Below is a marathon preparation blueprint developed through past experience which can assist in creating and maintaining a training program as well as balance running with life. The basic conceptual framework has been discussed over and over; however, specific week-to-week workouts will vary, depending on weather conditions, projected marathon timing, fitness level, and other factors.
Who Has The Time?
Successfully training for a marathon involves a significant investment of time and effort. You will need to be fully invested in the process. Your spouse and family need to be invested in the process. It takes planning and commitment. The training and the race is a fascinating “who am I?” endeavor. First time marathoners and grizzled veterans learn a lot about themselves during the process.
In creating a training plan, every aspect of your life must be accounted for – work, family, social activities. As a coach, there are fixed parts of your life I cannot change – you work a full-time job, you have to be home by 7pm on Monday to pick up the kids, you love this Wednesday night yoga class, you like taking Fridays off, you have book club the first Tuesday of every month. Obviously, none of these are bad things but need to be scheduled around. Our first step will be to lay out a ‘typical’ week so we can customize the Whippet training plan to your specific schedule. As the schedule progresses, little things will come up (family emergency, last minute concert tickets) and we’ll plan for those – everything from switching time of a run (evening to morning) to cancelling workouts – depending on the situation.
Most runners preparing for the marathon have a time-goal in mind. There are some good “race predictor” calculators online which will estimate finish time based on performances at other distances. For the marathon, the big caveat to the accuracy of these tools is that you must be as well-trained for the marathon distance as you were for the 5K or 5-miler entered into the calculator. I also believe multiple time goals should be created. Have a “good time,” a “better time,” and a “best time” in your head as the season progresses. Set expectations early in the process and gauge your readiness to meet those goals as the long runs and workouts proceed. Keep in mind that goal(s) can change as the season progresses.
As for using these predictor models, the first step is to be honest with yourself. Let me explain. Personally speaking, I spent much of my early running years focusing on distances from the mile to the 10K. Because of that, I race “above” my fitness at the shorter distances and “below” my fitness at the longer distances. Thus, these predictor models skew towards those shorter distances for me. Specifically, I ran a 5:28 mile at the NYRR Night at the Races just a couple weeks ago June and putting that time into a common calculator says I should be able to run sub-2:55 for a marathon. With my inexperience at the longer race distances (and a challenging course), I’m playing it more conservative and setting my goals at 3:10/ 3:05/ 2:59. If my training significantly improves over the next eight weeks, maybe I’ll narrow those time windows but that’s still TBD.
Another thing to keep in mind is no race occurs in a vacuum. What was done going into those races matter. Did you run any workouts focused on those distances? Did you decrease your mileage in the 4-6 days prior to the race as a mini-taper for these races? Did you decrease cross training in the week leading into the race? Was it run early on after coming back from injury? All of these impact predictor model calculations.
Rest, Diet, Hydration
Running more will require more rest during the training season. Make a plan for rest like you plan runs. Try to avoid things in your diet that can inhibit your training. I’m not going to tell you what to eat or not eat but, remember, the body will be burning a lot of carbohydrate fuel during the training cycle. Be prepared. Continual hydration is the best way to avoid dehydration. You need to make it part of your daily routine. Try different liquids and determine what works best for you – water, Gatorade, Nuun, UCAN, whatever.
The marathon needs to be on your mind all the time. Not every minute of the day, but think about it several times a day. This focus is part of the commitment and will keep from straying from the serious tasks ahead. One great way to keep focus is to come up with a mantra for the season – some phrase which keep motivation. It should not be a time goal but simply something that keeps you motivated. One of my personal favorites is “it’s always lonely on the extra mile.” My wife tells herself to “stand tall, run proud” to remind herself to keep good form, especially at the end of workouts. Find an inspirational quote – or create your own! – and use it. Track progress and note achievements. The process should always focus on the positive.
