Creating a Race Plan to Guide Training

Work with your athlete to create a race plan for the season—and then build your training plan from there, but remember there's plenty to factor in.
Julie Dibens riding next to her athlete
Coach Julie Dibens riding alongside one of her athletes, pro triathlete Justin Metzler. Photo courtesy of Kenny Withrow.

The start of the season is not too soon to define the race plan. In fact, it makes most sense to complete it prior to mapping a season. Once you’ve decided on your athlete’s races and goals you should then be able to design a seasonal training plan that builds the necessary physical and mental capacities to achieve the goal. 

The race plan is likely to start out as a rough outline when you are working with a new client. As you become acquainted with the athlete, particularly with the athlete’s unique abilities and limiters, the race plan will need to be tweaked to better reflect the athlete’s potential for goal achievement. Like the training plan, a race plan is a work in progress, refined to reflect the athlete’s progress and limitations as they come into focus over the course of the preparation. 

Module 3 of The Craft of Coaching included training plans for four athletes as devised by coaches Alan Couzens, Andy Kirkland, Trevor Connor, and Dean Golich. Couzens and Kirkland provided sample plans for new clients, giving the athlete an overview of the training that these coaches would prescribe to prepare the athlete to achieve their goal. The plans from Connor and Golich supplied a similar season overview, along with a detailed block of training used for race preparation. These plans demonstrate the specificity and refinement that occurs over the course of training. The race plan evolves in the same manner, right from the start of the coach-athlete relationship. I can almost guarantee you that the first one you come up with will be wrong. Perhaps grossly so. But you need a starting place—something to aim for. 

Integrating the race plan into training 

Once the race plan is in place then you can lay out the training plan for the event. The training for the event is based on what the athlete needs to be able to do relative to the race plan. The plan includes race-day strategies and tactics. There are two matters to decide:  

  1. How much duration/volume the athlete needs in training;
  2. How great the intensity of training will be, along with how race-simulation workouts will fit into preparation. 

Depending on the sport and the athlete, the intensity preparation may be based on pacing, effort, power, heart rate, terrain, and more, all of which are central to the race strategy. There will also be tactics for the athlete to prepare for, such as: 

  • Who the competition will be and what they can be expected to do; 
  • How to react when things happen during the race (breakaways, being passed, losing contact, upset stomach, and more); 
  • The athlete’s nutritional and fluid needs, which may vary with weather and intensity; 
  • Other factors which might happen but for which the athlete needs to be prepared (e.g., mechanicals). 

Of course, all of these depend on the type of event for which the athlete is preparing, as well as the level at which they’re racing.  

Outlined below is a race plan for a triathlete aspiring to finish a marathon in under three hours at the end of the triathlon season. While it was not the athlete’s A-priority race, it gives a clear working example of how a training plan can (and should) be tailored to the athlete’s strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and experience. 

A Triathlete’s Sub-3 Marathon Race Plan

Race plan overview 

This athlete came to me after a highly successful triathlon race season stating that he wanted to go sub-three hours at the Central Florida Legends marathon, a fast, flat course, in early November. He seemed to be fully recovered from Ironman Florida, where he’d finished on the podium in his age group in a time of 9:55. He had bounced back well, and was feeling fresh and motivated, both mentally and physically. Aged 42, he was aware that this would be a challenging goal, but one he wanted to pursue. I was eager to help him, believing it would make for a memorable season, especially following his Ironman podium achievement. 

Plan background

We had 12 weeks to prepare for the marathon and thanks largely to the Ironman volume he’d already banked, he was beginning with a strong base of aerobic run fitness (long runs up to 3 hours). He also had good overall strength from a sound program in the weight room. We agreed upon 4-week mesocycles since he’d handled those well over the past year.  

Race day pacing 

We planned to divide his race into three segments as follows: miles 1–3 (7:03), miles 4–20 (6:44), miles 21–26.2 (7:06). His training would then be designed to prepare him for each of these segments. The hardest one, of course, would be the last. Terrain and race conditions obviously factor into pacing, so we talked about the course being quite flat and the weather typically being mild at that time of year, which would hopefully mean there aren’t any (or very few) external factors to cause the athlete to lose pace. I felt confident that I could design a training plan that would have this athlete get to the starting line ready for a fast marathon based on the three-part pacing plan detailed above. Central to the success of this plan would be to forget about going out hard to “build a cushion” (as so many love to do when racing marathons), and instead being patient and having confidence in all of the hard training he will have completed over the previous 12 weeks. I felt confident this would pay off. 

Race day fueling

From what I had previously learned about this athlete in their Ironman training, I had a good sense of how much carbohydrate and fluids he would need to take in before and during the marathon. He also had an established (and successful) routine for his pre-race meal the night before and on race morning, so we felt confident in that. Of course, as a marathon is so much shorter than an Ironman, we knew we would be able to significantly reduce caloric intake during the race and would need to factor in the increased difficulty of digestion while running. I knew we’d need to experiment on long runs and race-tempo runs to see what would work best for fueling to limit/avoid GI problems on race day. I made it clear that I would need his feedback here to get this right. We also discussed the fact there would be aid stations every three miles on race day. For the training runs in which we experiment with caloric intake we would use the same brand of sports drinks and gels that the race would provide, so I advised him to stock up on plenty of these products to use in training over the coming weeks. 

An overview of training

Once we had outlined all aspects of the race plan, the next task was working on details of the training plan to lead the athlete into race day. I made it clear that we may learn in the next few weeks that the race plan needs to be changed, but our weekly conversations would help us decide this. 

I emphasized to the athlete that he had a lot of really great things working to his advantage as he prepared to tackle this challenge: great aerobic fitness, a history of training consistently, and a strong desire to succeed. But there are sometimes things, both physical and mental, that get in the way of having a successful race. For example, I wanted him to avoid the common perception that weekly volume is the key to running a fast marathon. He had already mentioned some of his training partners had told him that. Increasing the miles logged every week would not be the way for him to get faster. He already had a great base of fitness already; it was race-specific intensity that he needed to run to his potential for 26.2 miles. I was also very clear that because he’s a triathlete he would not be running every day. This would likely result in injury. I wanted him to swim and bike on recovery days and run 4 or 5 times weekly. I underscored that there would be a focus on injury avoidance as this is what keeps many marathoners from achieving their goals. In short, it is good practice—and a strong start to the overall plan—for the coach to highlight at this stage what you anticipate might be some of the challenges or issues in the weeks/months ahead for both you and your athlete as you embark on this training and race plan.