What to Expect During Marathon Training

Original article from trainingpeaks

Marathons are more than just two back-to-back half marathons. Many people will attest that the second “half” actually starts at mile 20. Racing a marathon requires you to manage your mileage, balance speed work and strength, and dial in a nutrition and hydration plan that will help you scale that seemingly insurmountable 20-mile “wall”. That means your marathon training needs to be aligned with your time and mileage goals.

Time Commitments During Marathon Training

When it comes to marathon preparation, the faster you get, the more time you have to spend building and maintaining your fitness. For the average marathoner, you should expect to have at least one 40-mile week in your build-up. If you average 10-minute miles for the week, that’s 400 minutes or nearly seven hours of training, which breaks down to approximately one hour of running per day.

That one hour of running, however, is only a small part of your marathon training picture. Mileage and workouts alone do not create a sustainable training plan.

Body Care, Massage, and Strength Training

When you’re looking at training programs, you’ll find that there’s a wide range of what’s included. The most basic training program may just offer bare-bone workouts while others can include strength training modules, videos, and other content to give more structure to your program. These are important aspects of a training plan that shouldn’t be overlooked.

While a training plan offers expert guidance and structure during marathon preparation, you are, at the end of the day, responsible for maintaining your body to continue training at a high level. Don’t forget the pieces of success that you must own, including nutrition, sleep, massage, restorative practices, and making time to train! Altogether, these additional training elements can add up to an extra 2-4+ hours of training per week.

Weekly Marathon Training Structure

Because training plans are created by coaches that come from varying methodologies, there are many different structures and styles that you’ll find in your training plan search. Some plans may specify that they’re built to follow specifics such as a 3:1 or 2:1 periodization, long runs on specific days, or that it follows a specific training methodology like heart rate, pace, or running power. These components can ultimately define not only the weekly training structure but also the length and phases of your event build-up. As we look at a weekly structure we’re going to take a “traditional” approach that includes weekday workouts and weekend long runs.

Workouts to Expect From Your Marathon Training Plan

Early (Base) Phase: Endurance

You’ve been told time and again to build your base for endurance events, so what we’re doing in the first four to eight weeks of training focuses on building your aerobic capacity. If you don’t take the time to build your endurance, you’re effectively putting a ceiling on your fitness from the start. Without building capillaries, mitochondria, and your general endurance, you’ll have a hard time stacking the remaining building blocks that come in later phases of training.

In this early aerobic phase, you’ll be doing aerobic runs in heart rate Zone 2 for 70-80% of your weekly runs. Workouts will help bolster your fitness but will lack specificity because you’re a long way from your race day. Hills come in many different flavors in the early phase of training starting with shorter hills to build power and bolster running mechanics to longer efforts to build muscular endurance.

3 Workouts I Prescribe in the Base Phase

  • 30-second Hills with walk-down recoveries
  • 1-minute Hills with jog-down recoveries
  • 8 x 40 seconds at 10K pace w/ 1:20 jog recovery

Mid (Build) Phase: Endurance-to-Threshold

This phase is where you will do most of your physical development for the marathon and can last between four and ten weeks depending on how long your training plan is. Consider this phase to be your slow progression from endurance work into more marathon-specific work.

Workouts here will reference 10K, half marathon, and marathon paces. Workouts will likely consist of Tempo work interlaced with intervals, and, in the latter stages, will transition to traditional speed work. I always like to keep athletes working in all areas of their fitness, so I never forgo a hill workout, tempo, interval session, or specific endurance long runs in this phase. This approach isn’t taken by all coaches, but I believe that integrating hills and other nontraditional work can provide a nice mental break and can also help to avoid overtraining a specific stride pattern.

