As the racing season winds down, athletes are already looking ahead to next year and thinking about what they want to do and accomplish in the coming season. But how does one effectively plan out a season, which includes setting goals and a pathway that successfully leads to those goals?
Training should fit into your life. This is - by far - the number one piece of advice I give to athletes when it comes to endurance sports training, and it further extends into goal setting. No goals will ever be successfully achieved unless the goal and training truly fits into an athlete’s life.
The best way I’ve found to illustrate what this actually means is to highlight what it doesn’t mean. Do not see what a training schedule or training plan says and then try to fit that into what you have going on, either by rearranging the sequence of the workouts, altering the workouts that are there, or eliminating workouts based on your available time. That is fitting your life into the training, not fitting training into your life. For the highest probability of desired results and an optimal experience in training and racing, we should always work backwards from available time and resources. That should dictate what we do and what we plan. We should not plan something and then try to get it in.
To do this, work backwards from the non-negotiable time commitments you have in your life. Do this on a macro (season) level, but also do it on a micro (weekly) level. One of the best ways to do this is to create a visual of your year (ideally, something that goes week-by-week) so you can actually see what you have going on. You can do this digitally or analog (such as this worksheet that I’ve created for this purpose). Write out the non-negotiable things you have going on in a year as you find out about them, including (but not limited to):
Birthday Celebrations (trips, etc.)
Once you see what you have going on, you can determine what goals (and races) fit into that.
It may seem counterintuitive, but you should set your goals before you select races, especially if you have performance-based goals. This is because goals and races are NOT the same thing. Races are where you seek to accomplish a goal.
To illustrate this point: If you say a race is your goal, you are effectively saying that you are okay with a last-place finish and/or a finish that comes in right under any time limits. The race is not the goal. You have goals that you are seeking to accomplish at the race. It’s an important distinction.
Performance-based goals are where you are seeking a specific, quantifiable outcome. For instance, a performance-based goal could be a time, a placement, or a qualification status.
Completion-based goals are where you are only seeking to complete the event, with no expectations of a quantifiable outcome.
To determine if you have or are okay with a completion-based goal or if you actually have a performance-based goal, ask yourself how you will feel if you finish one minute before the race time cutoff. If you will be happy with that result, you have a completion-based goal. If you would be disappointed with that and have a time that you would be happy with, then you have a performance-based goal. (A performance-based goal is when you are seeking any quantifiable outcome; it does not have to be a personal best time or something of the like.) Remember: Do not have secret goals! Be honest. Spell out what you actually are expecting and wanting and aiming for. If you aren’t clear about the target you are trying to hit, you will miss that target.
But what happens if you don’t have a goal that you are aiming for at a race? Or any race that you want to do? This is okay! Goals and races are not necessary to have a good experience as an endurance athlete. You can still build out a schedule based on any goals you do have, such as maintaining fitness, doing certain types of workouts, making specific progress in a particular area, etc.
Once goals are determined and clearly outlined, then it’s time to select the races where you will be aiming to achieve your goals. Races should be divided into A, B, and C priorities, and A-Races should be selected first. A-Races are the most important races in a season because they are almost always where you are seeking to accomplish the goals that are most important to you.
Once A-Races are selected, work backwards from there to determine Training Phases. These Training Phases are designed and scheduled with the most important goal in mind, which is why we center the entire season of planning around this.
The non-negotiable commitments in one’s life should be taken into account when planning these Training Phases; if you has a major commitment at a given time, it will change the shape how an entire training block is scheduled and approached (which is why it’s so important to write down these things as soon as you know about them).
The final 6-8 weeks before an A-Race are the most important, and should be clear of any major non-negotiable commitments such as those listed above. If you miss training or reduce training during this time, it will impact your A-Race (not might, will). In fact, if you have enough missed training during this time period, your A-Race (and goal) may no longer be an actual A-Race/Goal because of how you’ll be forced to reevaluate your approach for the race.
Once these Training Phases are set, then other races (B-Races and C-Races) can be layered into the Grand Master Plan. As you add in races, be sure to write out your specific goals for each race (no matter where on the spectrum the goal is: from achieving a specific time or result to just having fun with no expectations when it comes to results).
How Much Time?
Consistent Consistency is the foundation to any and all goals, whether a race is involved or not. Without Consistent Consistency, nothing remarkable will happen; it’s like treading water. Once you are beyond age 35, research shows that gaps in consistency are exponentially more harmful to your overall fitness, and you cannot reacquire what you lose after a period of inconsistency. String together a few of these, and it will become very challenging to reestablish consistency and regain fitness. This is particularly true if you are time-pressed/time-limited (which most age-group athletes are).
So how much time is needed every week to prepare for certain goals and/or race distances? A time-pressed athlete with Consistent Consistency can do the following:
Short-Course Triathlon: 7-10 hours per week
IRONMAN 70.3: 8-12 hours per week
IRONMAN: 10-14 hours per week
Half Marathon: 7-10 hours per week
Marathon: 8-12 hours per week
It’s important to understand that these time ranges are the lowest ranges that are necessary to be successful at these events and distances and represent an average of weekly training time. Thus, these averages need to be hit every week in order to be successful. Without Consistent Consistency, you cannot optimize these time blocks and you actually will need more time at the macro level to prepare for the event.
Assuming that Consistent Consistency is already in place, then the following timelines are good guidelines for the minimum amount of time it takes to successfully prepare for each of the following distances/races as A-Races:
Short-Course Triathlon: 16 weeks
IRONMAN 70.3: 20 weeks
IRONMAN: 26 weeks
Half Marathon: 20 weeks
Marathon: 26 weeks
An important note: Planning for more time than you think you “need” to prepare for a goal or race is prudent. Essentially, you need to plan buffer zones, or time for things to go wrong or not the way you expect them to. Here’s the hard truth: Things will literally never go the way you plan or expect them to. Thus, it's not wise to run tight timelines to prepare for goals that are important to you. You can always use more time to prepare, but if you run short on time, you’ll be tempted to cram, and that doesn’t work. While it is tempting to plan for the timelines you want, it’s better to plan for more time than you want and/or need.
It seems simple and innocuous enough at face value, but planning a season takes work. It takes thought. It takes time. Neglecting to put thought and time into planning a season will have a direct impact on how the season unfolds. Invest the necessary time and thought into helping to ensure your upcoming season is all that you dreamed of…and maybe more!
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.