by one week with reduced training volume and intensity.
Don’t completely stop training in recovery weeks. Just reduce your weekly mileage by about 20-40% and replace one or two training runs with cross training. In this weeks you can also do recovery activities like getting a massage or going to the sauna.
When you know what focus you want to set in a training block, you can now plan out the running weeks within a block. If your block spans across 12 weeks you have four mini blocks with two weeks of training followed by one week of recovery.
If you wanna get the most out of your training and keep improvement at a constant rate, your training weeks get harder and harder over time. As a general rule you can increase your mileage by 10% every week. That obviously doesn’t count for recovery weeks in which you reduce mileage by about 30%.
So how do you tackle a single week of training? Let me give you a few guidelines for that purpose:
With this constant repetition of planning, executing and analyzing you get better and better and squeeze the most out of your training activities.
Also your single workout needs a minimum amount of planning and can be structured into different parts. These are:
An important thing to say is that you most probably won’t carry out each workout as you planned it. This is especially the case for beginners and long-term training plans. It’s very important that you’re prepared to react to whatever happens.
Always listen to your body and keep a health first attitude. The worst that can happen is that you get injured or beaten up too much by your training. Don’t be afraid to adapt your training plan according to how your body reacts to the training stimulus.
This is probably the best tip I can give you. Be adaptable and don’t be afraid to alter your training plan regularly. As you gain more and more experience you learn how to plan and execute your training specifically for your needs. Always think long-term and not for fast and unhealthy success.
After describing the structure of your training on the different levels, it’s now time to have a closer look on the most important item part of your training – the training run itself.
If you search online you can find dozens of different types of workouts and training techniques. As all those may be valuable I wanna make things really easy here and just present you three types of running workouts. Every other training run you find is simply a variation of these three workout types.
Each of these runs train a specific mechanism of your body that is needed if you wanna improve as a runner. Obviously the best is to combine all of these in your training as most training plans do. I’ll describe here the advantages of each workout and how to do them correctly so you have the information you need to create your own training plan specifically for your goals.
Of course my own training plans combine all of these workouts. You can find 30 free training plans for distances from 5k to marathon at the bottom of this post.
The first workout and my favorite is the long run. As the name already reveals this is the longest run of your training week as far as time and also distance. The goal of the long run is to increase your endurance, thus the ability to keep going at constant pace further and further.
You can achieve this by making your energy metabolism more efficient and train your body to use a higher amount of fat for energy supply. So bottom line the long run trains fat metabolism.
But this is not the only advantage of the long run. When training for long distances the regular long run also helps you prepare the mental side. You get used to keep moving for 2-3 hours straight and all the challenges that come along with that. The long run is also great to test out different things. What kind of music will work when having a low. Or which clothes and equipment works the best.
So how should you do a long run? The most important thing is to always keep the intensity at a low rate. I recommend to do the long run at 70-75% of your maximum heart rate. In this intensity your body can use mostly fat for energy supply. If your training for a 5k or 10k race the long run isn’t much longer than other workouts. But you should still do most of your running at a low intensity. When I was training for half marathons my long runs were between 15k and 22k, for marathon training I recommend to do 30-35k long runs, This may look like impossible distances in training but doing these are especially important to build the endurance to be able to run long distance races.
The topic of nutrition during the long run is a bit controversial. I originally learned to not take in any energy at all during the run but just drink water. Others think this is completely crazy. The reason I did it is this: On a long run you use all the carbohydrates that are stored in you blood, muscles and liver. After running out of carbs your body uses fat as the primary source of energy. With that method you stimulate your body to burn fats more efficiently and therefore increase fat metabolism. If you take in carbs during the run you interrupt this process and your body doesn’t need to adapt to low energy (carbs) levels as much. Also hitting the wall in training helps you prepare for what happens during a race.
As my long runs are nowadays more on hilly terrain and therefore a bit more intense, I also take one or the other energy gel with me. But I still think it’s good to start just with water to efficiently train your rate of fat burn at the beginning of the training.
