The four things you need to know about training for a Marathon
Taking on the marathon distance of 26.2 miles is no small feat. Many books have been written on this subject, and a quick google search for “marathon training” yields nearly 6.5 million results. There are many, many ways to tackle this beast; no one way is perfect.
As I’ve said before, when training for any event, consistency is key for a successful training cycle. Instead of giving you a schedule and telling you that following it will guarantee a great race day, I’m sharing a basic “recipe.” (I smell a tasty analogy coming!).
Marathons and Pizza
A good aerobic base is like the crust of a pizza – it holds everything together and provides a foundation upon which to build the rest of your training. The sauce of our pizza is the long run. Too much and you will be over fatigued, too little and you won’t be adequately prepared for the demands of the race. Since no two runners are the same, your speed endurance workouts will be highly customized to your goals, fitness, and training history. This is like loading up your pizza with your favorite toppings. Finally, you have to let everything rest and come together to truly be able to enjoy the hard work you have put in through a proper taper.
Keep reading as I dive into each of the components of this recipe, to best prepare you for your next marathon.
The Crust: Aerobic Fitness
Running a marathon requires running at a moderate pace for three to five hours. This includes aerobic conditioning and muscular endurance. A good running economy and burning fat for fuel will help both of these aspects as well.
Running aerobically means you are taking in a sufficient amount of oxygen to power your muscles. Imagine you’re baking a pizza, you need a good crust on which to bring together the various toppings. Since the marathon is 97% aerobic, conditioning your aerobic system is of the utmost importance, and will be the crust of your training.
Easy and long runs make up 50% – 75% of your training mileage. First timers or those new to running will want to be on the higher end of this range to really build up the crust. Increasing mileage by running at an easy, aerobic pace will not only strengthen your aerobic system, but increase your muscular endurance and running economy, while helping to keep you injury free.
The best way to target the aerobic system is with easy and long runs. This is best done at a pace that is 55% to 75% of your 5k pace (generally 1 – 2 minutes slower per mile). Many runners fall into the trap of thinking the faster they train, the faster they race. Like a great pizza however, you cannot rush things. Training too hard or too fast will leave you burnt out (like a pizza in an oven that’s too hot) or injured, that will force you to miss aerobic training.
The Secret Sauce: Accumulative Fatigue
Personally, I like a pizza with just a skim of sauce to give it a rich flavor. Add too much and your crust is soggy and your pizza’s flavor is dominated by sauce, leaving you unable to enjoy the toppings. Add too little and you are left with an unsatisfying, incomplete pizza.
The same goes for the long run in a training plan. Go too long and you won’t be able to recover enough for the next workout. Research has shown aerobic development does not see a significant increase (specifically mitochondrial development) when running longer than 90 minutes.
If you are a 3:45 to 4:00 marathoner, this means you will get nearly the same aerobic development from running 16 to 18 miles as you would from the standard 20 to 22 miles!
What about muscular endurance, you ask? That’s where the theory of Accumulative Fatigue comes in. This is a staple to the Hansons Marathon Method, a template I used for several years and with which I found great results. This “theory posits that fatigue from one workout accumulates and transfers to the next run, so that you’re always starting a workout or a long run a little tired from your previous training.”
Instead of resting or running a short, easy run the day before a long run, this theory requires you to run a moderate distance (6 to 8 miles) with a portion at marathon pace. This leaves you slightly fatigued for your long run the next day, simulating the later miles of a race. Instead of starting your long run at mile zero, you’ll be starting somewhere between four to eight miles.
Additionally, a long run of 16 to 18 miles can be more specific than a run of 20 to 22 miles. On race day, you are not likely to be running easy, as is generally prescribed for the 20 to 22 miler. Running easy means you run zero miles at marathon pace; however, with a decrease in volume, you can increase your pace. A run of 16 to 18 miles allows you to spend 12 to 16 miles at marathon pace.
This doesn’t mean you should never run 20 miles, rather it is a way to rethink a traditional training plan to make it more specific to the demands of the marathon. As a general rule, your weekly long run should be 30% to 33% of your weekly mileage, but no more than 3 hours per run. Below is a guide for how long your long run should be based on your weekly mileage:
For the average runner, spending three plus hours on a single training run significantly increases the risk of injury. Form breaks down and fatigue sets in, forcing your body to rely on smaller muscles, shifting your training focus away from its primary target.
The Toppings: Speed Endurance
Some people, believe it or not, don’t like anything but cheese as a pizza topping. I like to mix and match veggies (or just upend the fridge and throw on anything and everything) to really create something unique!
The same goes for this portion of your training: speed endurance. If you’re simply hoping to finish the race with a smile on your face, you don’t need to worry too much about this component. If you have a specific goal, this is important!
Topping off your training pizza is developing your lactate threshold. This is the pace at which lactic acid builds faster than it can be recycled for energy, causing discomfort and an all too familiar burning feeling in your legs.
We can draw upon our half marathon training to help us here. Alternating tempo runs will simulate surges in the race by switching the pace up between slightly slower than 10k pace to slightly faster than marathon pace.
Also, the long repeats of the half marathon training can be progressed to 2×5 to 6 mile repeats with 1 mile recovery. This a workout I did 3 weeks before Grandma’s Marathon. It is tough! The repeats are done at slightly faster than marathon pace and really get the lactic acid flowing. The break helps your body learn how to clear the acid more efficiently while also making your legs feel dead tired when you start up again (very much like how they will feel late into the marathon!)
Letting it Rest: The Taper
The secret to making a perfect pizza is letting it sit for a few minutes before cutting and eating. This allows the cheese to cool and set, so when you cut the pizza, you don’t drag off the cheese and toppings; however, you don’t want to wait too long and let it get cold.
Same goes for your marathon training with the taper. There are many different philosophies for the proper taper, ranging from a sharp reduction in mileage with intense repeats, to a slight reduction in mileage over several weeks while still performing marathon specific work.
The one that makes the most sense to me, because it is very specific, is one detailed by Coach Gaudette on Runners Connect. In this plan, you reduce your mileage by a small amount for three consecutive weeks while still performing marathon paced workouts. These workouts will help you hone in on your pacing to perfect it for race day. You will want to perform a marathon paced workout in each of these last three weeks. The workouts could look something like this:
Additionally, keeping your mileage close to your weekly average will prevent you from feeling flat on race day. This mileage will be filled with easy, aerobic running, continuing to train the most energy important system. These runs also promote recovery with increased blood flow to your legs, bringing oxygen and nutrients while removing waste products.
Two weeks out from race day, your long run should be reduced to 50% – 60% of your max (down to 8 – 12 miles total). At this point you can no longer gain fitness, but you can certainly push yourself over the edge with fatigue.
The day before your race should feature a very easy run of 15 – 20 minutes. This will help keep you loose and take the edge off the nerves you are likely feeling.
The taper is all about finding the correct balance between recovering from the hard work of your training cycle while still staying fresh. Hard interval sessions will are not specific to the demands of your race and can be overly taxing (this includes those Yasso 800s!).
Sampling the Pizza
Here is a three week sample of what a training schedule might look like. The last two weeks are modeled after two peak weeks of my schedule going into Grandma’s Marathon:
The first thing to notice is how the marathon specific workouts build on the previous workout. Also, we see good examples of accumulative fatigue in the first two weeks.
This is part of a plan that was customized for me, which is why I left out mileage on the easy and long runs, since that aspect is highly specific to the runner. You can also see that I have some high volume, short repeats. These are the jalapenos on my pizza, meant to give me a kick and help my leg turn over. There are also sessions of long repeats at goal pace, my pineapples. Both of these elements are highly specific to my needs and goals, but work together to build a sweet and spicy pizza.
Have Your Pizza and Eat it, too
In any good marathon training plan, you’ll see that it takes time to build up the necessary aerobic capacity to successfully complete the marathon distance. Sure, you can do it only running a couple of days a week, but that’s not going to set you up for the best possible experience. It’s like comparing a frozen pizza to a wood fired pizza from Pizza Nea. The bottom line is that it takes time and patience, but well worth the wait.
What are your key “ingredients” you utilize when training for a marathon?