“What is the best training plan?” is probably one of the most common questions I hear as a coach. I’ve written about some qualities that an athlete should consider to determine what training plan is truly best for them, but in this post I want to really dive into how an athlete can best plan their training.
So, what is the best way to plan training? (Hint: It isn’t seeing what workouts are on the schedule and then moving what is planned and/or self-modifying the workouts that are planned. Much to the chagrin of athletes everywhere, it requires more work than that.) The best way to plan training is to fit training into your life, not your life into your training.
What Athletes Often Think “Fitting Training Into Your Life” Looks Like
This sounds nice, but what does “fit training into your life” actually mean? All too often, athletes wait to see what a training plan or training schedule has on it, and then (try to) figure out how they will fit those blocks of training time into their life. Another common mistake that athletes make is this: They “find” the time to work out by cutting back on their sleep. This is NOT a good approach or a way to succeed at reaching goals. It can (and usually does) work for athletes when they are newer to sport, but as they gain more experience and seek to make even more improvements in performance, cutting sleep to make time for workouts harms them exponentially because they cannot sufficiently recover from and adapt to the training loads they are attempting to complete.
A much more sustainable and successful approach (especially long-term) is to work backwards from the actual time that the athlete has available. Determining this and using that amount of time as the groundwork from which all other training decisions are made, to include types of workouts, intensity, etc., is the best way I’ve found to optimize the limited training time that most age-group/time-limited athletes have in their lives. This is how one fits training into their life; they build the training around what time they actually have available. They do not retroactively modify the training to conform to what they have going on in their life.
One of the “issues” with doing it this way is that the athlete will be confronted with the reality that they do not have as much time as they thought they did or that they want to. However, it’s much more valuable and helpful to face that dragon than it is to live in Fantasyland and pretend that these limitations do not exist. Age-group athletes are busy people with very real non-negotiable demands on their time.. It’s important to accept this and all that comes with it.
Planning for Training to Fit into Your Life
To start this process, you must account for the non-negotiable things in your life, such as:
How many hours and when you need to work, including commuting time
Personal obligations and activities
Planning sleep opportunities
Planning eating windows
This is best done using something visual, whether it is digital (such as Google Calendar) or analog (such as a planner or a worksheet like this one I’ve created for this purpose). Once you account for all of those things, you now have a very clear picture of the “free time” windows in your life, which includes how many hours and when you can train. If you’re working with a coach, a coach can use this information to schedule training to fit into your life.
I’ve included a visual example of what this type of planning can look like at the start of this post. In the example schedule laid out here, the athlete in question has a 40-hour work week with 10 hours of commuting time each week. They have family obligations, and needs as a human to sleep and eat. Based on this example schedule, this athlete realistically has eight (8) available training hours per week that they will be reasonably able to recover from and gain adaptations from. Eight.
For optimum chances of successfully meeting their goals, an athlete’s goals and training need to be planned accordingly for the reality of how many training hours they actually have available. In this example, even with eight hours of training, they will not have much time for anything else other than that training and the life obligations that are written out on this example schedule. This may mean that certain goals are not ideal for a given athlete, such as long-course goals (IRONMAN 70.3, IRONMAN, marathons, etc.) without very real and tangible changes to one’s life. Remember: It takes what it takes, and saying yes to something always means saying no to something else. No matter how much you may wish for this to be different, it’s not.
Notice that this same schedule does NOT include watching Netflix, “scrolling on my phone for 15 minutes”, reading a book, or any other similar downtime activities. There will always be some things like this that fill in these gaps. One way to see how you are spending your time doing things and what you are doing for how long each day is to use a tool such as Clockify every day for 1-2 weeks. By tracking exactly what you’re doing and when you’re doing it throughout your days, you will draw heaps of self-awareness about how you are actually spending your time.
Warning: Doing this will almost certainly be uncomfortable, because you may not (read: probably will not) like what you see. But it’s important that you actually log what you are really doing and not self-edit your behaviors prematurely. Yes, when you have to actually start and end a time log for “scrolling on my phone”, you may want to avoid engaging in that behavior and/or lie on your log. But if that’s what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time, it’s important that you log it and note it so you can be pragmatic in your approach to planning and optimizing your training time.
So yes, there are technically more than eight spare hours on this example weekly schedule, but the reality is that other things will pop up over the course of the week that will eat into that time and/or other things that you will just do in those time blocks. So, we plan for the reality, not the wish, because planning for the reality of one’s situation is the best pathway to contentment and goal achievement.
If your life is busier than this, you should be honest about that and realize what that means for available training time and how you should be structuring your training weeks. If you have ambitious-for-you goals, then you need to be honest about how you approach your training so you can optimize your training time.
You can do this on a somewhat global scale to determine an average number of hours you have available in a week, but it’s best done on a weekly basis since your schedule will vary from week-to-week. It requires some forethought and advance planning, but the end results of taking this kind of approach to training planning are well worth it, especially in the long-term and when race day comes.
“I Don’t Have Time for That”
One of the biggest pushbacks I get from athletes when I suggest taking this approach is “I don’t have time for that kind of planning.” In my experience, mapping out one’s week and going through this process takes 20-25 minutes. Here’s the tough (but, as always, honest) news, folks: If you are so busy that you do not have 20 minutes per week to spare in your life to plan out what your upcoming week looks like and how many training hours you have available, you definitely do not have the time you think you do/want to have to train for your goals. You need to cut down somewhere. I don’t necessarily care where, as long as you’re not sacrificing sleep or your important personal relationships to get that time. If it means cutting a workout short by 20 minutes to get that time, that’s what you should do. It is that important.
I’ve coached hundreds of individual athletes on Performance Coaching and Custom-Built Training Plans over my 10+ years as an endurance coach. I’ve observed that there is a very direct correlation between training and performance for the athletes who take the time to plan out their available training time in advance and who take the time to write thoughtful and thorough Post-Workout Notes/Reflections. Simply put: The athletes who I’ve coached who engage in these behaviors have a higher rate of success at meeting the goals they set for themselves, having enjoyable experiences in their training and racing, and have overall increased feelings of accomplishment and contentment in their endurance sport life.
The Bottom Line
The best way to plan training is to work backwards from the non-negotiable demands on your time. By plotting this out (in a real, visual way that you can see, whether that way is digital or analog), you can develop heaps of self-awareness about what you’re actually doing in your life, and therefore how much time you actually have available to spend on training. Using this as the foundation for all other training planning decisions is the absolute best way to fit training into your life and optimize your limited and valuable training time so you have the highest probability of success at reaching your goals.
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.