Of course you should start your long run well hydrated and with full reserves in your carbohydrate storage. And after the run fill your carb and hydration levels up again as fast as possible.
For more information about the long run, check out this article:
The Long Run And How to Do It Right
The second type of training is at a much higher intensity as the long run. The point of this workout is not to gain endurance but to increase the pace you can keep up for the duration of a race. In other words: This workout makes you faster.
With intense workouts you increase your aerobic capacity which means to work at a higher performance while maintaining an aerobic energy state. Aerobic means that there’s enough oxygen available to metabolize energy. If you’re running in an anaerobic state not enough oxygen can be taken in and transported to your muscles. As a result the lactate that is built as a byproduct of supplying energy can’t be abolished. You can’t hold up an anaerobic state for more than just a few minutes. Your legs start to burn and you just need to get slower to get rid of the lactate in your muscles.
At around 90% of your maximum heart rate you perform at the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic energy supply. And that’s the intensity you need to train at in your intense workout runs. If you run regularly at that intensity you’re able to increase the pace you can keep running for a certain amount of time.
As you might have experienced, running at 90% of your heart rate is really intense. Not only for your cardiovascular and respiratory system but also for your locomotive system. While running faster there’s much more stress on your bones, ligaments and joints. That’s why you shouldn’t run at high intensity for more than 10-15% of your entire training volume.
There are plenty of different high intensity workouts you can incorporate in your training regime. For all of them a proper warm up and cool down is necessary. I usually do 2k at the beginning and end for this purpose.
Probably the most effective type of training to increase speed is interval training. The principle of this is simple: Run intensively for a certain time or distance and then relax until your heart rate drops below 75%. This pattern of high intensity and recovery trains not only running faster but also being able to recover in less time. A fast recovery is directly correlated to an increased aerobic capacity.
To learn more about some effective intense running workouts check out these posts:
4 Proven Workouts To Become a Faster Runner
3 Reasons Why You Should Favor Intervals
3 Hill Workouts That Will Boost Your Race Pace
What the Hell is a Fartlek Run?
The long run and the intense workouts are the most important parts of your running routine and as mentioned before you should do them every week. If your goal is to gain endurance, focus a bit more on the long run, if you want to run faster, set a focus on intense workouts.
Doing a long run and an interval training each week you only have two workouts set. The rest of the runs you do to fill up your training days should be moderate runs. As the other two types of workouts are the foundation and inevitable if you want to improve as an endurance runner, moderate runs also have a specific purpose.
Moderate runs should be between 70% and 80% of your maximum heart rate and last for 30 up top 90 minutes. These workouts not only maintain the fitness level you achieved with the other workouts but also train your locomotive system for regular running and a high amount of miles.
The higher your training level the more runs your body can endure each week. I usually do one long run, one intense workout and two moderate runs. Four workouts a week doesn’t seem that much if your working towards high goals, especially when looking at training plans and tips that float around the internet. I personally didn’t need to run more than four times a week to train for 3.5 hour marathons as well as ultra trail races. The key is cross training, recovery and other activities. More on that in the next chapter.
Obviously as an endurance runner, running is the most important part of your training. But to stay healthy, prevent injuries and get the most out of your training, there are some additional habits you should consider to complement your training.
Don’t consider this chapter as just a “nice to have” but rather build the things I describe here into your training routine. Failing to do so can increase the chance of getting injured, overtrained or missing out on improvements regarding speed and endurance.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, almost the entire body is used while running. And not just your physical self but also your mental attitude. So make sure you give each aspect the attention that is needed.
I don’t go into too much detail here as I will cover these things in dedicated posts.
I’ll go first with what I often consider the most important part of training. It might sound paradox that recovery is more important than working out itself. But when you understand the principle of supercompensation, you know that your body adapts to a training stimulus in the recovery period after a training. And only by having a good timing on when to do the next workout, you’ll get the most out of your workouts.