Three Basic Pillars
Each run must serve a purpose. While many runs will not have an ‘earth-shattering’ purpose, every run truly has one and should conform to the three basic pillars: 1) long run, 2) strength and endurance intervals, and 3) recovery runs. The same 3 pillars are used in marathon training, but the distances are longer and the sequence is varied. For the marathon, the three pillars break down this way:
- Recovery Runs: Simply stated, these are days when pace and mileage is not as important, but you still need to get out there. Recovery runs are just that – to aid recovery. As a tip: On my recovery runs, I do one of two things — leave my watch at home and run a given, verified distance, OR do a timed run and never find out how far it is. That way you simply enjoy the run for what it is — recovery. No distractions about how many miles covered in a certain amount of time with these runs. There are other days to worry about that stuff – namely interval days.
- Very Long Run: The long run should serve as an opportunity to get out there for “time on feet.” Time on feet is a reference to amount of time spent running versus the amount of miles run. The difference is the body’s comprehension of running. As you know, the body notices drastic differences in pace, i.e. 7:00/ mile vs. 9:00/ mile. However, the body does not notice a subtle change of 8:45/ mile as compared to 9:00/ mile. Focus on the amount of time spent running — with the amount of miles run being secondary. Generally, targeting a maximum long run of 20 to 22 miles will be in the schedule but we may vary that in your individual training plan. For example, I prefer to run at least one long run equal to the amount of time I place to race so, for me, this means a 3-hour run which will cover 23-24 miles. No matter how far the longest long run is, the point is to get comfortable being on your feet for an extended period. Try to do at least two 20 milers, although three or four are better for experienced marathoners.
- Strength and Endurance Intervals: These workouts are usually run on the roads and consist of repeat miles, intervals, repeat hills, fartleks, and extended tempo runs. Interval training and extended tempo runs are more than simply running fast for an extended period of time. The workouts are designed for three main goals:
- focus on marathon pacing by learning to “feel” the pace without relying on a watch, GPS unit or other people (something I like to call ‘setting the internal clock’)
- teach yourself to be relaxed and work smarter (not harder) as you fatigue
- most importantly, build self-confidence to achieve your goal time. Timing of these workouts during training is just as important as scheduling the long run.
Each week should cycle through each of the three pillars listed above. As mentioned earlier, a “typical week” will be created based on specific details of your life. Similarly, we’ll determine how often each of these pillars will be completed in a given week. Obviously, the long run and easy days will be completed every week but what about workouts? Determining workout quantity and intensity is vital to any training program’s success.
At minimum, one quality workout needs to be included every week – everything from miles at marathon pace to track workouts. When marathon training, the Tuesday workout should be the focal workout of the week as it typically includes long stretches of miles at a given pace. The consistent pace of those workouts teaches one how to “feel” the pace – breathing pattern, cadence, form/ body positioning – instead of relying on the stopwatch during the race.
Some folks operate better with two quality workouts per week; for some, that’s too much. Several factors in determining whether a second workout should be included in your schedule include prior experience, current weekly mileage, and life schedule. For our discussion, let’s use the Whippet program to highlight possible modifications when running one workout per week.
- In place of Thursday’s workout, run the total miles suggested as easy miles. Throughout the schedule, Thursday’s workout mileage can range from 8-11 miles when including warm-up, cooldown, and jog rest periods (if any). This mid-week longer run (ranging from 40-60% of the long run distance) is a great way to keep the mileage up without taxing the body with another workout.
- Run Thursday’s workout at one pace slower than suggested. For example, if the workout states HMP, run at MP; if it states LT pace, run at HMP, if it states 10K pace, run LT pace, etc. Canova Ks is a workout which suggests alternating between marathon pace and half marathon pace every kilometer throughout the workout; in your schedule it may be best to alternate between easy pace and marathon pace. Lastly, to prevent from running too fast and keeping to your plan, join a group which closely matches your adjusted goal paces for the evening. This enables the ability to run the same workout as the rest of the team thus allowing you to have people to run with which is the main reason to attending team practices.
- One key element to remember when doing this: you are a guest of that group. That group trains together regularly and aims to run the paces chosen at the start of the workout. Stick with the group throughout the entire workout. Move to the back of the group if necessary to prevent pushing the pace at the front. Be aware of the group dynamic and communicate with your teammates – either to check in on the pace or provide motivation since this pace should be ‘comfortable’ for you.
