With the beginning of the New Year, it’s time to start planning your build up to a spring marathon. There are many theories about how best to train for a marathon. I’ve run 14 of them now and have learned a few things along the way. There are key elements to marathon training that most runners include in their program and I’ll give you my take on each one:
- Long runs. These are runs of say, 15 miles or more that build up to close to the marathon distance. I’ve found that 20 miles is long enough (in fact, I ran my fastest marathon with a longest training run of only 18 miles). The pace for this run should be relatively comfortable. You can pick up the pace in the last few miles if you feel ok. This can be a big boost to your fitness level, but it can also take a lot out of you, so don’t go crazy in terms of pace. There is a trend among elite marathon runners today towards running faster long runs, often within 15-30 seconds per mile of actual marathon race pace. While this certainly seems to produce results, it also comes with a significant risk of overtraining or injury. Keep in mind that today’s top runners are young, talented professional athletes who have the time, resources and most importantly, the training background to handle such an intense regime. Most of us can get similar benefits with less risk by simply finishing off the last couple of miles of a long run at a faster pace, say between marathon race pace and 30 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace.
- Weekly mileage. This is one of the more overlooked issues among newer marathon runners. Long runs are great, but your overall weekly mileage is even more important in building your fitness and endurance for race day. The amount you can handle is an individual matter, but more is better, at least up to the point where you start to get injured or sick of running. Most of your weekly mileage doesn’t need to be fast, just run comfortably and let the pace come to you. Consistency is the goal here, it does you no good to run 100 miles one week and 30 the next (or 0 due to an injury). Of course, there will be some variation, but the more often you can get out the door and on the roads, the better. For most recreational runners, I’d consider an average of 40 miles per week for the last three months before your marathon the absolute minimum to have an enjoyable experience on race day. 60-65 miles per week would be better and if you can handle more without getting injured or overly tired, go for it.
- Interval training. In my opinion, interval training is a bit over rated when it comes to running a fast marathon. After all, most runners tend to run interval workouts much faster than the pace they run in a marathon, so they’re not working their energy systems the same way they would in a race. Occasional interval training (once a week at most) are ok, but this shouldn’t be a main focus of your marathon training. Most runners have plenty of speed to run their marathon goal time, it’s the endurance that needs to be improved. If you do choose to run interval workouts, run longer repeats (1,000m and up) from marathon pace to maybe 10-15 seconds per mile faster with relatively short recovery periods.
- Tempo Runs. When I think of “speed work” for a marathon, I think tempo runs. These runs of 3 to 10 miles at a comfortably fast pace are excellent preparation for racing a marathon. Again, you have to be a bit careful with how often you do them (once a week, twice at the most if you’re not doing any interval workouts), but they can be an excellent stimulus for improvement in your marathon time. The correct pace is probably around 1/2 marathon to marathon race pace, but you don’t have to micro-manage the pace, just run comfortably hard but stay relaxed, run with good form and don’t strain. If you feel yourself starting to struggle, slow down a little and get back under control or cut the run short.
- Number of “Hard Days”. Most of the recreational runners I know run too hard too often. Which means they’re often injured or not recovered enough from one run to the next to truly give their hard workouts the effort required for optimal progress. One long run (especially if you pick up the pace towards the end) and one fast run per week is plenty of hard running in your week. The other days should be gentle easy runs that are slow enough to allow you to carry on a conversation as you run. A lot of runners go out and run semi-fast every day without ever really running easily enough to recover or hard enough to get much of a benefit.
The training mix that’s right for you is an individual matter, it depends on your age, gender and experience as a runner. Training should leave you tired, but you shouldn’t be exhausted every day. Find a level that you can train at consistently and that you enjoy. Marathon training is challenging, but if you find your training to be exhausting, you probably need to back off a little in terms of your pace or mileage.
Finally, be patient. Success (relative to your ability) in marathoning takes years of training, no matter what those “Run a marathon in 12 weeks” gurus will tell you. If you don’t run up to your potential on your first couple of attempts, don’t be discouraged. Trust me, you’ll have lots of company. Some of the greatest runners in the world, including former world record holder Haile Gebresellassie struggled in their first few marathons. With courage and persistence, you may find that you run faster than you ever dreamed was possible.