3 Workouts I Prescribe in the Early Build Phase

  • 4 x 1 mile at half marathon to 10K pace, recover with a 400 m jog in the middle of a 15-16 mile long run
  • 6-8 x 3-minute Hills (4-6% grade) at marathon pace with jog down recovery
  • 16 x 400 m as (4 x 4 x 400 m at 10K pace, 75-second recovery, every 4th rep at 5K with 3-minute set breaks)
  • This is 4 sets of 4 x 400m. You recover for 75 seconds between reps.
  • You have a longer break between sets of 3:00

Late (Peak) Phase: Threshold + Pace Confidence

This is when the pieces begin to really fit together in your marathon training plan, and is also when you’re going to be balancing the greatest amount of fatigue due to mileage and length of workouts. This is the peak phase of training so hang on, the race is getting near! Increasing your sleep and caloric intake will help you nail the workouts that matter most.

You can expect to see lots of work at marathon pace and a hefty number of specific endurance runs during this phase of training. Specific Endurance runs have doses of marathon pace or faster work mixed into your long run to help replicate the fatigue you’ll manage on race day. These runs are a great opportunity to put on your race shoes and test your nutrition and hydration plan.

3 Workouts I Prescribe in the Late Build Phase

  • 3 x 5 k at marathon pace or faster during your long run
  • 45-60 minutes continuous at marathon pace during your long run
  • 3 x 1 k at half marathon pace, 2:30 rest, 4 x 400 m at 5k, 1-minute rest
  • This broken set is a doozie. Plenty of rest between the 1 k reps with up to 5:00 before you start the 400s
  • If you want to add this in as a quality long run, expand to 5 x 1 k and 8 x 400 m for 5 miles of faster than marathon pace work.

Taper: Sharpening

This is the phase where you’ll begin to question the entirety of your marathon training — and that’s completely normal! After nearly a decade of coaching, this happens to all of my athletes and I’ve kindly coined these doubts as “taper tantrums”.

As you enter the taper and leave the peak training behind you, your legs may feel dead and dull. The goal of adding in work below Marathon Pace is to increase your rate of foot turn over and helpy you tap into some true speed and feel fast! I keep speed and hills in every phase of my athletes’ programs so they can always change gears into 10K and 5K paces, but the work we’re really trying to do is to bring mileage down while keeping the intensity high. This allows you to get to race day feeling recovered, fast, and confident.

3 Workouts I Prescribe in the Taper

  • 3 x 800 m, 2-minute rest, 400 m, 1-minute rest, 200 m, 3-minute rest, 800 m at 10K pace, 400 m at 5K pace, 200 m at FAST
  • Allow yourself to open up your stride and fully recover.
  • Have fun running fast!
  • 3 x 1 mile at half marathon pace to 10K pace with 3-minute rest
  • Do your best to relax at an effort slightly harder than marathon pace
  • 15-20 minutes at marathon pace 6-8 days out, last 2:00 are very intense cut down
  • This workout is less about speed and more about mental confidence and finding your marathon “groove”.

Long Runs Matter

Long runs are the key component of any marathon plan and are what allows you to feel confident on the start line. Workouts certainly help build important aspects of your fitness, but the worst thing you can do is skip or skimp on long runs. If you’re tight on time, it’s okay to break up your long run now and again, but the reality is that a continuous 20-mile run is far different than two ten-mile runs seven hours apart. The athletes with the highest chance of missing their goal on race day are the ones who prioritize their workouts over their long runs.

Mastering the Marathon

When it comes down to it, marathons are tough to nail down and get right. Running 26.2 miles is, however, manageable; and if you’re doing it with friends, it can even be considered fun. But when you start to chase PRs and truly start putting everything you have into your training, the margins of success and failure can be razor-thin.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go big on your first marathon — just don’t let it limit what you believe yourself to be capable of. It could take two or three training cycles before you start to feel strong after mile 20.

Remember, too, that marathon finishes aren’t dictated by luck — they demand that you control as many variables as you can using your training to suss out weaknesses and harden your mental resolve. There is nothing quite like the marathon; it’s truly a journey that pushes you through your limits.

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