Short Distance Training Cycle

Building Your Next Training Cycle – Short Distance Race Goals


Getting ready for a season of shorter races (800 meters up to 10K)? I thought I’d put together a quick overview of how to build your next training cycle. Similar to my long distance training plan sequence article, the sequence of training plans can vary based on your training/racing history and goals. But, a logical, progressive, proven sequence of training, will virtually guarantee success.

Below are a list of sequences I’ve used in my own running and with the thousands of runners I’ve coached. Like a Lego set, you simply stack the training plans together to build your full training cycle. In this way, you can easily use my training plans to build a customized training cycle for your upcoming goals.

Scenario #1: Race season in ~6 months

Base training plan – 8 weeks
Hill Module training plan (optional) – 6 weeks
Stamina Module training plan (optional) – 6 weeks
800m-10K training plan (or other distance) – up to 12 weeks (Note: I have individual plans for every distance from 800 meters to ultra marathons.)
Total length = 24-36 weeks

This training cycle is perfect for the runner following the traditional pattern of an off-season leading into a short distance race season. The philosophy is that we build aerobic efficiency, leg speed/form, muscular durability and mental strength from the base and hill plans. Then, we work to build strength first (with the stamina plan) and then carry this new strength into a speed-oriented race plan. I’ve had really great results with helping runners break through to a new performance level by getting them better prepared for speed training with this sequence.

Often runners avoid speed training so when they try to do it, the training quality is low and/or they get hurt. Following this sequence, the runner is very, very well prepared for the speed training and as a result, she has higher quality workouts within her race-specific plan and that results in better preparation for the race(s). This sequence works great for:

a) long distance runners who are moving away from the longer races to regain some much needed speed,

b) runners getting ready for a local race series as well as for

c) track runners who don’t run indoor track but focus on outdoor track (one race season).

Scenario #2: Indoor and Outdoor Track Focus (2 speed seasons)

Base training plan – up to 8 weeks (can shorten plan by 2-4 weeks)
Speed Module training plan (Race Season #1) – 6 weeks (can extend for 2-4 more weeks)
Hill Module training plan – 6 weeks
800m-10K training plan (or other distance) – up to 12 weeks
Total length = 26-32 weeks

This training cycle is perfect for the runner who has two speed-oriented race seasons within a short amount of time (say 4-6 months). A good example is a track athlete that runs indoor track in the winter and then outdoor track in the spring/summer. In this scenario, you need to be ready for two race periods. However, indoor track is usually a shorter season so you can get by with a shorter speed-oriented cycle before your build up to the longer outdoor season. The base plan (similar to Scenario #1) is used as the foundation, though in this scenario, you can shorten it by 2-4 weeks. Then, you move to my Speed Module training plan for the first race season.

I am having really great results with this speed module. It’s a perfect blend of all things speed: VO2max training, lactic acid tolerance training and leg speed/turnover training. The end result is that you get fast quickly allowing you to race well in your first race season. After that first season, we move away from speed training to do another training plan focused on preparation. The hill plan is perfect to continue building the body/mind into a speed-ready machine. And that’s what you’ll be as you move into the race-specific training plan for your second race season.

Scenario #3: Starting Over

Rebuild Fitness training plan – 12 weeks
Base training plan – up to 8 weeks (can shorten plan by 2-4 weeks)
Hill Module training plan – 6 weeks
Stamina Module training plan (optional) – 6 weeks
800m-10K training plan (or other distance) – up to 12 weeks
Total length = 34-44 weeks

If you’ve had a very long lay-off from training and racing (greater than 3 months), then we need to rebuild your fitness before we can get ready for the shorter races. Starting over is tough and often our brains remember training that our bodies are not yet ready to do. So, we need to be smart, otherwise, we’ll be stuck in the cycle of train, hurt, train, hurt, train, hurt. It is precisely for this situation that I built my Rebuild Fitness plans. With this plan, you will slowly and gradually rebuild your base fitness so you’ll be ready to do the training you know you want to do in order to avoid the pitfalls of coming back too quickly.

Once you’ve rebuilt some fitness, you move to the base plan and hill module as in the other scenarios. These will provide the preparation that your body and mind need before you return to more challenging workouts in the stamina and race plans. Trust me. If you’ve had an extended lay-off from running, this sequence of plans is the sure fire way to not just get back into running but likely surprise yourself at how quickly you can get fast without hurting yourself or enduring unenjoyable run after run.

