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

Thu, 31 Jul 2014 16:38:32 -0400

So Long

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from February 1996.)

Human Kinetics, the most-active publisher of running books, has assigned me to write one called Marathon Training. Which reminds me: before writing about it, I need to DO it. What I’ve done lately hardly qualifies as any training, let alone for a marathon.

To train is to do something extraordinary as preparation for a special race. I’ve gone beyond my ordinary one-hour limit only a few times a year, and even then haven’t “trained” more than half the marathon distance.

I’ve never wanted to see how much work I could stand, but how little I could get away with. I’ve tried to perfect the no-training marathon program, facing each of the past several events with less homework than the last.

Before the Royal Victoria Marathon last October, I hit an all-time low: just a pair of two-hour runs in the previous two months. This wasn’t enough.

The marathon time was slow, but not abnormally so. I can live with slowness if the race goes well otherwise.

This one didn’t. My undertrained legs shuffled stiffly through the final hour.

The rundown feeling reminded me that you can’t fake a marathon. You can get a lot from a little training, but you can’t get something for nothing.

And I’d done next to nothing. The only special training had been the long runs, but these had come too seldom and had been too short.

So my needs are simple: a few more long runs at a little longer distances. Nothing extreme, but enough to meet minimum training requirements.

How often? Weekly long runs feel too frequent for me, and monthly is too seldom. Splitting the difference, going long every other week, sounds about right to give enough recovery without too long a break.

How long? That’s the bigger question. One part of the answer is turning the recent maximum into a minimum.

My peak training distance has been a half-marathon. This would now become the least I’d do.

The most? I certainly won’t go to Jeff Galloway lengths.

I think the world of Jeff and applaud him for attracting legions of followers to his marathon program. But I’m not prepared to go all the way with them.

“You will hit the wall at exactly the length of your longest run,” he says. “So you need to work up to at least 26 miles in training.”

Jeff adds important qualifiers that often go unheard or unheeded: hold down the pace, and take regular walking breaks. Using these tricks in training eases the effort and speeds the recovery.

They also work in the marathon itself, allowing you to go farther on less training than you’d otherwise need. But the distance bonus isn’t unlimited.

At Victoria I used both tricks but still crashed. Two-hour training runs clearly were inadequate.

The simplest solution would be to follow Jeff Galloway and train up to full marathon distance. But I balk at that for reasons both personal and philosophical.

The first reason is pure laziness. Only the hoopla of the race can move me to run anywhere near 26 miles.

The second reason rationalizes the first. Training all of it would rob the marathon of its mystery. I like to leave the late miles as questions to answer only on the big day.

How much training is enough? If half-marathon runs are too short and full marathons seem too long, simply split the difference. Run three-fourths of a marathon in practice, trusting the race-day magic to take care of the last quarter.


Jeff Galloway’s training program is, of course, now phenomenally popular. I still take his walk breaks, and still haven’t trained to the lengths he recommends.

Health problems, unrelated to the 1995 Victoria Marathon or to running in general, kept me from trying another until after the Marathon Training book was published in 1997. The advice on training up to three-fourths of a marathon (in round figures, 20 miles) became the basis for programs in the book.

That book sold steadily, as did almost anything with “marathon” in its title. The publisher, Human Kinetics, published a second edition in 2003.

Since then I’ve started coaching a marathon training team. The distance for those runners peaks at 21 miles, which also was the top distance before my own latest marathons.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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