Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 12 Nov 2003 08:05:45 -0500

Marathon Training


Year after year I attend a flurry off fall marathons and another set in the spring. Once there, on the expo floor and speaking stage, I'm always asked, "Are you running this weekend?"

Running on my own, definitely. Running the shortest race offered, possibly. Running the marathon, no.

My joking yet honest explanation for skipping all marathons for the past four straight years is, "I forgot to train." The marathon is mainly a training challenge, wherein getting to the starting line is tougher than going the 26.2 miles to the finish.

The race takes a few hours. The training -- the gestation period, you might call it -- lasts several months.

A new marathon season is underway. The training season, that is. For runners beginning to train now, the "victory lap" of marathon day is still a season or two of the year away.

I ran a mile race in my first month as a runner. But I needed nine more years, and hundreds of shorter races, before getting up the nerve -- and finding the time -- to run a marathon. Even after deciding to do it, the training began in the fall, extended through the winter and didn't end until early spring.

Maybe you can wake up one fine spring morning and decide to run a 5K or 10K race that day, trusting your normal mileage to carry you through. Try this in a marathon, though, and the distance will quickly reveal your inadequacies.

You can't fake a marathon. Skimp on the training, and the results will be miserable -- both during the race and while enduring its damage afterward. In the marathon you either pay in advance, with training, or pay later, with pain.

The elongated training time is a big part of the marathon's mystique. Anyone can get excited about the race, but not everyone can endure the training.

Between dream and reality stands that preparation. It separates the dreamers who'd like to run a marathon someday-that-never-comes from the realists who train to go the distance and finally do it.

There is no easy way to train for and complete a marathon. If there were, everyone would do it and you wouldn't feel so special. While it's true that hundreds of thousands of people are marathoners, they still represent only about one in 10 people who enter races, one in a hundred who run at all, and one in a thousand from the general population.

I have spent time among the one-tenth-percenters. Now, some of my greatest joys come from writing for, speaking to and answering questions from runners wanting to join this minority group.

I've trained for marathons dozens of times (and not trained a few, with results that weren't pretty). From these experiences came a book simply titled Marathon Training -- and from this one will come a mostly new second edition in mid-December.

The training plans, more than 30 years in the making, remain unchanged in this edition. Which means that readers will again ask me to explain why these programs differ in key ways from others they've seen. The most-asked questions:

-- "Your program, lasting just 100 days, is one of the shortest. Can I really train for a marathon in three months?" A big disclaimer here: the 100-day count doesn't start until you've run at least 10 miles. Up to that point it's PRE-training. Take as long as need to reach that starting line.

-- "So are you saying that it's possible to train even LESS that three months, if my longest current run is already above 10 miles?" You can safely begin about two miles above your recent peak. This lets you either shorten the program's length or to progress slower than recommended in my plan.

-- "Your long runs go up by two miles at a time instead of the more common single mile. Is this too big a jump?" Because you aren't asked to run long every week, this increase averages less than 10 percent per week for the life of the program. This is a widely recommended limit on adding distance.

-- "You only list one run at each distance. Why?" This gives you a necessary sense of steady progress instead of the feeling you're repeating yourself at a certain level.

-- "You never mention how much weekly mileage to total. Why not?" Counting miles causes you to run too much days that should be easy (or off), and can leave you tired for the ones that really count. Emphasize the long runs and the recovery between them.

-- "Your scheduled long runs end well short of the marathon. Where does the extra distance come from on raceday if you never train this far?" The magic of raceday -- when you run with hundreds or thousands of other people and the hoopla you all generate -- gives you the final miles.

-- "You recommend running at least a minute per mile slower than marathon pace during long runs. Where does the raceday speed come from if you don't train this fast?" You do; just not on long-run days. Taking these too fast makes them too hard to repeat as often as you need them. Train faster on weekends without a long run -- in a run about half that distance but faster, or in a 5K to 10K race.

-- "You advise running no more than two marathons a year. Why do I have to wait six months for my next one?" You could run another much sooner, but two per year lets you do something other than train for and recover from marathons. There is much more to running than this. Give yourself time to sample it all.


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