Ultrarunners tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to training for a race: hire a coach, follow an ultramarathon training plan, or wing it. If you’ve been around the ultra world long enough, you’ve probably given all three a try.
The approach that works best certainly varies from runner to runner. If you ask in an online forum or group full of runners which approach is best, you’ll get endless varying opinions. Some people will say that working with a coach is the best option. Other’s will swear that coaches aren’t worth the money, you can easily write your own plan. Some will suggest following generic, pre-written plans found in books or on the internet. And of course, there will inevitably be the “Training? Why would you train for a race?” group of runners
In part one of this three part series, we dove into the pros and cons of hiring and working with an ultra coach. In part two, I shared a step by step guide on how to choose the right ultramarathon coach for you.
In this post, we’re going to talk about pre-written, static training plans. Are they just as good as working with a coach? Are they better than trying to write your own plan? Who are these sort of plans good for? Let’s take a deeper look.
Examining the Pros and Cons of Ultramarathon Training Plans
Right from the start, I will be the first to say that yes, working with a coach for individualized one on one training is going to be the better option for most runners.
However, in my 11+ years as a professional in the fitness industry, and over 6 years specifically focusing on training ultramarathon runners, I have also recognized that there are, indeed, very valid reasons for an athlete to NOT work with a coach. And in these cases, static training ultramarathon training plans may be a better option.
As you can imagine, this is a very unpopular opinion among the coaching world, but nevertheless, I’m not afraid to admit that not every ultrarunner needs a coach to be successful.
So, with that out of the way, let’s focus exclusively on training plans:
Static Training Plan: Defined
A static training plan is a generic plan written by a professional in the running industry (in theory). These sort of plans are designed based on methodology and programming that is known among the industry to be effective and appropriate for most, when followed as programmed.
Static training plans are usually built following a specific model of periodization, with progressively increasing volumes of training “stress” over a given amount of time, paired with periods of rest, with the goal of bringing an athlete to peak performance at the time of their race.
These training plans can vary WILDLY depending on the approach. You may find everything from a simple, linear increase in volume with regular cutback weeks, to a plan with more detailed mesocycles or microcycles to help focus on specific aspects of your training, such as improving speed, strength, or endurance.
Regardless of the detail, a static training plan is just that: static. All of the workouts are laid out for you a the beginning of the plan, from start to finish.
Pros of Following a Static Ultramarathon Training Plans:
Let’s start with the positive: examining the pros of following a static training plan. I’ll be honest, some may look at these factors and not consider them valid reasons for making a static training plan a “pro”. But it’s important to remember that everyone has unique situations and life circumstances, and so what’s best for one runner, might not be the “best” for another runner.
Free or Less Expensive
Static training plans are available to runners at a comparatively lower price than paying for individualized coaching (which varies greatly, but typically costs between $100-300 a month).
Generic plans, however, can cost an athlete anything from from a one time cost to download or to purchase a book, or can be found for free from many online publications.
If finances are tight, or you simply don’t currently see the value in hiring a ultrarunning coach, the lower cost of a static plan may be appealing. Because let’s face it: between the cost of race entry fees, shoes, GPS watches, and all the food: this “simple” sport can be pretty expensive.
No External Pressure
Once you print out the training plan and hang it on your wall or refrigerator, you are the only one holding yourself accountable. There is no coach to check in with, and only yourself to answer to if you skip workouts. For some ultrarunners, that is all the pressure they need. Adding any additional eternal pressure may increase negative or unwanted feelings towards training and running.
Further, if you have extenuating life circumstances that mean you aren’t certain you can adhere to training at all, opting to attempt training with a training plan versus hiring a coach might seem like a more responsible decision.
Ability to Train Alongside Others
If you’re hoping to train for an event with a friend or family member, and you plan to either complete the workouts together in person, or “together” virtually, having a static training plan may be ideal. That way, you can both do the same thing at the same time, without having to worry about affecting the other runner’s workout parameters. Of course this is the antithesis of “individualized training, but nevertheless, a static training plan will allow you and your running buddies to have the same training schedule.
And for some people, group or partner training is one of the joys of running, and something they aren’t willing to sacrifice.
(Usually) A Better Alternative to “Winging It”
Listen. Everyone has their specialties and their areas of expertise. I understand exercise science, I know how to program a training plan, and I am confident and comfortable coaching runners. But the list of things that I don’t understand is vast.
For example, simply trying to understand the coding or workings of the back end of this very blog is so foreign to me, that I pay an expert to help me out. Trying to understand it makes my head spin.
An observation I’ve made over the last decade is that while most runners absolutely love the sport of running, many do not understand the exercise science side of it. More often than not, they will “wing it” – meaning either put together an ineffective plan (because they lack the necessary knowledge) or just do whatever they feel like.
A static training plan written by a professional, while certainly not individualized, gives a better outline than simply no outline at all. This will hopefully help an athlete have more success in their training cycle than if they had no structure to follow at all.
