Last February I was fitting a customer for new running shoes and we started chatting about training for the Boston Marathon during the ungodly winter. When I mentioned to her that I officially started training on December 1st she chirped back, “My friend runs it every year and she only trains for 8-10 weeks. She says its ‘muscle memory’ that gets her to the finish line. And honestly she’s pretty fast too!” Even though the runner and coach inside me had tons of questions about the friend’s training plan and race day performance,I gave the only logical retail ‘the customer is always right’ response in the moment and said, “Wow!! That’s amazing!! Good for her!!” But seriously- good for her, that really is pretty darn impressive!!
Every now and then I think about this customer’s friend- the athlete who is able to just pick up and train for a marathon in 8 weeks time. My initial gut response was a jealous one: Why do I need to devote 20 weeks to training when someone else can get it done in less than half the time? However, once I digested the scenario I started to ask a lot more questions about this runner’s training plan, run history, and marathon performance…
- How long has she been running? Her whole life? A few years? (this would impact her durability)
- How many miles per week does she run during her off-season? (what is her base mileage)
- Does she do speed workouts/hill repeats/tempos during training? (will impact time needed for recovery and ultimate race pace)
- What are her goals for race day? ~ is she looking to complete the marathon? set a PR?
- Her friend said that she runs a ‘good time’; this is awfully subjective… what is a good time?
- When she is not “training” how many miles/week is she running and what is her long run at?
The reality is we don’t know any specifics about this woman’s training plan or run history. We don’t know her goals for race day, her previous marathon times/performances or her history of injury (or lack thereof). In actuality we know NOTHING about this athlete and how or why she trains the way she does. This my friends is why we can’t truly compare one marathoners training plan to another. Every marathoner has a different run history, goals, time constraints and body that they are working with as they prepare for race day..
Your training plan should be unique and should be a reflection of your current fitness level, your run history, goals and the time you are willing/able to spend training (this includes recovery time!!). In my opinion while a static training plan pulled from an online reference or book can definitely get you marathon ready, it is not flexible and will not help you maximized your unique race day performance. This is one of the primary reasons I sought out a coach for myself- PLUS I really wanted someone else I could
relentlessly pester seek out advice who was invested in my training plan and success. 🙂 Enter Your26.2 and the reason I started coaching my own athletes.
But maybe you’re not interested in one on on coaching yet… or you’re just not sure- no biggie… BUT you are sure that you want to run a marathon! So, how on Earth do you create a training plan for yourself?? Where do you even begin? How much time do you need to get yourself to marathon? Here are a few things to consider….
The interplay between run volume and intensity.
Run volume describes how many miles an athlete runs throughout the week. Run intensity relates to how hard the athlete (and his/her body) is working. For example speed workouts place more wear and tear on a runner’s body than do conversational pace runs; therefore, speed workouts are a more physically intense workout.
A larger weekly run volume will help an athlete build durability during marathon training, while incorporating intense speed work sessions will help the runner increase speed. Marathoners need to carefully organize their training plan to allow for enough time to safely build run volume while gradually incorporating speed work sessions to minimize the potential for injuries
How much time do you need to get yourself to marathon?
Honestly? It depends! I know, I know, cruddy answer. The reality is that EVERY runner has a different run history, goals for race day and history of injury. The safe answer is 5-6 months.
I consider a 20-22 week plan ideal for a runner of (nearly) any level. Can you get marathon ready in less time? 16 weeks? 12 weeks? ABSOLUTELY. But you will be sacrificing certain phases of training and limiting yourself IF you get sick or injured during the 12-16 week cycle. More weeks of training gives the body time to gradually adapt to a growing volume and become more durable in the process.
Durability = strength
Strength = speed
Speed = happy runner on race day
Happy runner = more victory cookies. #justsaying
Listed below are what I consider essential phases of marathon training….
Now broken down into very general timelines….
If you give your all during a marathon you will want (and your body will need) 1-2 weeks completely off to recover post race. Then you can use the next 2-4 weeks to run unstructured and start to miss the act of training. This is a base building phase where you don’t have structured workouts and you can run if/when you want to. No stress here!
After the base building phase IMO should come some very early speed word drills where runners begin to stretch their legs out. Maybe some fartleks or shorter tempo runs of moderate pace. This essentially gets the body and the muscles ready for what is to come. Many runners will skip this phase and head straight into hill repeats; depending on their run history they risk injury with this decision.
Next, hill repeats and longer tempo runs. Hill repeats are speed work in disguise. They allow the runner to develop strength and power in a more gentle fashion than on the track. They are a phenomenal precurser to speed workouts.
After the athlete has completed a few weeks of hill repeats he is ready to take on the track for some serious speed workouts. The prescribed workouts should correlate to the goal distance the athlete is racing. If you’re training for a marathon you probably won’t spend too much time running 200 repeats :). Track workouts are intended to seriously challenge the athlete; BUT since the marathoner-in-training has completed all of the other phases of training she will be both mentally and physically prepared for this challenge. The speed workout phase usually revolves around your high volume weeks of training and culminates in two (sometimes 3) beautiful weeks of pre-race taper.
Like I said, you CAN get marathon ready in 12-16 weeks, but what happens if you get sick for a week? Or if you are nursing a rolled ankle or pesky IT band pain? What do you do if you need to take some time off during training? How do you rebound from a week off if your training plan is so compact that you heavily rely on every single training run? Eash. Honestly- it’s tough to mediate getting in the necessary run volume to maximize race day performance while accounting for the recovery time needed during the week to maximize the performance on tough workouts. It’s a constant balancing act during training!
I know plenty of athletes who roll from one marathon training cycle into the next with little rest or recovery. Is this smart? Safe? Well… it depends. It depends on the athletes goals for each marathon. It depends on how hard the athlete trained and raced the previous race. And most importantly, it depends on the durability of the athlete. There is always going to be that anomaly athlete who can run 98 consecutive marathons without getting injured; he will make you insanely jealous of his durability and you’ll probably want to sign up for more races than you should because “if he can then why can’t you?!”. But that athlete is the exception, not the rule. His durability is one of a kind all sorts of amazing, but he doesn’t play by the rules of training. No days off. Minimal recovery time. Mr (or Mrs.). One of a Kind’s training plan would make the average athlete beg for mercy. And this is why you DON’T COMPARE yourself and your plan to others. You just can’t!
Bottom lines: err on the side of caution with respect to your training. Plan for a longer training cycle to allow for life…err, the unexpected to occur. Your body and mind with thank you for this!! Good luck marathoners!
Never Stop Running,