Scenario #4: Speed for Non-Speedsters

Base training plan – up to 8 weeks (can shorten plan by 2-4 weeks)
Hill Module training plan – 6 weeks
Speed Module training plan – 6 weeks
Stamina Module training plan (optional) – 6 weeks
Speed Module training plan – 6 weeks
Stamina Module training plan (optional) – 6 weeks
Total length = 26-32 weeks

I get it. Even the mention of the word “speed” makes your hamstrings twitchy. But never fear, help is here. With the sequence above, you will build up your body’s ability to not only handle speed but excel at it. To do this, we need a few things:

1) You must build some leg turnover before you start speed workouts. That’s what you’ll get in the base plan – regular leg turnover work that preps your legs for faster running (essential for older runners returning to speed work).

2) You need stronger legs. That’s what you’ll get in the hill plan – stronger legs (and a strong mind)

3) You need to “get in, get out” with speed training. In other words, you can’t do 12 weeks of speed work. You need to give your body a break from it then return to it. This has worked really, really well for runners, particularly older runners, who have focused on longer races (or just avoided speed training) for a long time and now get hurt when they try speed.

Coach’s Notes

Drills/Strides – You can’t get enough

As part of your training, I’ll have you do a lot of running drills and strides. These are included in my training plans and feel free to do them even more often. Use the base plan and early season preparation plans (hills, stamina) as the time to add drills and strides 2-4 times per week. Here is a quick video on strides if you aren’t familiar with them. Strides can single handedly turn a slow runner into a fast runner yet they aren’t fatigue-inducing and are easy on the musculoskeletal system. I highly encourage you to do drills and strides as often as you can, especially in the preparatory plans.

Prehab – A little goes a long way

As with the drills/strides, I’m a firm believer in building your body to better handle the rigors of race training. And as with drills/strides, I include my Prehab routines within your training plan. I have found that a little Prehab, done regularly, goes a long way toward keeping injuries at bay and allowing you to be consistent in your training.

Effort early, pace later

As a rule, I find that runners place too much importance on pace early in their training cycles. I know. I know. I’m the guy that created the McMillan Calculator so it’s ironic coming from me but I encourage you to just train by effort in the early stages of your training plan. The bulk of the workouts in the base plan are just easy runs so go run at an easy effort and call it a day. This will keep you from pushing too fast too early.

That said, once you hit the race-specific plan, you should then become more pace-focused. You’ll want to challenge yourself to hit paces (even to move to the fast end of the pace range). After all, performance in short races is about very high mental suffering. So, you need to get used to that so later in the plan, focus on paces.

Tune-up Racing – Test the training, boost the motivation

One of the great things about training for shorter races is that you can race frequently. Unlike a marathoner who can only race a few times, short distance runners can race throughout their training cycle if they like. And I encourage you to do so. Peak performances in shorter races usually come after several races. It just takes some exposure to the mental and physical challenges to be able to really put in your best effort. So, race frequently and learn from each race. Adjust your training based on your racing and know that your best performances will come after a few tune-up races.

GP Practice – Grooving Goal Pace

Pacing in longer races is easier than in shorter races. If you are off by a few seconds in one mile in the marathon, you can easily make that up later. But in a mile race, you mess up the pacing and your whole race could be out the window. So, make sure you focus on the goal pace workouts. I include several in my training plans but even if you aren’t doing my plan, please do some goal pace workouts. The better you can become at hitting goal pace (and running relaxed at it), the better your chances of racing success.

Weight Loss – Lose it early

If you gained weight in the off season, use the first 8-12 weeks of your training cycle to lose the weight. Your running will be ramping up so you’ll be burning more calories but since the workouts aren’t as grueling as during the race-specific plans, you can cut calories early in your training to drop the weight. Nearing your ideal weight before you begin your race-specific training is key. You don’t want to be cutting calories while also trying to perform well in key workouts. So, lose the weight early.

Training Cycle Builder Video – Let me show you how

I highly recommend you watch my video Training Cycle Builder where I share my McMillan Training Cycle Builder Worksheet and walk you through how I actually build a training cycle using scenarios like those discussed in this article.

Final Thoughts

As with long distance races, short distance races really come down to preparation before the race-specific phase so you can have really, really high quality training in the last 8-10 weeks before your key race(s). Do better prep and your race-specific plan will go even better than you imagined. I see it week in and week out in my coaching. Athletes that follow a smart sequence of plans, always surprise themselves at how much faster they can run than before. And this, in the end, leads to faster racing and I think we can all agree that faster racing is a lot of fun.

(Here is my long distance training plan sequence article if you are getting ready for a longer race.)

Getting Started – TRY MY PLANS FOR FREE!


Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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