Don’t just consider recovery as simply waiting before the next workout starts, but also be more “active” about it. Try to get a feeling on how long your body needs to recover. Check your overall feeling, tiredness and muscles soreness. And undertake recovery activities like massages, wellness, and most important get enough sleep. As a rule of thumb for every hour of running get half an hour more sleep than usual.
The time of recovery also varies as your training and fitness level progress. The fitter you are the faster you’ll recover. But the higher and more intense your training the more recovery you’ll need. So always try to figure out how your body reacts to your training efforts and take enough time to recover.
Nowadays stretching is widely accepted as one of the must do things no matter the sport you perform. But it is still controversial how much stretching is needed and how to carry out stretching exercises.
I’ve also read from runners (like Bernd Heinrich, multiple long distance US champion and record holder) who just went running and didn’t do anything else like stretching or strength training. As this approach might work for some, I still recommend most runners to add stretching at least after your long and intense runs.
The reason is this. When you train a muscle it normally gets shorter. When running, not all your muscles are used or trained in the same matter. If a muscle gets too much shorter than its counter part (like biceps and triceps in your arms) this can be a serious imbalances which can then lead to injuries. By stretching the muscles most used in running, you can avoid these imbalances which contributes to injury prevention.
The benefit of stretching for recovery and decreasing muscle soreness is controversial. However in my experiences my muscles feel better and more relaxed after the stretching routine.
Normally I just stretch extensively about an hour after my workouts. You can do some stretching to warm up but not too much as there is data that suggests that stretched muscles have a bit a lower performance.
As far as muscle groups to stretch I’d go with calves, upper legs (quads, hamstrings) and also hips and glutes. I try to stretch each muscle for 30 seconds and this two times with a little break in between.
Strength training is also something I recommend doing in order to prevent injuries and make endurance running feel easier. Especially for beginning runners or if you undergo major changes in your running (like going from road to trail) I recommend building strength to relieve stress on your joints and maintain a proper running form.
As you might imagine training your leg muscles is the first thing to consider when strength training but not the only one. Training your calves and upper leg muscles will strengthen your suspension chain as well as stabilize your ankle and knee joints.
But apart from your legs also try to train your hips, glutes, abs and back. A strong core is the foundation of a proper running form that can be maintained for long distances.
I usually do bodyweight exercises or use a flex band. You shouldn’t train with maximum weights as you don’t want to increase your muscle volume too much but rather increase strength endurance. You accomplish this by doing 2-3 sets for each muscles with 15+ repetitions.
Try to do 2-3 strength training sessions each week especially in the training blocks where you want to build a good base, for example in the winter months. When you increase training intensity in the weeks before a race you can cut back strength training to 1-2 sessions a week.
There are much more ways to build endurance than just by running. In order to maintain your fitness level but give your joints, bones and ligaments a pause from the thousands of impacts from a training run, you can switch one or the other moderate run with a cross training session.
Other sports that are good in exchange for running are basically all other endurance activities. I usually ride my bike (on the road), go swimming, hiking or cross-country skiing in winter.
Though I recommend cross training you shouldn’t do it too much. If you wanna be a great runner you need to run, plain and simple. Cross training is great in recovery weeks or if an injury becomes apparent and you want to relieve stress on certain body parts.
As mentioned not only your body should be prepared but also your mind. This is especially important if you go to the marathon distance and beyond. Basically it’s a big advantage if you think about all the struggles and issues that can occur during a race and you have solutions in mind before you line up at the starting line.
Being mentally prepared for whatever can happen helps you not to panic during a race but perform a predefined procedure for a specific problem. If you think what can happen during a race (blisters, chaffing, falling, hitting the wall, dehydration, and much more), it’s good to have a prepared solution in mind.
