How trail runners should structure each week of training to perform at their best and avoid injury
Knowing how to structure your training each week will help you make consistent fitness gains—so you can be at your best when you need to race in epic places like Switzerland. Photo by David Roche
Writing the perfect trail-running training plan is like doing your taxes. Wait! Don’t leave! Let me explain.
What I mean is that both tasks seem really complicated if you don’t have a background in the basics. But for most people, training plans and taxes are surprisingly simple if you follow just a few rules. And, just as that refund check is always good for motivation on April 15, performance gains on the trail should help you to enjoy planning out your training.
Before we start mapping out the week’s runs, there are three basic rules you should know about training plans.
1. Weekly mileage
The number of miles you run (or the amount of time, if you are mostly on technical trails with lots of elevation gain that make mileage less relevant) should determine the structure of your week. In general, the more miles (or time) you are able to run while staying healthy and recovering adequately, the faster you’ll get.
Starting with your current weekly mileage, go up or down until you find what is best for you in the context of your life. Never increase your mileage by more than 10 percent in a single week—that is a sure path to injury and overtraining.
For context, most elite trail dudes train 50 to 90 miles per week, while most elite dudettes train 35 to 70 (with outliers in both directions). Many of the athletes I coach are between 15 and 30 miles per week. Any day’s mileage can be split up into two runs, especially once you are running more than 50 miles per week.
2. Injuries and overtraining
Probably the number-one thing I’ve learned about running training is that it’s a competition to see who can stay healthy while still running consistently.
If anything hurts in your feet, shins, knees, hips or back, take some time off. If you feel lethargic and sleepy all the time, eat a cheeseburger (or veggie equivalent!) and take a day or two. Each day is just a brick in a massive, Great-Wall-of-China-sized wall. Never push through abnormal pain.
3. Strength training and injury prevention
It only takes 5 minutes a day. Here’s how.
Planning Your Week
Okay, now the moment we’ve all been waiting for: It’s time to do our taxes! (Metaphorically, that is.) Here is a sample week you can repeat, over and over and over, to get you in your best shape yet.
At a glance:
Monday | Rest: Just chill!
Tuesday | Aerobic: 15% of miles with 4-8 x 20-second strides
Wednesday | Workout: 20% of miles with a warm-up and cool-down
Thursday | Aerobic: 15% of miles
Friday | Aerobic or rest: 0-10% of miles
Saturday | Long run: 25-35% of miles with pace progression
Sunday | Aerobic: 15% of miles
Monday: Rest (0% of weekly running mileage)
Rest is the most overlooked and underemphasized part of trail running training, and that is a huge mistake.
A day without any pounding or cardiovascular stress allows you to recover from hard training, prepare for the next week and get things done in your personal/professional life. Also, there is growing evidence that complete rest days increase running longevity over a lifetime.
On rest days, relax, walk around and eat a bit too much of something tasty. You’ll need it later in the week!
Your Monday rest day is a great time to go for a long walk with your dog. Photo by David Roche
Tuesday: Aerobic run plus strides (15% of weekly mileage)
Tuesday’s aerobic run is designed to kick all of your systems into high gear. On an aerobic run, focus on good form and total relaxation. Most people are surprised to find out that at least 80 percent of your running should be between easy and moderate, but it’s true. Running slow, a lot, makes us fast when it counts.
The strides are designed to work on running economy, which is free speed. Near the end of the aerobic run, add four to eight strides, starting relaxed and building up pace over the course of 20 seconds, finishing at the fastest pace you can go without actually sprinting. Focus on being smooth and effortless, like a gazelle bounding through the savannah or an accountant cavorting through an excel spreadsheet.
Wednesday: Workout (20% of weekly mileage)
Workout Wednesday is a weekly holiday that all runners share. Always be sure to do an easy 15 minutes before and after the workout portion. This warm-up and cool-down adds miles while reducing injury risk.
For trail runners, the actual workout portion is a lot like serving yourself at a frozen yogurt place. If you really like one-minute hill repeats, you can just hold down that lever until you are going into little Johnnie’s college fund to pay the tab. Or, if you like running mile repeats or tempo runs, you can have your fill. Better yet, you can combine workouts for an especially tasty concoction.
When it comes to varieties of workout, there are endless options. No matter what, be sure not to overdo it. You always want to finish a workout feeling like you could do more if you had to.
Thursday: Aerobic Run (15% of weekly mileage)
Thursday is all about that base—base mileage, that is. Run comfortably, and have fun with the mileage. You can add some faster sections if you want, but don’t sweat it if you just feel like exploring a new trail and taking photos for Instagram. (Here’s a secret: runners have the best social-media accounts because of Thursday runs.)
Friday: Shuffle (0-10% of weekly mileage)
The athletes I coach all say the shuffle is their favorite day. I’ve written about it before here, but here are the basics: Run slowly. No, even slower. A bit slower. Perfect.
The shuffle is for meditation on the move, or, if you’re into music, for jamming while jogging. Keep your turnover high and your heart rate low, so that your stoke can get turned all the way up to 11 for the weekend adventures to come. If you are running fewer than 25 miles per week or are over the age of 55, omit this run and redistribute the mileage to Saturday and Wednesday.
Elite biathlete-turned-trail runner Corrine Malcolm and pro triathlete Rick Floyd shuffle before the U.S. Mountain Running Championships. Photo by David Roche
Saturday: Long run (25% of weekly mileage)
Long-run Saturday is the bread and butter of good training. (For most runners, it’s a mistake to put the long run on the traditional Sunday, after a shorter Saturday run, because you want your body to be at its best for the longest day of the week.)
On these runs, always start relaxed, and build up pace, until you are working at a marathon-pace effort by the end. Over time, you can work in more quality, like 30-second bursts or hill intervals. But the main priority is to accumulate time on your feet and adapt aerobically to longer distances.
If you are training for an ultra, you can increase the percentage of miles on the long run and subtract from Friday and Sunday, but never exceed 40 percent of weekly mileage. (Related: How to Master the Long Run if You’re Training for an Ultra)
Sunday: Aerobic run (15% of weekly mileage)
Sunday is a celebration of all you have accomplished during the week. Your legs should be wonderfully tired, your brain should be ready for some aimless wandering and your laundry should be ready for some epic cleaning. On Sunday, you should have no agenda other than listening to your body. If you feel perfect, add a few hill intervals or end a bit faster. But don’t let an ounce of stress into your body.
If you are able to repeat this weekly schedule, week in and week out, you’ll get better than ever—or your money back. (Fortunately, unlike the crazy fee your accountant charges for taxes, this advice comes free of charge.)
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. When not frolicking on single-track or working as a public-interest attorney for the Environmental Law Institute, he enjoys spending time with his wife and puppy, both of whom are substantially better at running than he is. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.