In the first part of this series, we discussed laying a strong base foundation of strength and aerobic capacity prior to beginning a marathon training cycle. I feel that the 3-4 weeks of preparation work is most important in setting up a healthy build up, however, now we turn our focus to the training cycle itself.
Of course, how you approach your training is going to depend on your experience level with the distance and your goals. I recommend hiring a coach to help navigate new race distances or when you’re really reaching for a stretch goal. It may sound cliché, but one of my favorite ways to summarize this concept is: “To do something you’ve never done before, you have to do something you’ve never done before.” Having someone experienced to help monitor progress and pick you up on days of doubt can be extremely beneficial from both a mental and physical standpoint. A coach can gauge how well your body is responding to training, help modify around life stress, and be the voice of reason when you want to push too hard.
If you are using a training plan found on the internet, a magazine, etc., there are a few key aspects to look for to make sure the plan is appropriate:
The long run should not increase every week. There needs to be “recovery weeks” built in to allow your body to adapt and get stronger. For example, a long run progression would look like 12, 14, 16, and then back to 12 for the 4th week.
Look at the weekly mileage and compare it to what you’ve done before and your current fitness level. Even if you’re trying to run a personal best, this doesn’t necessarily translate to picking the plan with the most miles. More often than not, a “quality over quantity” approach is more effective. While increased mileage can improve running efficiency and performance, it also comes at a cost of diminishing returns when it comes to injury risk.
Similarly with mileage, compare the quality workouts to your experiences in the past. Most runners can build up and maintain 3 quality workouts a week: one speed session, a long run, and perhaps a tempo or medium long run. However, this is not sustainable for an entire training cycle and will inevitably lead to injury or burnout. The majority of marathon mileage should be easy.
The length of the training plan can be variable, and different strategies work for everyone. If you have a good baseline of fitness, a quicker 3-4 month build will lead you to peak at the right time and avoid overtraining. A 4-6 month plan is more appropriate if you’re starting from a lower fitness level or less experienced background.
The next key aspect to staying healthy during a training cycle is to maintain a strength training routine, 2-3 times a week. It can be simple and does not have to be time-consuming, but it has to be consistent. Complete this routine on your more difficult days of training, or when there is at least 2 days recovery before your next quality workout. The routine should be challenging, but not so much so that soreness lingers >2 days.
Finally, creating sustainable warm up and recovery routines will help you get the most out of your training and prevent nagging injuries. I wrote about this here, but I’ll provide a succinct recap: Think about foam rolling like brushing your teeth. Things would get a little...disgusting if you didn’t brush your teeth for 3 days straight, and the same goes for your muscles and foam rolling. Spending 2-3 minutes per muscle group and little longer on more problematic areas is all it takes. The same goes for stretching, taking a few minutes right after your workout to stretch the major areas: hips, calves, quads, hamstrings can help you feel better the rest of the day and into your next run.
Remember to take recovery just as seriously as the training itself, as that is where the real improvements happen. Sleep, nutrition, hydration, and rest are all vital elements of a personal best. It is better to show up to the starting line healthy and a little undertrained than overtrained, or worse, injured. Remember that reaching big goals often takes several training cycles, and be patient and have fun in the process.
Read it again: have fun in the process.
Keep going, you got this!
Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT