There are hardly any things at all more boring and tedious than training for a marathon. One of those things, however, is reading about how to train for one.
That's what this blog post is about. Lucky you. So, without further ado, here's
Mike's Unofficial Guide to Training for a Marathon
First, you're probably wondering what makes me qualified to write a marathon training guide. That's an excellent question. The answer is that I'm not. I'm just a dude with a blog. Although I've completed 7 marathons, including qualifying for (and running) the Boston Marathon, I'd categorize most of my marathon runs as failures. That being said, I've learned a lot from those failures.
This guide is going to assume that you're not starting from ground zero. If you can't yet run a couple miles without stopping, then you're going to have to build up some endurance before you can think about embarking upon marathon training. It's been a long time since I was at that point, so I don't have much advice to give you. Somehow, via hard work, steroids, or magic, you're going to need to get yourself to the point where you can run for about 30 minutes without stopping. I don't care what pace you run at, just be able to run for that long without keeling over.
If you can get to that point, then it's one positive sign that your body can handle the rigors of running, and that your brain might be stupid enough to engage in marathon training.
Ok, so let's say you can run for 30 minutes, and that you're covering more than 2 miles in that time (it doesn't have to be 3 miles, but 2.25 would be dandy). Now, how do you get from that point to a marathon? That's what this guide is all about.
This is a nice segue to
Mike's First Rule of Running: Run at little as possible.
I cannot stress this highly enough. Not only is running boring, exhausting, and painful, it's really not that good for you. You'd be better off swimming or on that ridiculous elliptical machine. So, the goal here is to run as few miles as possible while getting your body ready to run 26.2 miles on race day.
I NEVER run two days in a row. My schedule is to run 3 times a week. This idea here is that rather then spending your days running "garbage" miles, instead you should run less frequently and focus on quality mileage. Getting out and plodding through miles 6 times a week is a great way to lose weight but it isn't a very efficient way to train for a marathon.
By ensuring that you always have at least one "rest" day between runs, you give your body a chance to recover, which helps you make the most out of each workout and reduces injuries. This concept is where my training guide differs from the vast majority of advice out there.
Mike's Second Rule of Running: No walking.
There are many training programs out there that are based on a run/walk system where you run for X minutes, then walk for a minute or two, then run for X minutes, then walk, etc. I've heard wonderful things about this approach, but I know nothing about it, so I'm not going to cover it here. If your goal is to run/walk a marathon, then you're doing something super impressive for sure, but it's something different than setting out to run the whole thing. I'd recommend checking out any of the websites that cover the Galloway Method for information on the run/walk approach.
Mike's Third Rule of Running: Race before marathon day. You don't want your marathon day to be your first race. As you build your mileage, find some local races to do. 10Ks and half-marathons are best, but 5Ks are ok too. You just want to get over the mental hurdle of running a race. Generally they are pretty supportive environments these days, but some folks get all bent out of shape about "running a race". Just go run one and get it over with long before race day. This will help you get acclimated to the logistics of a running race.
Ok, let's move on here.
Phase 1: Building a Base
You want to get up to the point where you can run about 10 miles without stopping. The way you get to this point is by doing a long run once a week where you go a little further than the previous week.
If your longest run was less than 5 miles, then I'm going to recommend adding a half mile to your long run each time. Keep doing this once a week until your long run gets to 5 miles. Once you're at that point, then you can add a full mile each week.
Now, running further than you've ever run before EVERY SINGLE WEEK sounds pretty hard, (and frankly it does kind of suck) but it's not as bad as it sounds. The idea is to run a little slower on these runs. If your normal pace is a 10 minute mile, then maybe try 11 minute miles during these long runs. The exact value here will vary from person to person, but the concept is that it's not wise to increase your mileage and expect to maintain the same speed. These long runs are all just about teaching your body how to extend itself. You don't want to do this at the same time you're trying to run fast. Take it easy.
I suggest doing these long runs on the weekend. At some point they're going to get long enough that they'll take hours, so the weekend is the best way to fit them in. The long runs are the most important part of your training, so don't skip these. If you do skip one, then don't try to make up for it by adding in extra mileage the following week. If you skip your 8-miler, then do it the following weekend. Don't jump from 7 to 9 miles in a week.
Ok, so that covers your long run each week, but as you recall, you're supposed to be running three times a week, so what should you be doing doing your 2 mid-week runs?
Well, at this point in the training, it's not that important what you do. Your mid-week runs should be shorter (duh) than your long runs and they should be a little faster, but mostly what you need to focus on is variety.
These runs should be should be somewhere in the 30 to 60 minute range, and they should be somewhat varied. Don't run the same course every time. By choosing different routes, you decrease boredom and increase the types of terrain that your body is getting used to. Vary the speed too. Sometimes pick out an object in the distance (a tree, a sign, a nice micro brewery) and pick up the pace as you run to it. That technique is called a "fartlek". It's not too painful to do, it's great training, and it's fun to tell people that you did fartleks. If you live near any hills or trails, throwing in some routes that include those is really good stuff too.
Now, let's talk about nutrition. I'm not going to tell you do to some crazy diet, or to cut out desserts, or to focus on photosynthesis. Obviously the healthier your diet, the better your body will perform, but personally I wouldn't take on any activity that prevented me from eating like crap. Really, there are only three must-dos as far as I'm concerned.
First, I'd recommend carbo-loading before any long run. This isn't a big deal when your long run is 4 miles, but it is pretty handy when you get to the double-digits in mileage. People smarter than me will tell you about good carbs, bad carbs, and carbs that are probably going through their angst and ennui phase, but if you can stuff down a pasta dinner the night before a long run, that's good enough.
Second, any time you're feeling spent after a run (this probably includes all long runs and any hard shorter ones), it's important that you eat some carbs and protein ASAP. You want to get some carbs in your system (even a bottle of sports drink will do) within 30 minutes or so of your run. It would be great if you could get some protein within the hour. Doing this will help your body recover from the run, which helps you perform at a higher level during your next run. It's all about quality workouts.
Third, you're going to need some nutrition DURING your long runs. Everyone is different but for me, I'm sure to take along a goo/gel pack on any run that's longer than about 75 minutes. I'll pop one of those babies somewhere between the 50 and 70 minute mark, and then for longer runs, I'll take another one every 40 minutes after that. Keeping that simple food pumping into your system while you run really helps you avoid hitting the infamous "wall". You'll probably need to experiment with which products suit your stomach and taste buds best, but none of them are actually enjoyable. In fact, if you slug down a "goo" and it tastes good, then you've probably waited too long into the run to consume it.
Finally, there's cross training. I don't think cross training is super important at this point, but if you're serious about finishing those 26.2 miles in a reasonable amount of time, then you should consider throwing in one day a week of aerobic cross training (biking is best, but anything will do) and one day a week of core strength training. If you can strengthen your core and lower body, that will help you tremendously in the next phase of training.
So, in summary, the Build a Base phase is all about the weekly long run (increasing slowly until you get to about 10 miles) with two mid-week runs. If you have the time for cross training days (one aerobic and one strength), then that's great, but you can probably escape without it. These workouts, combined with your increased knowledge about how to feed your body is the first phase of marathon training.
Phase 2: Ice Baths
Mostly this phase is more of the same, but it's time to throw in some speed work and turn up the notch on the mileage. Let's talk about the mid-week runs first.
You've got two mid-week runs per week. The first one needs to be what's called a "tempo" run. All that really means is that you've picked up the tempo a bit. These need to be at a slightly uncomfortable pace, the sort of speed that you would not be able to run twice as far at. These runs need to be from 40 to 60 minutes long.
The second mid-week run needs to focus on speed even more. On these runs you need to spend time running at a very uncomfortable pace, the sort of speed that you can probably only keep going for 5 minutes on a good day. Here are some good examples of speed workouts:
1) Run one of your regular routes, and start off with a few minutes of easy jogging, but then alternate between 1 minute of hard speed and then 2 minutes of easy jogging. Do this for the remainder of the run
2) Go to the track, warm up, and then run 400 meters (about 1/4 mile) at a fast clip. Then, spend 2 minutes resting or walking. Repeat this 8 times. Try to maintain an even pace for each of your 400 meter intervals (i.e. the first one should be about the same speed as the middle one and the last one)
3) Do "fartleks" (described in the previous section)
The first time or two you do these speed workouts, do the amounts I've suggested. You will, however, need to ramp up the amount of time/distance that you spend running fast over the weeks. For example, with the track workout, consider a "pyramid" pattern where for each workout your intervals start short, then increase until you're halfway done, and then decrease in distance until you're done. For example, a really hard track workout would be where your first interval is 400 meters, and then your second interval is 800, third is 1200, fourth is 1600 (a full mile!) and then do the reverse for the final four intervals. THAT would be a kick-ass workout and is probably as hard as you ever need to go.
If instead of the track workouts, you're doing the run where you alternate fast running with slow running, then over the weeks increase the number of minutes that you spend running at the fast speed. Having the 2 minutes of easy jogging in between intervals is a good rest period though, so feel free to keep that constant.
Let me state at this point that speed workouts are the second most horrible thing about marathon training. They absolutely suck (and if they don't, you aren't running them fast enough, slacker!). BUT, they build up your aerobic ability in a way that the long endurance runs cannot. Also, they make the pace of your weekly long runs feel much easier in comparison.
Ok, so let's cover the long runs now. As in the previous phase, keep upping the mileage by one mile per week until you get to 14 miles. After that, we're going to shift the long runs to every other week and we're going add TWO miles each time. Finally, we're going to add in some "tempo" portions to some long runs. Your "tempo" pace is a slightly uncomfortable pace that you do your first mid-week run at (or maybe slightly faster).
These minutes of tempo runs are important for our "quality not quantity" approach. Note that you're going to be running fewer miles with my guide than you normally would with marathon training, so it's important to make these quality miles. Doing some tempo at the beginning and end of some of these runs (as indicated below) will give you the mental and physical toughness you'll need on race day without over burdening your body with mileage during the training period.