The biggest objective to marathon training is to convince the body (and mind!) to keep moving when it is tired. The more often you are able to run a couple miles when you really feel like sitting down, the more acclimated to the race experience you become. The big concept for many marathoners is doing a little bit more, running the extra mile, taking one more lap. Holding onto this philosophy will pay dividends on race day. Run the extra cooldown following your intervals, turn your scheduled 8-miler into 10 because you feel good that day, get in a solid run the day after your interval workout, or stay out there just a bit longer. (Note: To obtain extra mileage, running an additional interval or extending a tempo run is not recommended.) There’s a very good chance you will feel tired during the marathon. Having the training background to deal with that circumstance – both mentally and physically – will help you fight through it on race day.
We will plan at least one race per month during the preparation phase – 10 milers, half marathons, 30Ks, etc. But running the occasional 5-miler can take the place of a speed interval workout. No matter what the race, do not take the “jog through it” approach. Race hard and completely, even if you ran a long run or workout the day before the race. We’ll aim for a half marathon within 6 weeks of the full marathon to be used as a fitness assessment and evaluate our time goals. Remember, this new goal(s) may be different from the one you started with!
Group long runs on weekends, interval workouts during the week or on weekends and recovery runs during the week are intended to make training a bit easier and provide some much needed stimulation and support. We strive to keep the long runs and workouts positive and upbeat, not just strenuous. Talk to other people about their training. Find out what other people may be trying. There is no such thing as too much information; however, be realistic about the strategies based on your ability level, or which ones you’ll even enjoy and stick with.
There is a tremendous array of backgrounds, experiences, and abilities in a running group or club, and this can provide a glimpse into all aspects of the marathon race and how it fits into other people’s lives. I encourage you to tap into these available resources whenever you need some encouragement, motivation, or advice.
Training for a marathon can seem like an exciting endeavor and a daunting task at the same time. Planning ahead will make the process feel more similar to the previous and less similar to the latter. Be excited throughout the process as it will be a tremendous learning experience – not solely about running, nutrition, or training but you as a person.
Building a training schedule
In broad training strokes, to be a better marathoner, you have to run more. With that said, we should look at 4-week periods (three increase weeks; one ‘down’ week) each with a different focus:
- First month: building a base comprising increasing total weekly mileage slowly and with workouts at a ‘step down’ pace (to be explained). Create post run routines with strides, drills and muscle strengthening. End with a down week.
- Second month: Keeping mileage similar to first month but incorporating strength workouts (mainly miles at marathon and half-marathon paces). Continue with strides/ drills/ strength. End with down week and a race (any distance).
- Third month: Following previous week’s race, we’ll skip a workout but increase the mileage to month 2/ week 3 level. Total weekly mileage increases via weekly long run. Workout distances remain roughly the same. End with down week but, instead of race, end with first 20+ mile run of cycle.
- Fourth month: Very similar to third month but weekend long run consistently remains at 20+ miles. Workouts will be longest of the cycle. Will race a half marathon somewhere in this month but no change to weekend long runs or workouts that week. No down week as this will lead into 2-week taper for marathon.
Based on present training regimen and race goal(s), marathon training is not a 16+ week endeavor for everyone so we will determine your optimal training program.
In my experience, adding two stressors to your training at the same time is a recipe for disaster. For example, if you’ve had a lazy early summer (which you are FULLY entitled to), it would be dangerous to both increase your mileage and workout intensity at the same time. The stressor in the first phase is increasing the base weekly mileage and allowing the body 4 weeks to acclimate. In the second phase, the stressor is committing to two workouts per week and allowing the body 4 weeks to acclimate to that. Finally, in the third phase, the stressor is adding more miles to your long run (achieving 20+ miles multiple times) and allowing your body 4 weeks to adapt before finally tapering for the race.
Marathon training needs to manageable chunks and this has always worked well for myself and prior clients whether it be peaking for a marathon or a 5K. Only difference is the mileage and the workouts.
