Maybe you want to run your first race. Or maybe you haven’t run a step in years. You just know that you want to start running more without it feeling too hard or stressful. Wherever you are on your fitness journey, it can be baffling to figure out how to meet the running goals you’ve made.
A running-specific training plan can help. No, training plans aren’t solely designed for long-time runners who want to get faster. There are many beginner-friendly training plans out there; the trick is to find the one that best meets your needs right now.
To help you figure out the best training plan for you, we had Kim Schwabenbauer, a professional triathlete and coach behind Fuel Your Passion break down the different routes you can take.
The Plan: Run/Walk
Injecting short jogging spurts into your daily stroll around the neighborhood can help you bridge the gap between power walking and running. Plenty of runners follow this method in races, too—from a 5K all the way up to the marathon.
The pros: Peppering your power walks with bursts of jogging (think: alternating between a 4-minute walk and a 1-minute run, for 30 minutes total) is an ideal way to ease into running. The gradual approach is also gentler on your body, making you less susceptible to injury.
The cons: If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to think when you work out, keeping a constant eye on your watch may get old, fast (which is why many runners choose to set their watches to beep at the start and end of their chosen intervals). Plus, restraining yourself from running for more than a few minutes can be mentally challenging—especially when you’re feeling good.
Pick this plan if: You’re brand-new to running or if you’re coming back from a long layoff and you’re not sure how your body will handle running without walk breaks.
The Plan: An Online Program
You google, “run your first 5K” and up pops 15 different programs promising that you’ll cross the finish line with a smile, in just 8 weeks! Sounds simple enough—but is it really that easy?
The pros: Variety, for starters. Whether you choose a Couch to 5K program or a more advanced routine, there are tons of online options out there for every level. “They’re also free or relatively inexpensive, easy to access, and allow you to train on your own,” says Schwabenbauer.
The cons: For newbie runners, following an online program completely solo can be daunting. And, because you can’t customize most plans, their rigidity can make it tough to stay on track if you miss a few days of training. “It can be confusing to know where to start and how to adapt the workouts to your own schedule,” says Schwabenbauer.
Pick this plan if: You’re a regimented runner who trains well on your own—and you know enough about training to tweak your schedule if you have to stray from the plan.
The Plan: Join a Running Club
With weekly workouts and instant training partners, a team atmosphere may be what you need to elevate your running.
The pros: Hello, accountability. With structured workouts throughout the week, joining a club will definitely keep you honest. “Most clubs have coaches available for feedback or questions on a limited basis, and you may meet other runners training for the same race,” says Schwabenbauer. Not to mention there’s safety in numbers if you have to train early in the morning or past dark.
The cons: Joining a club typically comes with a certain expectation of commitment, which means skipping workouts because of a busy schedule may be frowned upon. There are also usually costs involved, whether it’s to join the club, for specific training programs, or a team uniform.
Pick this plan if: You are seeking a strong social element to your training program, and you’re not intimidated by training with runners of different abilities.
The Plan: Hire a Coach
A coach takes the guesswork out of your training routine—and will never roll his eyes when you gripe about that niggle in your knee (again).
The pros: You have your very own expert to show you the ropes and put together a training program tailored just for you. Plus, you’ll have a resource for all of your questions, like: “What the heck does a ‘fartlek’ mean, anyway?”
The cons: The cost of a personal coach may be tough to swallow (expect fees to start somewhere in the window of $150 a month). Depending on your arranged plan, you may be limited in how much you can actually communicate or personally interact with your coach. “And a coach isn’t going to give you a free pass to miss workouts. There had better be a reason and it better be a good one,” says Schwabenbauer.
Pick this plan if: You are ready to take your running to the next level. If you’ve spent several seasons training solo or in a group and haven’t had that big breakthrough, a personal coach will likely be able to get you there.
The Plan: The Buddy System
You and your best friend both want to run a race this year. So you should totally train together, right?
The pros: Like a club, you’ll have the accountability factor: “Knowing someone is counting on you to show up is a great motivator since your credibility as a friend and training partner is on the line,” says Schwabenbauer.
The cons: In a perfect world, you and your training buddy will run every step together. But life (or an injury) may get in the way, and you may find yourself on your own—and a little miffed—when you have to churn out a 6-mile long run all by yourself.
Pick this plan if: You know your running buddy well enough to trust she won’t flake out. And if you have a strong enough relationship to forgive your friend if she does.
Make Your Training Plan Work For You
Whatever program you pick, here are some tips on seeing it through all the way to the finish line—and beyond.
Track It: For added motivation—and to stay in tune with your progress—log all of your workouts into an online tracking program (like MyFitnessPal, natch!). “You can examine your training to help you make smart decisions and gather confidence leading to a race,” says Schwabenbauer. “And seeing the calendar fill up with completed workouts will make you want to keep your streak alive.”
Stay Smart: Look out for any red flags that may indicate that your training isn’t working for you. “If you’re bored or completely unmotivated to take on your next session, you aren’t feeling challenged, or you aren’t seeing any progress after a few months, you probably need to switch things up,” says Schwabenbauer.
Stay Patient: No matter the training plan, know that you likely won’t see results in a snap. “When beginning a program, break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces so you can focus in on the process versus the outcome,” says Schwabenbauer. “With the right recipe of patience, support and training, you’ll achieve your goal.”