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Marathon Training: The Basics

If you have run a marathon or are training for a marathon, then you understand how grueling the endeavor can be. It’s 26.2 miles of intense running, and it requires careful planning and attention to detail to ensure you train right to make the distance and to decrease your risk of injury.

What makes the marathon such a special race to run? Perhaps it has something to do with the history of the distance. Legend has it that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens in Greece to report the military victory against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Upon arriving at his destination, 26.2 miles away, he died. This ending does not bode well for anyone undertaking the task of running a marathon, so training correctly is of utmost importance.

Maybe the lure of running a marathon is that it takes preparation. Just about anyone can run a 5k tomorrow, and most folks could cover the 6.2 miles of a 10k with minimal sacrifice. But a marathon requires preparation; you simply cannot phone it in. You must plan and prepare, and you need to care for your body as you train and after the race is run.

Personally, I find the marathon a great race to run because of the training required. Crossing the finish line is fun, but spending months preparing and training for a marathon is an incredible challenge, and chances are you’re going to make a few friends along your training journey for a marathon.

Remember, everyone’s goals and training are different. You should consult your doctor before deciding to run a marathon, and you should ensure that your training is right for your specific condition.

Marathon Training Basics

If you are training for a marathon, you need to have a plan in place to successfully make it 26.2 miles. Most marathon training plans consist of 12 to 20 weeks of training. If you are new to running, you most likely would benefit from a 20 week training plan. Start slow, and then slowly progress your mileage.

If you are already a recreational or serious runner, you may choose to begin your marathon training plan 12 to 16 weeks before race day. Deciding to implement a 12 or 16 week training plan for your marathon will depend on your specific goals and your current training base. Remember, it is best to consult an expert like a local physical therapist or running coach when deciding on the best training plan for you.

Most marathon training plans consist of different types of running sessions. The three most common types of runs are the easy recovery run, the tempo run, and the long run. These three runs should make up the majority of your training for your marathon. Each run helps to accomplish specific goals and can help you get through 26.2 miles with minimal risk of injury.

The Easy Recovery Run

The easy run is just that - a simple recovery run that is slow and steady and typically only covers a few miles. The easy run is done a day or two after your long run and is used to keep your legs moving as you are recovering from a long run.

When you first start out, your easy run should be about 2 or 3 miles. As you progress with your marathon training, your easy run may increase to 5 miles. Remember, the easy run is used to keep your legs moving while you recover from a long run a few days before, so you shouldn’t really worry about speed or pace. Use this run to get out there and get your legs moving.

Tempo Runs and Speed Work

If you are looking to qualify for the Boston Marathon or have a specific pace in mind for your marathon, you need to build speed work into your marathon training plan. This is done with tempo runs and speed runs. Speed work helps to improve leg turnover - it gets your legs moving faster as you run - and helps to improve the capacity of your muscles to utilize energy.

A typical tempo run should include a warm up mile followed by 5 to 8 miles of a quick pace. Your pace should feel “comfortably difficult.” To find that pace, imagine that your sprinting speed is considered a 10/10 in difficulty. Your tempo pace should feel like an 8/10 - you should be trying to push yourself to run fast, but you should be able to do it for a longer period of time and over the course of 5 to 8 miles.

Your speed work should include more sprinting and high speed workouts. Building in 100, 200, 400, and 800 meter repeat runs can help you build up your speed and get you to the marathon finish line quickly. As your training progresses, you can add in mile-long speed runs. A speed run may include intervals - run 200 meters, jog 100 meters, and repeat a certain number of times. One famous speed workout is Yasso’s 800s. These are not for the faint of heart, so be sure you’re ready to tackle some serious speed runs when doing this.

The Long Run

The marathon is a long run, and making the 26.2 miles is not easy. The only way to get your body across the finish line is to run - a lot. You must get your body used to running long distances, and the best way to do this is with the long run. The long run is typically done one day per week.

Your long runs should be slow and steady. Your goal for the long run is to get your body accustomed to being out there and running for a long period of time. Early on in your marathon training plan, your long runs should be 7 to 10 miles, and then you can build up your mileage during the long run each week. About one month before your marathon, you should be running your maximal amount of miles during your long run.

Do you need to run a full 26.2 miles during your long run while training for your marathon? Absolutely not. Many marathon training plans max out at 20 or 22 miles for the long run. By the time your marathon rolls around, your adrenaline can carry you through the final 4 or 5 miles to get you to the finish line.

How Much Should You Run?

The big question that most first-time marathoners ask is, “How much should I run when training for a marathon?” Believe it or not, most people can make it through the full 26.2 while training only 3 days each week. Your three training runs - the easy run, the tempo run, and the long run - are enough to allow you to safely make the full marathon distance while minimizing risk of injury from overtraining. The 3 day-per-week training schedule allows for plenty of rest and recovery, which can help minimize your risk of repetitive strain injuries.

Of course, if your goal is to finish in a certain amount of time, you may wish to train more. That means more mileage and running, and this may increase your risk of injury. Training right and recovering correctly after each run is important to get you to the finish line.