Cons of Following Static Ultramarathon Training Plans:
There are undoubtedly negatives to following a static training plan as well. The obvious, of course, is that it is not in any way individualized beyond the distance race you have chosen to train for. But let’s dig deeper:
Who Wrote This Plan?
I think we all know that the internet is free-for-all. Anyone can create a training plan and offer it up on the internet for runners to download and follow. And so that means that while some of the training plans out there are sound, others were simply thrown together by someone who either thought they were trying to help (but actually doesn’t have the proper working knowledge to write a plan), or by someone who was simply trying to throw together some content for their blog.
Long live the Search Engine Optimization game. (That’s my sarcasm voice).
I have personally seen training plans available that run the gamut from following proven science and likely very safe, to downright nonsense that is seemingly following NO pattern whatsoever, and can even be downright dangerous. We’ll talk more about this in the “how to choose an ultramarathon training plan” section below.
The Plan May Not Meet the Demands of the Race
Let’s say you got into the Barkley Fall Classic, a notoriously difficult 50K (though likely, it’s much longer). You felt like going for a “go big or go home” approach, and so you entered the lottery even though this will be your first 50K ever. Your name got picked, you got in, and you follow a sound, but generic, training plan.
Guess what? Even if you follow the plan to a tee, you’re likely going to feel woefully underprepared for that race. Because chances are the generic plan you followed did not address the very specific demands of the course, which in this case, is tens of thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss.
Now, that’s an extreme example, of course. But when we’re discussing ultramarathons, the specificity and difficulty of the course is going to take an even greater toll on your body over the longer distances. Thus, you’ll benefit much more from individualized training that takes not only these factors into consideration, but addresses your specific strengths and weaknesses regarding those course specifics.
None of the Human Perks
A training plan won’t send you words of encouragement after you had a bad workout. A training plan won’t be able to help you figure out where to reschedule that interval workout you had to unexpectedly miss yesterday. A training plan won’t call you out if you are perpetually skipping your hill workouts, or running your recovery runs at a 5K race pace effort. A training plan won’t be able to assure you that you are, in fact, ready for your race when you’re having taper-time hesitations and doubts.
While so many running-coach-deniers are quick to say they don’t need to pay someone else to write them a plan, the reality is that the “plan” is just a part of the coaching service. Having an experienced runner to guide, reassure, and encourage you can be wildly beneficial.
Runners Can Use the Plans The Wrong Way
About 15 years ago, when I was a brand new runner, and hadn’t yet started pursuing my education in the exercise science field, I would decide to train for races at distances or speeds that I hadn’t done before. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Rather, the problem was that I would try to make these fitness gains happen overnight, and convinced myself it was possible because I had a training plan.
I know for certain that I am not the only runner guilty of this.
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
- Choosing a training plan that is beyond your current fitness level.
- Hopping into a 24 week 50 mile training plan at week 16, even though you don’t have the base fitness to do so.
- Rearranging the workouts during the week to fit around your schedule, without realizing that they were placed in a specific order in the first place for a very valid reason.
You wouldn’t try to build a new dresser from IKEA by skipping over the first 10 steps, and you can’t necessarily expect a training plan to work if you only use parts of it.
What Type of Runner is an Ideal Candidate for Using a Static Training Plan?
From a professional standpoint, I believe that static ultramarathon training plans are ideal for:
- Runners who have the discipline to follow a plan appropriately
- Runners who would like some structure to help them train for a race, but aren’t immediately concerned without making the best possible improvements in their overall running fitness, or would rather be running purely for “fun”.
- Runners who would like structure and want to train appropriately, but current circumstances do not allow them to hire a coach.
- Runner’s who aren’t certain they can (or want to) commit to the time necessary for ultramarathon training, and would like to start with a plan before investing in a coach.
An ultramarathon training plan might not be good for:
- A runner who needs professional guidance due to a health concern or other medical issue (note: you should always speak with a doctor first, and then get medical clearance before working with a coach)
- A runner who feels they would be more successful due to any of the number of benefits of working with a coach.
How to Choose an Ultramarathon Training Plan:
When I used to work in a running shoe store, I would often have to convince runners to not immediately reach for the shoe that “looks good”, but rather choose the one that fits the best. The same goes for a training plan.
I have noticed that many runners will chose a plan because it “looks good” to them on the surface level: maybe they only want to run 4 days a week, or maybe they only have 10 weeks to train. But in this case, “looking good” and actually being effective may not be the same.
Find Out Who Wrote the Plan
As I alluded to earlier in the post, pretty much ANYONE can publish ultramarathon training plans online. There are no ultrarunning internet police to say “hey, stop, you can’t publish that until you show us your credentials!” A flashy plan, a plan that ranks on the first place of Google, or a plan that went viral on Pinterest does not guarantee it’s a good plan.
So, vet your sources. Ask yourself:
- Where did this plan come from?
- Who wrote the plan?
- What are their qualifications?
- Do they personally have experience training for this distance?