With that said, this first step to any training program is building a ‘typical’ exercise week. Obviously, life happens, schedules change and weather can all impact an individual week but determining what is possible each day of the week will help set a course for success. For example, at the top of the schedule, set a purpose for each day – recovery day, long intervals, short intervals, rest/ easy run/ cross-train. If you are not a point where running every day is possible then create a schedule which can be maintained throughout a normal week. An example might be Monday yoga, Tuesday workout, Wednesday spin, Thursday 6+ mile run, Friday rest, Saturday long run, Sunday recovery run. Everybody is different so think about what activities you enjoy and how they can be scheduled throughout a week.
If possible, try to schedule strength training routines on lighter cardio days. For example, I encourage people to allot the same amount of time per day to working out but what is done within those days varies. Let’s say you have two and half hours a day to exercise. Long runs and workouts take longer to execute so it’s best to only run on those days (maybe some light stretching to follow). On easy days, cardio is likely to be an hour or less – whether it’s a run, spin class, yoga, etc – so there is more time for the little things – strides/ drills, stretching, lifting, core exercises. I understand this is not possible for everyone as people take may have to do everything in one night due to scheduling but, if possible, consider this as a training option.
One other element which should be discussed about marathon training is the weather. People respond differently to heat and cold so it may need to be taken into account when trying to increase mileage early in the training program. Some people are so adversely affected by the heat that simply maintaining April/ May mileage in June/ July/ August can be considered “winning.” Heat can make training very difficult so do not feel as though a workout or long run needs to be ‘forced’ if the weather does not cooperate. For example, if you have a regularly scheduled long run on Saturday but the forecast predicts it will be 90 degrees that day but upper 70s on Sunday, consider switching long run days. Same goes for workouts: if 7 miles at MP is on the docket for Tuesday but you’ve been watching snow fall all day from your office, consider switching the workout to Wednesday allowing the city time to clear the park then skip Thursday’s workout for a long-ish recovery run. During the winter months, cold temps and snow can make workout and long run execution difficult so the opposite of the examples above may be true. Base mileage is more important so don’t stress about missing anything but keep an eye on the weather and plan a few days in advance where possible.
Safely increasing mileage
A rule of thumb touted in the running community is the “10% rule” which means not increasing weekly mileage by more than 10% vs the previous week. Because everyone starts a training plan from a different starting point and running history, I have never believed there is a magic formula for increasing mileage. However, there are several ground rules that should be followed to prevent injury.
While running fast is sexy, a workout day (total mileage including warm-up, workout/ jog rest, cool down) should not be equal to or longer than the longest weekly run. Typical workouts include a 2-mile warm up, 3-4 miles of intervals, another mile of jog rest between those intervals and a 2-mile cool down which totals 8-9 miles. If the longest run of your week is not yet this distance, I suggest skipping workouts until that happens. Trying to increase mileage AND running hard in workouts is a recipe for disaster.
Once agreeing to start workouts, decide how to best utilize the training plan to achieve your goals. As I see it, there are two ways to accomplish this:
- Our Whippet training plans suggest two workouts per week – Tuesday and Thursday. If achieving the overall weekly mileage totals in the plan is tough, I suggest backing off to one focused, quality workout per week. In my opinion, it is more important the weekly mileage goal is achieved than running two workouts in a week. If your mileage base is low, running two workouts per week can be more detrimental than helpful because you may not be ‘strong’ enough to recover between workouts and cause injury. As an example, let’s say the Whippet training plan states a Tuesday workout of 4 miles at half marathon pace (HMP) and a Thursday workout of 6 x 800m @ 5K pace with 2:00 rest between each interval. Each workout requires 1.5-2M of warmup and cooldown so each workout totals 7-8 total miles of running.
