There is no one right way to train for a marathon – some thoughts

A magazine editor* approached me the other day, asking if I would write a piece (1000 words-ish, he said) on marathon training. ‘Something that people who are new to marathon training can benefit from reading. It could be about your experiences as a marathon runner or coach, or both’, he said, generously. I have taken that brief fairly liberally.

coachlicenceI have been coaching for 30 years now. I took my first Assistant Club Coach course in May 1986, when I was still a bit of an athlete. In the ensuing three decades I have worked with innumerable people on their marathon training. This has ranged from being a sounding board for the athlete’s own ideas, through mentoring and guiding more specific training, right through to ‘setting schedules’ in a very small number of instances. I freely admit that I may well have screwed up with some people (ignorance, experimentation), but would be disappointed if there weren’t a couple of people who, if asked, didn’t say,

actually Steve’s coaching and advice significantly helped me achieve what I did at the marathon.

Looking back in my notes from that first coaching course, I see that by page 5 we were in to double periodisation, but we are not going there in this piece. It will just be my take on some of the basics of getting to the start line of a marathon un-injured and fit as is possible, bearing in mind individual parameters. I will also highlight specific mistakes I may have made in my own marathon training over the years.

Already as I write this I am wondering why I said yes to the editor. I originally thought I would maybe go with the basic principles of marathon training, but there is really no such thing. It does SO depend on where you are starting from (how much training history you have) and how far you want to go (what level of performance are you hoping for).

OK, lets start with, how long do you need to build up to a marathon?

The pat answer is several years, which is hardly helpful for anyone planning on running a marathon in Spring 2017. That is simply because it takes a considerable amount of time to accustomise your body to the mileage that is required over an extended period of time to give you the background to train HARD for a good marathon.

So, any shortcuts then, Steve?

Not really. The easiest mistake to make is trying to run much higher mileages than you normally run in too short a time. Therefore, the first rule of thumb is to build up the total mileage you run AND the length of the longest runs at a very gradual rate. If you have a reasonable base fitness (most people in a running club should have), then you can consider something like an 18 week build-up, counting back from the marathon date. A guideline is to have no more than a 10% increase per week. So, if you are currently running 25 miles per week, and your longest run is say 6 miles in week 0, then the most you want to do in week 1 (of the 18) is probably 27 miles total with a long run of 7 miles.

Already I am making some assumptions that will not hold true for all potential marathoners. You might be thinking,

OK what mileage do I need to aim for, and what longest run do I need to do?

Again, no one answer. Just getting around a marathon can be achieved off quite low mileages, and a lot of willpower.

If you do the 10% per week maths from 25 miles a week through to 18 weeks you would be doing 100+ miles by the end. There are several reasons why this should not be the case. Firstly, you need to taper down in the last couple of weeks. This means doing less training and having more recovery. Secondly, it is pretty well established that continuously increasing the load you put yourself under is a recipe for injury. Your mileage has to be handled carefully.

sawtoothOne way is to follow several weeks of increased mileage with a low mileage recovery week. I like to think of it as a sawtooth pattern – the long side of the tooth being increasing weeks, with the short (down) side of the tooth as the recovery. If this is envisaged as a sloping saw then the trend is upwards, with recovery (low mileage weeks) every now and again, followed by further build-up to a new level, starting each increase from a higher level.

Ok, I’m doing more miles, but what longest run do I need to do?

Again, sorry but no one answer. I don’t recommend running 26.2 miles in training. A simple rule might be to make the longest run equivalent to the time you expect to be on your feet in the marathon. As you will be running slower than the race in training this might be something around 22-23 miles. This might seem daunting, especially if you are expecting to run something in the 3-30 to 4 hour timeframe. But you do need to let your body know what it is in for. So time on your feet is important. If you are a ‘novice’ marathoner that long run might be a one-off. But for faster/experienced marathoners I always try to plan in at least six 20+ mile training runs.

One of those 20 milers might be a race, which I recommend being run at ‘potential marathon’ pace – ie not as fast as you can run 20 miles (in theory). Depending on your instincts I like to see marathoners doing a couple of other longer races too, maybe a half marathon and a 10 miler. But remember every race is potentially taking you away from training – a small taper and the need to recover needing to be accounted for. So the races must have a point – pace judgement, confidence, variation in training even.

In some ways those two points above can be considered the most crucial to get right. I could write a whole lot more, but think I will just mention some things you should and shouldn’t do.

Firstly, when planning your running week make sure you alternate hard days with easy days – you can’t train full tilt every day. It is definitely worth seeking regular training partners. The long runs will be hard, and will go so much better in company. Arranging to run with someone will make it happen – even on a cold and wet winter’s day, you won’t want to let that friend down. Also don’t shy away from hills in training. Although you may well want as flat a marathon as possible, the discipline of training ever hills will be good for your muscle development. It is also very important to get your food (and drink) intact right, and to ensure you get enough sleep. When you are in maximum marathon training it might be the one time in life you can eat to your hearts content!