- How old is the plan? (Typically not a concern, but beware that especially in the world of ultramarathons, emerging evidence may change recommended training approaches)
Does Anything Stand Out?
Hopefully, if you’re training for an ultramarathon, you’ve been around the running world long enough to understand the basics of training. So take a careful look at the ultramarathon training plans you are considering and see if anything stands out or sets off red flags. Things I would personally be aware of include:
- Huge jumps in volume from week to week. While the 10% rule doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, you still want to avoid drastic increases in new-to-you or new-to-this-plan volume.
- Little or no recovery or cutback weeks.
- Too much emphasis on long runs vs. weekly mileage (for example, long runs continue to increase over the course of the training plan, but the rest of the workouts either do not significantly increase in volume, or don’t change at all.
- “Flashy” workouts that may be really hard or fun, but might not result in training adaptations.
- Too many hard effort workouts in a single week.
- Too many hard effort workouts back to back without recovery efforts in between.
Look for recommendations or reviews from others who have had success with the plan you are considering. Ask around various online endurance communities, or from runners you know personally. While seeing that others have had success using the plan is certainly anecdotal evidence, it’s still a great place to start.
You’ll also want to consider whether or not those athletes have similar experience, fitness levels, or other circumstances as you. Seeing that a plan was successful in helping an experienced athlete reach their 50K PR does not necessarily mean it will be a good choice for a first time 50K runner who has only been running for a few years.
Similarly, keep your eyes out for any negative reviews of the plan, and see what their complaints may be.
If everything else I’ve mentioned above checks out, and the static ultramarathon training plan you’ve chosen appears to be legitimate, it’s time to turn the questioning in towards yourself.
Be Realistic with Your Expectations
Is this training plan appropriate for YOU based on YOUR current fitness and experience?
Understand that simply because you are following a training plan, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. You’ve got to take into consideration whether or not the training plan is realistic for you based on your current fitness level, running abilities, and time available. For example:
- Let’s say I found a 100 mile race I really want to run. But, it’s only 8 weeks away! My current weekly running volume is around 30 miles, and has been for the last 4 months. Hopping into a 24 week 100 mile plan at week 17, when the total mileage prescribed is around 70 miles, and expecting it to work, is not realistic. (Further, it can result in injury.)
- Now, let’s say my current 50K PR is a 5:45, or, an 11:08 pace. I decide I want to beat my friend’s recent time, and run a 4:30 50K instead (an 8:43 pace). So I plug those numbers into a website that spits out a training plan for me. Now, the plan has me running my long runs and base building days at a pace that is doable, but definitely more difficult than my previous “easy” paces. As such, I end up running MOST of my training runs at a much harder effort than I should. After a few weeks I’m feeling exhausted and frustrated.
- Perhaps I’ve found a plan that fits my timeline, starts off at a weekly volume and frequency I’m comfortable with, and doesn’t assign any unrealistic paces. BUT, it tops off at a weekly volume of 80+ miles. Maybe in the past, I’ve noticed that running anything over 65 miles per weeks starts to have detrimental affects to my body and my training.
In all of these cases, I’ve set my expectations far too high, and set myself up for possible failure.
So, when choosing a training plan, be realistic with both your starting fitness and your expectations for the outcome of the training cycle. Avoid trying to circumnavigate or skip steps to try and “make up” time or distance. If you simply cannot find a plan that works, then perhaps you should consult with a professional ultrarunning coach, or, reevaluate whether or not the race goal you’ve set is appropriate right now.
Coaching vs. a Training Plan: Is there a Hybrid Option?
You’ve read the pros and cons of coaching. You’ve read the pros and cons of using ultramarathon training plans. Perhaps your personal situation has you looking for something that meets in the middle. I completely understand! Here are a few options to consider:
Group Training or Group Coaching
Many coaches offer in person or virtual “group coaching” at a significantly more affordable rate. In these instances you are likely still going to be following a static, generic plan. However, you have the benefit of having a coach to reach out to with questions or concerns regarding your individual needs, and how to apply it to that training plan.
Personalized Static Training Plan
Some coaches, teams, and coaching platforms offer more personalized static training plans. For a one time fee, a coach will write you a training plan based on your individual parameters, such as your current fitness level, your goal race, duration of the training cycle until your goal race, incorporating other “for fun” or training races, scheduling conflicts, etc.
This is obviously far superior to a generic static plan. However, you still lose the fluidity of continuing, individualized training.
Still not sure which option is right for you?
Reach out to a qualified coach. Any coach who is in the business to help people (rather than only in it for the money) will be more than happy to give you a consolation to help you better understand your options.
At the end of the day, a detailed, frequently updated, fluid training plan written by an educated, experienced training plan is USELESS if the runner either doesn’t adhere to the training plan, or doesn’t enjoy the training process.
So, when someone asks me which is “better”: an individualized training plan written or a static training plan? My answer is simple: the BEST plan is the one that will get you across the finish line of your goal race feeling happy, healthy, and satisfied.