Training

The London Marathon - photo by David Knight

The London Marathon

Before you start training

  • Ideally, you should be running at least three times a week for at least a year, preferably two, before you start training for a marathon;  you should be able to run 10 miles comfortably before you start a marathon training programme;
  • think it through carefully and discuss with your family; training for a marathon is a considerable commitment – make sure you have the support of those around you;
    check the list in Chapter 2 to see if you should consult your doctor before you begin your training programme;
  • find a local running club, and join it; the members will provide motivation, companionship, advice and support through the long months of training;
  • tell your family, friends and colleagues what you are doing; that will help to keep you motivated when it gets tough.

Training for the marathon

Most people who are not very unfit can run a 5km or a 10km without too much difficulty.  They might not do it very fast, and they might not enjoy it much, but they will get themselves round.  The marathon is different. You don’t need to be a great athlete to run a marathon.  But you do need to train properly and sensibly.  If you take the time to train, you will finish and achieve your goal.

You can put together your own marathon training programme using the guidance in Chapters 9 and 10.  Because the marathon is unique, and so popular, there are also several books devoted just to training for it.  Hal Higdon’s “Marathon” is one of the best known, and is excellent.

It takes at least nine months of training to work up to a good marathon performance.  If you are already running reasonable mileage, you may be able to cut this down to four or five months – but no less.

The training base

Building a solid base of aerobic running is more important for this distance than for any other.  You should be running between 30 and 45 miles a week, every week, for at least eight weeks before you begin your specific marathon training.  An indication of the necessary mileages is set out in this table:

Table 12.1 Base mileages

Race distance Beginner Intermediate Advanced
Base weekly distance 25 – 30 30 – 40 30 – 45
Max weekly distance 30 – 40 40 – 50 40 – 60

The training base is the essential foundation of a marathon training programme.  If you begin your programme without a solid aerobic base, you are likely to find later in your training that you cannot sustain the mileage and quality that you need.  Injury or illness may well constrain your progress, with the result that you lose weeks in the run-up to the marathon.

During your base training period, you should stick to regular aerobic running, with threshold runs to improve your VO2 max.  You can include hills to maintain and improve strength, but you don’t need to include speed-work at this stage.

The long run

The long run is the lynchpin of the marathon training programme.   Depending on your approach, it can be the high spot of your weekly programme, or a dreaded, weekend-busting albatross.

“Enjoy yourself at all time; and save your racing for races.”
Bob Davidson, 70

There just isn’t a way to train for a marathon without doing a long run, pretty much every week.  The long run builds endurance and aerobic capacity, and helps you to develop metabolic pathways to use fat to provide energy.  The miles invested in your long runs will be what prevent you from hitting the wall, and enable you to keep going in the brutal last six miles of the race.

How far should your long run be?  There is no correct answer to this.  Some experts say that 18 miles is long enough; others go up to 22 or 23 miles.   If you want to get round the marathon reasonably comfortably, you certainly need to have run 18 miles in training at least once.

How many long runs should you do?  You should be doing a long run every weekend (or at least, seven out of eight weekends) during the sixteen weeks before the marathon.  But they should not all be twenty milers.   You can do 16-18 miles most weeks, stepping up to 20 miles perhaps only two or three times before the marathon.  You need to get sufficient mileage in your legs, but without tiring yourself out too much.  The table below sets out some guidelines.

Table 12.2 Long run distances and number

Race distance Beginner Intermediate Advanced
Maximum 18 – 20 20 20 – 22
Number of peak distance runs 1 – 2 2 – 3 3 – 4

Finally, how fast should your long run be?  Again, this is controversial.  Most experts agree that the long run should be significantly slower than your target race pace – about 20% slower in most cases.

This will feel awfully slow to many of you.  The reason for running as slowly as this is that this will train your fat-burning metabolic pathways, improve your muscles’ ability to burn oxygen and store fuel, and increase your endurance.

There are some coaches who believe that long slow distance runs are too slow (Sebastian Coe once famously remarked that “I’ve always felt that long, slow distance produces long, slow runners”.)  But the danger of going too fast is that you risk overdoing it, and possibly injury.  You will not achieve the purpose by running faster.