Feel an injury issue bubbling under? Don’t try to run through it. Have a break now and get back soon, rather than causing more damage. If possible get an expert to look at the issue (there is usually one in most clubs). In fact, why not have what is called a ‘maintenance massage’ BEFORE you get injured. One way of getting injured is to run in worn trainers. So, make sure you have several trainers that you can alternate and that are all giving you good support.

Should I be just concentrating on long runs?

Well you all do some speed work at some point in the week don’t you? Well then, keep that going. If you don’t, you risk becoming a long-slow runner. Similarly with core work. Don’t stop doing it. And if you don’t do it, then start now. Having said all that, I do recommend trying to fit in a second ‘long’ run in mid-week. Once you get up to 15+ miles for the long run this can be in the 10 miles range, complementing the long run, and nicely giving you a good proportion of your mileage in just two sessions.

What, you say, does this all mean for me?

jimpetersLet’s take four hypothetical marathoners and I will give a few thoughts on what training path they might take to get a result that reflects their potential, and not suffer like this guy did – Jim Peters, who fell just 150m from the finish line of the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver (and never fully recovered from the experience).

First time marathoner: very difficult to settle on a plan. It SO depends how much training you normally do. The important thing is to spend a good period of time building-up, probably over more than my suggested 18 weeks. Ensure you gradually build both the intensity and the volume of the training. In some ways it is a ‘finding out’ situation. You are unlikely to do your eventual PB in your first marathon. Use the event to see what level of training you can reach – without breaking down physically or it disrupting your domestic life too dramatically. Keep a diary so you have a record of what you have done and can adjust another time, perhaps with a coach or advisor to give an impartial view.

Improving, yet still a novice at the event: by natural progression most people will improve on their second or third marathon just by being fitter, better prepared and having a better understanding how to run the distance (which is quite an art in itself). This is the time that increasing the mileage is probably appropriate. You may well surprise yourself how much training you can do in any given period of time. Experiment with training twice a day now and again. Monitor the effect, is it actually counter-productive? Are you doing any/enough speed work? What is this track training all about – try it. You now need to know your current capability well enough to know what pace to set yourself for the marathon. Make sure you fit in a 20 mile race as a pointer for this. Run it at your expected marathon pace. Two reasons: feel what the pace is going to be like, and get feedback on how it has gone. Arrange it to be a good few weeks before the marathon. Then you have time to build in further training, and a good result is taken onwards to the race.

Have done a respectable time, but now want to go for the big one: Look back at your previous training. Is the balance right? Are you turning into a mileage monkey? As I found to my cost, the adding of more miles doesn’t always equate to better race times. Can you train smarter? It might be a good idea to cut down on mileage and increase the quality. Can you perform better if you give your body more recovery time? Organising regular preventative massage is worth considering. Don’t wait till you are feeling tight all of a sudden. One way of having both the ability and confidence to run a faster marathon is to train to improve your intermediate times. Reducing your half marathon PB might be a step towards bringing the marathon time down. Also aim to get your long rep times down in your speed sessions.

May be at or near your peak: now, you may still be able to set a better mark, but in order to do so many things have GOT to come together. You are looking for minute improvements in your preparation and performance. Analyse what you have done in the past and see how you can train even smarter. Get a coach/advisor to help you filter the good/bad practice. Possibly start the build-up earlier or from a higher point than you might have in the past. You should now know what optimum training level will keep you the right side of that thin line – between fitness and injury. Monitor your body. Give yourself good recovery, and your legs a regular massage. Work on the psychological aspect of preparation, and in particular of your approach to the actual event. Do you associate or dissociate in races? Do you need to try to improve this aspect of your preparation?

marathonbooksThere are loads of books out there that might help you tweak your physical and mental preparation. Looking along my book shelves, I see several that helped me back in the day. “Winning without drugs” by David Hemery and Guy Ogden, “Challenge of the Marathon” by Cliff Temple, and “Training for peak performance” by Wilf Paish, are three in particular that I remember digging into a lot. All classics, but all probably out of print now.

stevemarathonThere is so much more I could say, but let’s close with some very quick thoughts on my own marathon efforts. I improved from 3-05 in the very first London marathon in 1981 [photo left], through three years of higher mileage which allowed me to improve to 2-49, 2-46 and 2-43, before peaking in 1985 with 2-34-53.

Looking back through my diaries, and doing a few sums, made me realise three things. Firstly, that I never did particularly high mileage in my marathon build-ups (an average of 55 miles/week in 18 weeks build to the 1985 PB).

Secondly, that I now seem to be advocating much higher mileages than I ever did myself for people that I advise on their marathon training. And thirdly, that there are lessons to be learned from what I did to try to take my time down even further than the 1985 result, which was tantalisingly less than 2 minutes from the Club Record at the time. In simple terms I tried to do more miles, and hard ones at that, and became injured, meaning I didn’t start in 1986, and had a poor result in 1987, at which point I moved to other events, particularly fell running (which this blog is more often about).

* This material (in slightly different form) first appeared in the Barnet and District AC club magazine in Dec 2016, and is reproduced with permission.

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