- If your goal race ranges from 5K to 10K, it may be best to run Thursday’s workout at the recommended pace but, instead of a workout on Tuesday, simply run 7-8 easy miles
- Conversely, if you goal race is over 10K, it may be best to run Tuesday’s workout at the recommended pace but, instead of a workout on Thursday, simply run 7-8 easy miles
- If there is a desire to run both workouts per week (whether it be to have the ability to run with teammates, you enjoy workouts, etc.), finishing the workout is more important than completing each interval at a certain pace – especially if choosing to run two workouts in a week. My advice: pick one of our workouts to run at the paces prescribed and run the other workout at a “step down” from the paces prescribed. For example, let’s say Tuesday’s workout is 4 miles at half marathon pace (HMP) and Thursday’s workout is 6 x 800m @ 5K pace with 2:00 rest between each interval.
- If your racing goals are 5K to 10K, it may be best to run Thursday’s workout at the recommended pace but run Tuesday’s workout one “step down” at marathon pace (MP). Find a group who is running their HMP at your MP and join them.
- If you racing goals are over 10K, it may be best to run Tuesday’s workout at the recommended pace but run Thursday’s workout one “step down” at 10K pace
Following this idea will ensure completion of the workout while achieving certain fundamental practice goals:
- Engagement in the group dynamic
- Elevating your heart rate to a comfortable level
- Safely increase mileage while in the company of others
Increasing mileage from your ‘limit’
Many of us train to the limits of our time and perceived ability but how do we increase our mileage when we feel we have reached our limit? For example, if you are running 6-7 days per week, it is not possible to run more days per week so how do we increase mileage from that point. The simplest way to increase mileage is to do so on days in which you are running with people as camaraderie can provide a welcome distraction. Below are several examples to consider as options:
- Workout days – there is already a commitment to run the given workout for the day and you will be running with a group for the workout portion. Adding a mile to the either or both the warm up and cool down is a way to add miles but, especially on the cool down, add in running miles while tired (which is something there where will be plenty of on race day). If you presently run a mile warmup and cool down (each), increase to two miles. However, I suggest not running more than three miles on either end of a workout
- Long run days – considering this is already your longest run of the week, this may be difficult to accomplish. However, similar to workouts, if you are committing to meet people for the long run, adding an extra mile from your house/ apartment to the run or tacking on an extra mile after everyone disperses may not be that difficult. Plus, you may find someone willing to join you!
- Schedule easy day runs with other people – while you already commit to meeting people for workout and long run days, there may be other opportunities to run with people. For example, a group of Brooklyn-ites who all work in Manhattan (two in Rock Center, one on West Houston, one in Tribeca, one in LES and me in Chelsea) try to meet on Mon/ Wed/ Fri and commute home together. We each run 1-2 miles to Whole Foods in the Bowery, run 4 miles together via the Williamsburg Bridge then begin peeling off one at a time. By the time I get home, it’s a 10 mile run and it is much easier than having to do the entire run solo.
Beyond adding miles in the presence of company, there are two other ways to increase mileage: adding miles onto your solo runs or running twice a day. Considering our busy schedules, running twice a day can be difficult. While running itself is one of the least time-consuming sports, extra time to stretch, foam roll, shower, etc. can add significant time if planning to run twice in a day. Adding miles to your solo runs may be the best option for your busy life but consider all scheduling factors before making a decision.
Long run pacing
As for long runs, avoid worrying about pace as I believe the essence is to spend as much time running as possible. With that said, do not be much slower or faster than your normal run pace. Using a specific example, my runs average anywhere from 7:45 to 8:15 per mile depending on the day, terrain, etc. and my marathon pace is around 7:00 per mile. When finishing a run, I take my total run time and divide by 8:00 then round to the nearest half mile. If my run time totals 1:51:21, I consider it 14 miles in 1:50 as that is the closest rounding based on my parameters. Long runs are about time on feet; not your pace. Throughout a given training cycle, plenty of workouts are designed to focus on race pace so that focus does not need to apply to long runs.
Long run recovery
This is advice may sound like the last thing you will want to do following a long run but, if you can, try to do some light walking or even light biking after the run to get the blood flowing. Don’t get me wrong – sit down, eat a huge meal, have a pint or two (or three) following your long run. But, a couple hours later, it may be in your best interest to get the body moving and blood flow pumping to enhance recovery. This activity does not need to elevate the heart rate at all but will be better than putting your feet up on the couch for the rest of the day.