Reader to Reader: Should I train to a schedule?

When it comes to preparing for a race, finding a training schedule is likely to be top of your to-do list. But what if your lifestyle just isn’t suited to following a pattern of prescribed sessions?

That's the challenge facing this week's questioner - what advice would you offer him as he prepares for his first half-marathon?

"I’m a fairly new runner (aged 37) and a busy job and young family prevents me from having a rigid training schedule. I tend to start each run very steadily then decide whether to do a fast one or a long one as the mood takes me, depending how I feel physically. Is this too haphazard a way to train for a half-marathon?" Glennzo

Your best answers

  • With or without? There’s a time for both
    I need a schedule when I'm working towards a goal - like a longer distance, or a race of any kind - as it gives me confidence that I can get there. But a break from schedules, watches and all other pressures is just the tonic when I've met that goal. – OJO
  • Take stock of your aims and objectives
    It really does depend upon what you get from running and what you are trying to achieve. If it’s just about getting out, running, feeling the benefits of being outdoors and maintaining a reasonable level of health and fitness, then a setting a programme isn't necessary. Just listen to your body, run, rest and eat and drink well. If, however, achieving a set distance or time are your main goals, then you really do need to follow some form of programme. Depending on your current level of fitness, the extent of your goals and other priorities in your life, the nature of such a programme will vary. Either way, don't forget that running is fun and should enhance your life rather than compromise it. – Ruksana Lloyd
  • Make sure you cover the basics
    I always really struggle to stick to a schedule as it never quite fits in with other things that I need to do. I think for me the key is to get the important bits right, like making sure I do a long run at some point during the week, trying to fit at least one "quality" session a week and then doing medium length/pace runs whenever I've got time. It’s not ideal, but it is practical when you can't let the training dictate your life. – Martin Pace
  • Focus on quality not quantity
    I think that listening to your body is a great way to approach training, but you'll have to incorporate some planning if you are aiming for a half-marathon. As long as you get the long runs in, and mix it up with some shorter/faster/hillier stuff you will be fine. Listening to your legs is critical in terms of rest days/niggles and things like that. Another good thing about your body is that it is pretty good at telling you what it wants or needs in terms of fuel. – Nick L
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of recovery
    If you're running three times a week, a "listen to your body" approach is fine provided you're building up your long runs gradually. However, if you were running more often I'd be advising caution - it's all too easy to run hard for three or four consecutive sessions and then find that you can't move on the next one. – Velociraptor
  • For the best results, you’ll need to train outside your comfort zone
    I've been running for five years now, and I only started using a schedule at the beginning of this year. I don't stick to it slavishly day by day, but instead make substitutions within the week. What it does do is make me run in the evenings twice a week when I'm tired. Unless I run twice a day for at least two days a week, I can't build up the requisite miles. Yes, you have to listen to your body, but you do need practice in knowing what it is like to run when you're tired after a hard day's work or after you've run in the morning as well, because in a marathon (and a half as well) you will experience tiredness, and if you've got too used to stopping when you feel like it, then that's what you'll do in the actual event. Pushing yourself a bit gives you the confidence to know you can do it again in the real event. – Exhausted
  • Schedules are designed to suit your body’s capabilities
    If you are doing three days per week, you can afford to go by how you feel. If you move up to six days per week, the issue of making sure you have sufficient glycogen for the harder bits comes into it, and you can't always afford to go faster if you're feeling good. If you train everyday or most days, you can run out of fuel unless you manage it carefully. You can't restore your glycogen fully just by eating and sleeping day after day if you train hard and often, so you need to organise a programme and more or less stick to it if you are training six days a week. – JFB
  • Get creative in spotting training opportunities
    Is anyone's lifestyle suited to a training regime? Everyone has to be flexible, so it is more about ensuring you manage the balance to get quality miles in. I run to fit round my son - when I drop him at music club on Saturday, rather than sit there with a paper I do a 45-minute run. If I take him to a party, I’ll run locally for two hours to get my long weekend run in. Sometimes I get up at 5.30am to fit in speedwork or distance with a friend. On Fridays my club does a circuit session open to kids so we get a core session and they get the basics of good health. You really do have to be flexible and work things around. – Carmel Harrison
  • Pre-prepared plans can be a blessing for the time-pushed
    I need a very strict training regime because I'm naturally very disorganised. Knowing exactly what to do and when takes a lot of the difficulty out of running for me, but then again others might say that they would find it nigh impossible to follow a strict program religiously. I think that it's wholly down to the individual, but if you're considering a half I would at least set a target of distance to cover in the months leading up to it. You can keep it as flexible within each week as you like, but it will help ensure you've done enough work. – St00
  • Structured sessions can boost your "get up and go"
    I've always found that running to a schedule is what motivates me to get out of bed early on a Sunday morning when it's cold, wet and dark outside. Without it I would probably just skip the session and "promise" myself I’ll run the next day instead (which then doesn't happen…). My schedule is pinned up on a notice board in my house so my wife knows when I will be running and for how long - this helps us plan our day as we have a baby to look after. – Beanie's Dad
  • Innovate rather than imitate
    I've fallen out a bit with schedules - sometimes I want to just do something different, or swap a day or the type of session - so I've started running to a weekly "distance" instead. I find this quite motivational in that I can miss a session or change the distance/type but I then know I need to try and make up for it later in the week. I currently aim for a minimum of a marathon distance - anything beyond this is a bonus. It’s working for me at the moment but I'm sure I’ll change to something else when I get bored with it! – A Bolton
  • Finding what works will take trial and error
    I'm pleased I'm not the only one (judging from these posts) who gets injured if they run too often. My body is happy with me running three times per week although for the two marathons I've done to date, I added a fourth run. Aside from the marathons, I've tried continuing to train four times per week and it has always brought injury, boredom, or frustration. Running is supposed to be fun - running three times a week keeps it that way. When I've run more than that it feels like it's taking over my whole life, and my job and family suffer as a result. I never used to have a training schedule, but I invented one for my marathons. I've subsequently tried training to a plan for shorter distances, and almost gave up running as a result, because it became obsessive. OK, I'm never going to win anything, but I have got satisfactory results from such training. My PBs are 1:37 for a half-marathon (four runs per week), and 3:52 for the marathon. – Mr Bump
  • Use your past experience to inform the present
    I have a training schedule at the moment as I’m preparing for the Snowdonia marathon in October. It’s mainly for the long Sunday runs to make sure I get my legs in tune, as I switch and swap my speed and tempo sessions throughout the week depending what I have on and how I feel. What I do find useful is a running diary - I can look back at my last marathon training and work out what helped, what didn't and choose appropriate sessions. A schedule keeps me on track to make sure I have the distance in my legs (nothing else) and it’s also in pretty colours so looks nice on the fridge. To visitors it also looks like I'm extremely fit! – b-oing

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