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Marathon Training 101

I love January; it’s the time of year when lots of my runners are heading into their next (or in some cases, first) block of marathon training.  It is exciting – we’re all keen to see what they can achieve with the right balance of training and lifestyle choices.  Today’s blog is all about the key planks of marathon training – what do you need to consider in your training and in your wider life in order to run well come race day in four months’ time?

The training

The amount you run in your marathon training plan will depend a lot on you – your previous running experience, how long you’ve been running for, and what your current weekly mileage is.  There is no one answer.  However, I have known people successfully complete marathons on a training diet of three runs per week.  Many people looking to run faster times opt for four or five, while some prefer to run six or even seven times per week.  If the latter of these, I recommend including a double run day rather than running every single day.

Your training should still follow the basic principle of 80% easy, 20% hard.  Have a look at my previous blog post on this if you’re not familiar with the theory behind 80:20 training.  Your long run is included in your easy mileage, and should progress up to around three hours or a little longer.  The overall endurance needed to complete your marathon comes from regular training, rather than single huge runs.  People who run consistently and regularly throughout their plan do much better than people who skip weekday sessions and rely on one or two big runs at the weekend.

For the ‘hard’ mileage, you’ll want to include a mixture of shorter and longer efforts, working different parts of your body’s ‘engine’.  If you’re building a plan for yourself, look out for a mixture of VO2 max, tempo and hill sessions.  Later in your plan, it is also sensible to include some miles at your target marathon pace – perhaps as part of your long run.  Lots of my runners finish their long runs with a few blocks of marathon pace – e.g. 3x 1 mile earlier on, building up to longer chunks later on.  Some runners don’t like doing this (me included!) – it’s also possible to put your marathon paced miles as stand-alone runs in the week.

In general, your plan should increase in mileage from beginning to end.  However, along the way it is wise to include ‘cutback’ or ‘recovery’ weeks.  Most of my runners have one of these every four weeks – we reduce the mileage by 20 to 30 percent, which allows the body to absorb the training, recover and adapt.  We go into the next mini-block stronger and refreshed!  The final three weeks of a marathon plan should also decrease in mileage – these are ‘taper’ weeks.  Your longest run should therefore be around three weeks before the target race.

As well as training your legs, you need to think about training your gut and training your brain.  You will need to take on fuel during your marathon race (many runners use gels, but drinks powders are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s also entirely possible to fuel using real food, e.g. sweets).  Don’t wait until race day to fuel at the frequency you are planning to use – practise this in training to make sure your gut can process the fuel. Again, everyone is different in terms of how much fuel they need, or can absorb, but a good starting point would be a gel, or equivalent calories, every 40 minutes or so.

It is also sensible to book one or two ‘B’ races during your marathon plan – these are less important than your ‘A’, goal race, but they give you an opportunity to try out your race morning plan, and get used to the start line butterflies.


The life stuff

There’s more to a successful marathon than just training your body.  To get our best athletic performance, and the most adaption from our body, we need to pay attention to some lifestyle factors – specifically sleep, nutrition, hydration and stress.  These are considered the base of a ‘pyramid’ of performance – have a look at my blog here.

I often see big gains from my athletes when they make a commitment to some specific lifestyle choices.  Only you will know which of these changes are possible or desirable for you, and I don’t think it’s healthy for us to strive for a ‘perfect’ lifestyle all the time!  But if you were going to pick four months of your life to do these things, marathon training is not a bad time.

Eat lots!  You will get really hungry when marathon training – try to plan ahead, shop thoughtfully and consider doing some prepping and batch cooking to ensure that you are meeting all your dietary needs, and have generous portions and healthy snacks on hand.  Try to stay well hydrated too.

Sleep lots!  Sleep is one of the biggest factors in productive training – it is when your body adapts, repairs and grows.  You’ll get the most out of your training if you are getting enough sleep.  Some people give up alcohol for the duration of marathon training – if this is something you’re curious to try, a side benefit is that you will likely sleep better.

I also recommend committing to some strength training, stretching and mobility work during your marathon training.  You will be spending a long time on your feet, so good core strength in particular is required for the later stages of the race.  You will also probably be running more miles than you have done before during this plan – so starting to include proactive stretching and self-massage using the foam roller can help to ward off any niggles.  Don’t wait until they develop!

All of the above takes time.  It’s not just the running, but the supplementary strength, stretching, cooking and eating!  Be realistic with yourself about how much time you have to give.  Some people make temporary compromises in other areas of their life for the duration of a marathon plan, so try to be clear-sighted about what your biggest priorities are, and what you are prepared to trade off.

And what about on the day?  That’s probably too much for a single post!  I’ll revisit this blog in a couple of months, and look at what you can do on the day of your race to run strong and happy.

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