Also for the last stages of a race where it’s getting really hard you have to dig deep and keep up a positive attitude. By visualizing success over and over again. I for example try to visualize not only the struggles of my races but also that awesome feeling of crossing the finish line.
Beyond the marathon distance your mental strength is at least as important as your physical fitness level.
Another very important topic is nutrition, not only for your running habit but in general. If you care about your body and health, nutrition is one of the things you should always have in mind. Food and liquids not only deliver energy but also many other nutrients that your organism needs in order to function correctly.
The diet of a lot of people in the western hemisphere is far away from being healthy. Saturated fats and refined sugars are dominating our food, not because it’s healthy but because it’s convenient and addictive. In a regular western office job lifestyle one doesn’t feel the effects of a bad diet right away. But if you ask more from your body through sports, malnutrition gets more and more obvious.
As far as diet there are thousands of trendy recommendations out there people get very excited about. My approach here is simple and basically consists of two principles.
Of course an endurance running body has different needs but going to deep into that topic would be too much for this article. To find out more check out these articles:
Nutrition Basics: How You Get Energy
4 Essential Vitamins Every Runner Needs
Finally let me write a few words about equipment you need for running. The market here is huge and there are thousands of articles you could buy. Some of them are very usable and some of them you don’t need at all.
Let me just say that an expensive running shirt doesn’t make you a better runner. You still have to do the work yourself if you want to improve. However there are some pieces of equipment I recommend you to spend some time and money on.
Last but not least I wanna share some information about progress and how to track it. In order to find out what works for you and what doesn’t you need to analyze your training and progress.
There are many things you could to for that purpose. Maybe you’ve seen pro athletes testing themselves in a laboratory. But there are much easier and cheaper things to do to track your performance level.
Quite old-fashioned but still very useful is the good old running log. Buy a notebook, use a Word or Excel document or take advantage of one of the many apps out there that allow you to take structured notes.
But what should the running log contain? Let me give you a few suggestions:
Having a running log with good and complete information helps you to get a good body feeling and learn what works for you.
Analyzing your running log regularly allows you to plan your further training specifically for your needs. Training plans like the ones you can download below are a great start but every runner is different. So it is crucial to adjust a training plan to your requirements for maximum outcome.
When I started running there were no smart phones. Good running watches came with some kind of software that helped you track your training data.
Of course this is much different nowadays. There are plenty of apps for all platforms available that allow you to track your routes and running data. And I recommend you to take advantage of them.
I personally use Strava but there are many more like Runtastic, RunKeeper or Movescount.
If you wanna know more about Strava and why I use it, check out this review:
Strava Review: A Runners Perspective
To track your fitness level I recommend you to do a simple test before you start each new training block: The Cooper test.
Originally the Cooper test was designed to test the fitness level of soldiers. But today it is an easy and well-recognized performance test everyone can perform.
And here’s how to do it:
That’s it, pretty easy right? Remember that you get the best performance if you’re able to run a constant pace. You will achieve that by running at 90% of your maximum heart rate. If you’ve done some intense training runs you should “feel” the ideal pace you can hold for 12 minutes. Just remember not to start out too fast.
You have now two possibilities two measure your improvement. Either you note and compare the distances you were able to run in the tests or you calculate your VO2max out of the test results and compare that measure. Here are the formulas to calculate VO2max out of the Cooper test results (KM and miles):
I hope this guide gives you the information you need to plan and execute your endurance running training in the best way possible. As I like to mention regularly, endurance sports is something very individual and you get the most success if you get to know your body and react accordingly.
But I don’t want you to get started (or go on) completely from scratch. Below you can download 30 free training plans I’ve created for the most common distances 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon. You get plenty of training plans so there is something for every level. You can start with a couch to 5K training plan or try to run a sub 3h marathon if you’re an advanced runner.
Every training plan has a targeted finishing time and the requirements you should meet to start this training program.
Please remember that these training plans are not engraved in stone but rather a blueprint for you. Always listen to your body and change the plans accordingly.
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