IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How to create a training plan to reach any fitness goal

Whether you want to run a half marathon or learn how to golf — this Olympic-inspired plan will set you up for success.
Image:New York City Marathon runners
Runners compete during the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon in Queens on Nov. 6 in New York City.William Volcov / Brazil Photo Press via Getty Images

If anyone knows about working towards a goal, it’s Olympic athletes. And watching them dominate in the winter games this year provided us with some major inspiration (to get up off the couch, put down the popcorn and get a workout in of our own).

But a winter spent Netflix and chilling, with the occasional weekend run thrown in, can leave us struggling to remember what an ambitious fitness routine even looks like. Which is why setting a specific goal (albeit, at slightly lower stakes) and putting a training plan in place is a smart way to get back on track now that it's spring.

Not exactly sure where to start? Arianne Perry, co-founder of Sweet Defeat and an Olympic trials qualifier in track and field, is here to help. With all kinds of road races, including half marathons and full marathons, under her belt, she's perfected a structure that continues to carry her to the finish line. So whether you have a half marathon on the calendar or finally signed up for that summer volleyball league, follow this formula to set yourself up for success.

The 5 pillars of an effective training plan

It’s tempting to take that newfound boost in motivation and jump right in. But taking a step back can make all the difference in structuring a plan — and sticking with it for the long haul. “These pillars apply to any training plan, whether you’re training for the Olympics, a local road race or just preparing for a family ski trip,” says Perry. “It’s something that anyone can implement for any fitness goal.”

  1. The goal
  2. Fitness plan
  3. Nutrition rules
  4. Injury prevention
  5. Competition day plan
Arianne Perry

The Goal

First things first, you need a goal.

“Maybe you don’t want to train for a marathon or you don’t have a fitness goal in mind — there are some really cool ones you can think about. Maybe you want to train for a 5k or a triathlon, maybe it’s doing 10 push-ups or five pull ups, or maybe it’s just jump roping for three minutes. There are lots of goals you can set, even if it’s a skill like learning to play golf or snowboard.”

The most important thing is that you’re setting a goal that’s achievable, says Perry. “Set short-term and long-term goals. So if you’ve never run before, don’t sign up for a marathon, sign up for a 5k. See how that goes and then work your way up from there.”

I put my goal time and the date on a post-it note on the mirror in the bathroom. I’m looking at it every day; it’s a reminder of the intention that I set.

Being realistic is so important, says Perry. After all, you want to set yourself up to tackle a goal that you can actually achieve, right? And that goes for timing, as well. If you haven’t run a mile all winter, signing up for a half marathon this spring isn’t the most realistic timeline. Be honest with yourself about what your current fitness level is and give yourself the right amount of time to train, says Perry.

Have your goal in mind? Now grab a pen. “The first aspect of setting a goal is to write it down. Make it real. Put it in your calendar, put it in your phone; something that I do when I train for marathons is I put my goal time and the date on a post-it note on the mirror in the bathroom. I’m looking at it every day; it’s a reminder of the intention that I set when I signed up for the race and I decided to go after that goal.”

Fitness Plan

Now that your goal is in place, it’s time to structure a plan that will map out your journey to get there. Fitness plans typically have three phases:

  • Preparation (1-6 weeks): “During your preparation phase, you’re getting into the habits that are going to get you through your training plan. So if you’re training for a race, you’re getting into the cadence of running and lifting and cross-training, and working that into your schedule. You’re building a base fitness and getting comfortable with your training schedule.”
  • Competition (7-12 weeks): “This isn’t actually the competition that you’ve entered. This is the meat of your fitness training program; the time where you’re pushing yourself beyond your limit every week. So if you’re running three miles the first week, you’re running four the next. You’re increasing your volume and intensity; you’re competing with yourself. And if it’s something you can actually compete in, or enter a race, do that.”
  • Taper (1-2 weeks): “This is really common in endurance events like triathlons and marathons, but sprinters, figure skaters and golfers also taper. It’s the one to two weeks before your event where you’re decreasing your volume, but you’re not decreasing your intensity. Running is a really simple example, if you’re running 30-40 miles a week in preparation for your event, then you cut back to 20, but you don’t cut back on your pace. If you were running a 7:30 pace in the meat of your competition training, keep that intensity, but scale back your volume. Tapers have been shown to increase performance by 5-20 percent. It may not sound like a lot, but when you watch the Olympics and you see athletes winning by tenths of a second, that 5-20 percent makes a big difference.”