Below I've got a sample schedule showing a great set of long-run workouts for this phase of marathon training. It's not imperative that you do this exact schedule, but something similar to it is key. Also, you should expect that you might get sick, or have some other interruption in your schedule. That's fine. In fact, you should build time for down time into your schedule. Just note that when you return to running, you shouldn't skip over the workouts you missed.
Week 1: 11 miles. Run at your "tempo" pace for the first 2 minutes and the last 2 minutes. For the rest do your normal easy pace for long runs
Week 2: 12 miles. Normal easy pace
Week 3: 13 miles. Run at your "tempo" pace for the first 4 minutes and the last 4 minutes. For the rest, do your normal easy pace for long runs
Week 4: 14 miles. Normal easy pace
Now we're at the point where we're going to add 2 miles every other week instead of one mile each week. During the off weeks, we'll do a medium-length run with more tempo
Week 5: 10 miles. Run at your "tempo" pace for the first 6 minutes and the last 6 minutes. For the rest, do your normal easy pace.
Week 6: 16 miles. Normal easy pace
Week 7: 11 miles. Run at your "tempo" pace for the first 8 minutes and the last 8 minutes. For the rest, do your normal easy pace.
Week 8: 18 miles. Normal easy pace
Week 9: 12 miles. Run at your "tempo" pace for the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes. For the rest, do your normal easy pace.
Week 10: 20 miles! Normal easy pace
Week 11: 12 miles. Run at your "tempo" pace for the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes. For the rest, do your normal easy pace.
Week 12: 22 miles! Normal easy pace
Wow! 22 miles! Crikey. Some training programs have you max out at 20 miles, and that's ok, but it sure will suck on race day trying to run 6.2 miles further than ever before. That being said, if you're running at a pace where 20 miles takes you more than 4 hours, then 20 miles is probably far enough. There's no need to do a 4+ hour training run.
Here are a couple of notes about the long runs:
1) The above schedule needs to be set up so that your 22 miler is THREE WEEKS before race day. You need those three weeks to recover from the 22 miler. Four weeks would be ok (but not optimal) and two weeks would be inadequate. Spend some time with your calendar nailing down the dates for those long runs.
2) Even though you're not going to get very close to 26.2 miles before race day, you're getting close enough. Running a marathon is terrible for your body and requires a tremendous amount of recovery so you DON'T want to run anything to close to that distance while training. Instead, you log 2 runs of 20 miles or more, and then let the rest of your training (and rest) carry you on race day. This is a proven method and almost every marathon training technique does something similar.
3) On those days when you increase your long runs by two miles (weeks 6, 8, 10, and 12), I HIGHLY recommend taking an ice bath after your run. Here's how they work.
Soon after your run, grab a bag of ice from a market, and bring it to your bathroom. Fill your tub with enough cold water to cover your legs completely and then get in. Scream if necessary. Once you're in, dump the bag of ice into the tub with you. Sit there for 15 minutes. Feel free to wear a sweatshirt.
Ice baths are the WORST thing about marathon training, but they are absolutely the BEST way to recover from a long run. You'll save yourself days of limping around. They are key.
Ok, finally, in this phase of training, it's imperative that you be doing one day of aerobic cross training (preferably biking, but whatever) and probably one day of core strength training (pilates are great, but any core and lower-body work is fine). The aerobic days are important because we don't do a lot of mileage in this program, and the strengthening is important to carry your body through the pounding of the long runs.
Phase 3: Taper
You're now three weeks away from marathon day. Your body is exhausted from having logged 2 20+ milers in the last couple weeks and you're wondering how this exhaustion translates into a successful race. The answer is to rest.
For the next three weeks, you're going to ramp down your training. The key here is to still run at the same intensity level (quality!), but cut down on your miles. When race morning hits, your legs should feel fresher than they've felt in months.
For your next long run (two weeks before race day), do a 12 miler. Run at your "tempo" pace for the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes. For the rest, do your normal easy pace.
During the week, do your normal mid-week runs. Feel free to knock a mile off each of them.
For your last "long" run, go out and run about 10 miles at the pace you wish to run the marathon at. For me, this is slightly faster than my normal easy pace that I use for long runs. Then, for your last set of mid-week runs, skip the speed workout. Log a few miles at a comfortable pace. The idea here is to just keep your muscles loose. There's no way for you to increase your fitness in the week before your marathon, instead you're merely trying to maintain your fitness, while keeping your body loose and ready to run.
Phase 4: Marathon Weekend
You have one mantra that you must repeat over and over this weekend.
Mike's Last Rule of Running: Nothing new before a race.
NOTHING new. No new foods. No new shoes (especially no new shoes!). No new pre-run routine. Nothing. Stick to the tried and true here. Whatever has gotten you to this point will get you across the finish line.
So, carbo-load, stay off your feet as much as possible before the race, and try to relax. Also, don't expect to sleep much the night before the race. Most people get really anxious and then get a crappy night of sleep before the race, which freaks them out. This is pretty common and is not a big deal. You've been training your body for months for this race and getting a crummy night of sleep is a very minor factor in how you will perform. Your muscles and aerobic system are ready, even if you only get a couple hours of sleep.
That's it! Simple eh?