THE MARATHON. This word may make you excited, cringe, or maybe a confusing mixture of both. The marathon is 42.2 kilometres of joy, depression, pain, grit, and elation. Although the race is nothing to shake a stick at, the real trials and tribulations occur during the training and preparation leading up to race day. To help guide you, we’ve created the ultimate “How to Survive” Guide to Training. Read on for real-life, no BS, what you need to know answers to our most commonly asked questions.
1) Ask Yourself: Is My Life Ready for Marathon Training? A marathon training cycle is usually between 16 and 18 weeks. If it’s your first time hacking this distance, we always suggest giving yourself 18 weeks. Before you even put your credit card into the race signup, you should be comfortably running 30-40 km per week, with a long run above 15k once per week. You should also be able to run at minimum 3 days a week, but preferably 4 times without issue. In order to achieve adequate mileage in this training cycle (somewhere between 70-80+ km per week), you’ll likely hit 5x per week of running, so you need to be sure that your schedule allows for this. If you are starting a new job, buying a house, getting married, or in the midst of a big life transition, now is not the time. Consistency is key, and if you’re going to be missing a lot of runs (more than 20%), you shouldn’t be playing in this ring quite yet. Remember – running never goes anywhere, and your energy is a finite resource. You’re much better off to put your running goal on hold and focus on whatever else is a priority in your life right now, rather than spread yourself too thin. This is an invitation for a) injury and b) a terrible experience that you won’t enjoy. It might go without saying, but if you’re actively dealing with an injury, deal with that first, even if it means tabling your race for another 6-12 months. Trust – if it hasn’t gone away yet, more running will NOT be the ticket.
2) I’m ready. I’ve signed up. Now what? Congratulations! Now it’s time to come up with a plan. While many people can get away with “training by feel” for shorter distances, you’ll be playing with fire if that’s your jam now. We recommend either purchasing a marathon plan that suits your ability level, or hiring a coach. We talked to Canadian Running Magazine about who should hire a coach in this article. If you’ve dealt with injury in the past, now might also be the time to book a gait analysis so that you don’t start off building mileage with bad habits or without addressing underlying factors that may lend themselves to injury again. One of the biggest predictors of running-related injuries is previous history of injury – so don’t just brush those things under the rug. It all matters!
Within your plan, there should be a few key workouts:
- Long (weekend) runs. The long run is equivalent to the size of your gas tank. The bigger your tank, the further you can go before you run out of gas. These runs should gradually increase in distance for a few weeks, and then drop down during a recovery week. They are done at a slow and relatively easy pace. Our favourite and most reliable way to microcycle these weeks are to have three consecutive build weeks, followed by one recovery week where mileage and intensity of other workouts drops down. This allows your body to recover properly from three hard weeks, gives you adequate chance to rest anything that feels like a sneaky nagging pain, and mentally gives you a break to go and get your hair cut.
- Tempo and/or Interval runs. These runs are equivalent to how efficiently you can use your gas. The more efficient your body is at using fuel, the further and faster you can go before you hit the wall. These runs are usually structured in a way that you go harder and faster for a given amount of time, followed by a period of short recovery. You should have NO MORE than TWO speed workouts in one week. Research has shown that more than two hard speed efforts are too hard to recover from, and are detrimental to long-term improvements.
- Recovery runs. These are exactly what they sound like – nice cruises to help flush out inflammatory byproducts from muscle breakdown and improve tissue recovery and circulation. We recommend doing little strength and rehab workouts on the same day as these as they are not too long and not too taxing.
A classic plan will have one long run, 1-2 tempo runs, and 1-2+ recovery runs per week.
3) Strength/Mobility/Recovery work. You’ve gotta take care of this bod. Indeed, this is one more thing that you’re going to have to carve out some time for during the week. The best solution we can suggest for this is to make rehab and injury prevention/treatment exercises part of your routine and just as important as running. For example, on long run days, don’t worry about doing a bunch of exercises afterwards (way too hungry and sore!) so do some gentle rolling instead. You can do your strength and/or mobility exercises on off days or short recovery days.
One of the BEST things about working with a physio who knows running and who gets to know you is that we can say “Ok. If you’ve got FIFTEEN minutes, here’s what I think you’re best to do, given your particular anatomy/running style/movement preferences/injury history.” YouTube is great, but where does one even begin? You’re a busy marathon runner – ain’t nobody got time for that! When I give exercises, I give them like a bullseye target. There are the centre ones – the non-negotiables – that I REALLY NEED you to do. Then there are the more peripheral ones – the ones that if you have some more time, or you’re at the gym, or it’s raining out, you can put some time into, but if you miss them – nbd.
4) Mental Game. It’s a long haul. There’s going to be workouts that feel amazing, and some that feel like crap. Let yourself get obsessed with training, but don’t let it fully define you. Did your friend ask you to go to yoga? You should go. Are you super tired and cranky? It’s okay to sleep in. Don’t let these things happen every time, but if you aim for perfection, you’re setting yourself up to feel bad on the days that aren’t perfect (and there will be those days). See the big picture. Stay objective. Sleep lots. Drink lots of water. Eat lots of good quality food. Don’t worry that you aren’t stick skinny. Live for the days when there’s sweat pouring off you and your heart is beating out of your chest, and roll with the days that your legs aren’t co-operating. Enjoy the fact you have legs that work to the point that you can be angry with them. Go with it. Flow with it. Lean on friends and family, and if you’re a social person, join a running group! Long runs are a whole lot less mentally challenging when you’ve got some company to chat along with.
5) Race Day. You’ve survived the taper and you’re ready to go! Trust your training, and trust your body. You worked hard for this – now go and enjoy it! And know that no matter the outcome, you have conquered the Marathon Mountain and you can stick your flag in the top.