Nutrition Rules

In order to physically perform to the best of your ability, you need to be giving your body the right fuel. But you don’t need to overhaul your whole diet. In addition to aiming for a balance of lean proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats, Perry shares her simple rules that will make the biggest difference in your training:

  • Hydrate: “Studies show athletes that are dehydrated have a 45 percent decrease in their performance. That’s huge,” she says. “Hydration is something you should be doing all the time. Get a water bottle and drink throughout the day as much as you can. When our muscles are hydrated they’re more flexible, they can absorb nutrients more quickly, and when you haven’t had enough water you may feel tired or wilted” — which is obviously not conducive to pushing yourself physically.
  • Moderate: “Don’t change what you eat or the amount you eat to an extreme when you’re training. You should really only have an extra 200-300 calories a day,” says Perry. “That might seem counterintuitive and disappointing — you may want to go for a big stack of pancakes after that run — but the truth is our bodies adapt to what we’re doing on a daily basis. So when you’re training your body gets used to it and that extra 200-300 calories is really all you need to fuel your performance.”
  • Refuel: “Refueling in the 20-30 minutes after your workout is so important; it doesn’t have to be big: a handful of nuts, a half a banana, even a latte with a half cup of milk,” says Perry. “That 200-300 calories is perfect because right after you work out your muscles are ready to absorb that glycogen because you’ve stressed them and when you eat something your body immediately replenishes your muscles.”

Injury prevention

Don’t wait until a pulled muscle or twisted ankle derails you to think about injuries. Instead, incorporate injury prevention into your training plan with proper warm-ups, post-workout stretching and cross-training.

“When you’re training your stressing your body on a daily basis, you’re pushing your limits and testing your muscles and joints, so it’s really important to stretch,” says Perry. “Stretching can be traditional or using a foam roller. I’m religious about using the foam roller; I use it at home when I’m watching TV or reading news on my phone after I work out. The way I prevent tightness in my IT band, and pain in my hip and knee, is by rolling.”

Studies show that stretching after your workout is key for preventing injuries. Another thing that prevents injury? Cross training. “Olympians don’t spend their entire training day doing their sport,” says Perry. “A figure skater, for example, is lifting weights, they are running, doing Pilates … the reason cross training is so important is because it develops the small muscles that support the major muscles that really get fatigued when you’re performing at your peak. So if you’re training for a running event, maybe you jump on the elliptical or in the pool, it’s still cardiovascular activity, but it’s important to cross train so that you don’t overuse the same muscles, which can cause injury.”

Studies also show that there is a performance benefit to mixing up your workouts. For example, if you’re working towards a marathon, you may want to consider adding a few days of strength training into your routine in addition to your runs. A 2016 meta-analysis that looked at the impact of strength training on running found a “large beneficial effect,” as it allowed the runners to use less oxygen when running at the same pace.

The last thing to keep in mind to set yourself up for injury-free training is your equipment. “You don’t have to go crazy and make a big investment, but whatever fitness goal you set it’s important to have the right equipment,” says Perry. “If it’s a running goal, go to your local running store and get fitted for a pair of shoes that are perfect for your gait. If you’re trying to take on golf as a sport, definitely get fitted for some clubs, you can buy some used ones, but it’s so important that you have that consistency throughout your training and something that is fit to your body’s needs.”

Competition day game plan

As you work towards your event, visualize what the day will look like and imagine yourself working through the feat. Studies show that visualizing success has a very tangible impact on the physical outcome — especially when it comes to fitness. One study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation found that mental training or imagining virtual workouts actually led to increased strength. A New Mexico State University study found similar results: basketball players who imagined themselves throwing perfect free throws right before a game made more shots than those who didn’t visualize their success.

Basketball players who imagined themselves throwing perfect free throws right before a game made more shots than those who didn’t visualize their success.

Visualizing your success the day of will also help you push through when training gets tough. “This is going to keep you motivated and excited,” says Perry. “When you’re out there doing your training think about your fitness goal and how good it feels to meet that goal and succeed. There’s nothing like that feeling and thinking about it will keep you motivated.”

A couple days before your competition, nail down all the logistical details and put a game plan in place. “Get a backpack, fill it up with everything you’ll need for competition day. Think: What am I going to eat? How much time is there before my event? What am I going to wear? Is it going to be hot or cold? It’s so important to plan ahead,” says Perry. “All you want to be thinking about that day is how excited you are to meet your fitness goal, you don’t want to be scrambling and looking for your shoes or figuring out where you’re going to park. So think all of that through a couple days in advance; that way if there are any surprises you have time to clear them up and competition day is really only about the performance.”

But as much as you plan, you can’t anticipate every single detail. Which is why Perry stresses being flexible the day of. “You did all that training and planning, you’re ready to compete, and if something goes a little bit off or doesn’t work out how you thought, don’t worry, just focus on the preparation and your goal and don’t get too thrown off,” she says.

This five step plan will carry you to the finish line. Once you successfully check your goal off the list, set another one and start the process over again. You may surprise yourself at how many fitness feats you’re able to conquer with an effective training plan to help guide the way.


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.