Many marathon runners use long races in the build-up to the marathon as a way of doing their long run.  The months before the London Marathon witness a flood of long (e.g. 20 mile) races, especially around the south east of England. Using these as training runs is an excellent plan: they build up excitement and motivation, and help you to practise your race-day logistics.  However, you should be careful not to race these too hard. It is all too easy to leave your best running on the roads of your training races, and have no energy left when you get to the marathon.  In my view, you should certainly not go faster than your intended marathon pace, even though the distance is shorter.  One option is to go at your LSD pace (that is, 20% slower than marathon pace) for, say, three quarters of the race, and then step up to your marathon pace for the last few miles.  This will see you finishing strong, overtaking plenty of runners on the way, give you practice running at your race pace on tired legs and build your confidence, without tiring you out too much.

Whether or not you choose to take part in races before the marathon, you should use your long runs to test your kit and your strategy for eating and drinking.  Make sure you do some of your long runs in the clothes and shoes you plan to wear during the marathon, to ensure that they are comfortable and don’t rub.  If you are going to drink sports drink during the race, take a bottle with you on your long run and practise sipping it.

Quality training

If you don’t want to improve your time in the marathon, you don’t need to read this section.  But for everyone who cares about their time, there is no getting away from the need to do some strength and speed work before the marathon.

Speed

Clearly, most of your training miles in the run-up to the marathon are going to be aerobic – your weekly long, slow distance run, recovery runs and threshold runs.   But if you want to run faster, you have to train faster, and this includes speed work.

During the build-up to the marathon, you should probably do speed work once a week.  Some elite athletes do more than this, working on a philosophy of high intensity, low mileage training; but for most beginner and club level runners, once a week is enough.   For the marathon, you will usually do longer, slower efforts (say, 1,000m to 3,000m) rather than the flat out sprints.

Strength

Improving your strength is essential for endurance running.  In the final stages of any marathon, most runners feel a burning sensation at the front of their thighs (the quadriceps muscles).  This is because the muscles are exhausted.  Strength training increases the endurance of the muscles, their blood supply and their ability to store energy.  It increases the lift off, which increases your stride length and hence your speed.  And having strong legs helps to reduce the risk of injury.

Generally the best way to improve your leg strength is to run on hills, either by doing repetitions up a steep hill, or including a hilly section in your aerobic runs (see Chapter 9). You can also increase strength by exercises such as hopping, and by using the leg machines in the gym.

Rest

With high weekly mileage, and a long run every week, your body is under enormous stress, especially during the peak weeks. Remember that it is not during the periods of stress that your body adapts and improves, but in the periods of rest in between.  Rest is the most important component of the marathon training programme.

The amount of sleep each person needs varies enormously.  Margaret Thatcher famously needed only 4 hours a night.  The average person sleeps between 7 and 8 hours a night.  However much you need, you will need more when you increase your training, sometimes by as much as an extra hour a night.   Incidentally, one of the benefits of an active, outdoor lifestyle is that few runners suffer from insomnia – they tend to fall asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow.

It is a good idea to take one rest day a week, to allow the body to recover.  Because many runners race or do long runs over the weekend, they often have Fridays as their rest day.  Another option is to rest on Monday, but many runners prefer to start the week with a run, and a gentle run usually speeds recovery more than complete rest.  You should also make sure that you take an easy week every fourth week, in which you cut back your mileage, to let your body recover.

Training programmes for the marathon

The following pages suggest a 16 week training programmes for beginners, intermediate, and advanced runners (by which I mean those willing to run 50 miles a week or more).

In each case, as explained in Chapter 10, the training programme follows a series of phases – beginning with base aerobic running, moving on to strength, then speed, then the taper.

You will need to adapt these tables to suit your own pattern and to fit round other priorities in your life. To help you do so, here are some tips to bear in mind:

  • you need an eight week endurance running base, running 75% of your peak weekly mileage per week;
  • your long runs should be at the heart of your schedule;  pencil these in first and plan everything around them;
  • plan your weekly mileage in advance, including easy weeks; and try to stick to it;  don’t increase the weekly mileage too fast or you will get injured (see Chapter 10);

if you get behind with your schedule – for example because of injury – don’t try to catch up or jump back in to the levels of your original schedule; go back to where you left off, and progress from there.

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