Putting it All Together

So, you've picked a marathon, and you have a basic idea of your current training base and your marathon goal pace. So what should the basic framework of your marathon training plan look like?

Here is a sample week of marathon training:

  • Monday: Easy recovery run

  • Tuesday: Tempo run

  • Wednesday: Rest or cross train

  • Thursday: Speed run

  • Friday: Rest or cross train

  • Saturday: Long run

  • Sunday: Rest

This plan has 4 running days each week with some rest periods built in for recovery. During your rest days, you may choose to cross train by engaging in non-running, low impact and low intensity exercise activities.

Some more advanced marathoners may build in an extra easy run on Wednesday. Again, your specific plan may vary a bit from this basic framework depending on your specific goals.

When you first start out on this plan, you may only be running a few miles for each run, and 7-10 miles for your long run. Each week, you can slowly creep up the mileage until you maximize your long run at about 20 to 22 miles about 2 to 3 weeks prior to race day.

The Taper During Marathon Training

Your marathon plan should include a taper period. The taper occurs 2 weeks prior to your marathon and is a period of lower mileage during training. The purpose of the taper is to:

  • Allow for some rest in your muscles and joints while preparing for race day

  • Allow for glycogen stores in your tissues to maximally load so you’ll have plenty of energy on race day

  • Allow you to mentally prepare for your marathon

Tapering can be a challenging time. Why? Because after training for so many weeks and gradually increasing your mileage, you suddenly decrease your running mileage and intensity, and this can make you feel like you are not going to be prepared for race day. If you run right during the entire training period, you’ll be prepared, and you can focus on having an enjoyable and successful marathon experience.

Injury Prevention During Marathon Training

There are things you can do to help minimize the risk of injury while training for your marathon. Common overuse injuries may include:

  • Plantar fasciitis

  • Posterior tibial tendonitis

  • Iliotibial band friction syndrome

  • Piriformis syndrome

  • Stress fracture

  • Patellofemoral stress syndrome

Keeping injury free while training for your marathon involves two areas of concentration: managing inflammation and ensuring proper running mechanics.

Making sure you maintain proper form while running can be tough. You've been running a specific way for so many years that it may be difficult to change your mechanics. To modify your running technique, it is important to visit with a physical therapist or running coach who can analyze your running form and make recommendations to maximize efficiency while minimizing extraneous forces that may lead to injury.

During your training, you will be consistently breaking down muscle, tendon, and bone tissue and then going through the repair cycle. This is how your body adapts to the long miles that you will have to run for your marathon. The cycle of tissue breakdown and regeneration is mitigated in the body via the inflammatory process.

After a training run, your muscles and joints may become inflamed due to the stress that you have placed upon them. Managing this inflammation can help you log pain free miles during your training.

The best way to manage inflammation is to apply ice shortly after your runs. Ice helps to create vasoconstriction, or a closing down of blood vessels. This can limit blood flow to injured tissues which decreases localized swelling. If you develop pain in an area of your body, applying ice for 20 minutes several times each day can help keep inflammation to a minimum. Most professionals recommend the R.I.C.E. protocol: rest, ice, compression, elevation.

Managing the inflammatory process typically involves using heat on the affected tissues after a few days of ice. This is not necessary during your training since you will be out on the road running so frequently. Stick with ice while training.

Some marathoners use an ice bath after each long run. To do this, simply fill up your bathtub with cold water, drop a few ice cubes in it, and soak for a few minutes. It will likely be tough for you to stay in the ice bath for any length of time, so spending a few minutes in the ice tub and a few minutes out may be necessary. While this method of inflammation control had been widely practiced by runners, it is not proven to improve overall injury prevention during training. Be sure to talk with your doctor before applying any self-treatment for inflammation during your training.

Nutrition Tips During Marathon Training

When training for your marathon, you need to be aware of the fuel that you are putting in your body. Junk food is a no-no. Every food you eat should be geared towards helping you log your miles and make it to the finish line on race day. Proper nutrition is essential, and meeting with a nutritionist or dietician prior to training may be a good idea so you understand what your body needs while training.

Essentially, there are three sources of energy that your body requires. These include:

  • Carbohydrates, or sugar

  • Fats

  • Protein

If you are eating a well balanced meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with some healthy snacks in between meals, you should have enough energy to make the marathon distance.

Carbohydrates are essentially sugars that are stored in the body and used as a primary fuel source. You have free floating sugars in your blood that are ready for use right away, and your body will also use carbs that are stored in your liver for energy while running.

Once many of your carbohydrate stores are used during exercise, your body will utilize fat as an energy source while you are running. Your body breaks down the fats into simple sugars that can then be used for energy to power your muscles.

If your body has depleted fat stores while you are running, it then starts use protein as a fuel source by breaking down muscle tissue. This protein needs to be replenished in between training runs.

What about nutrition while running? Do you need to replenish carbohydrate stores as you run? Yes. Most runners carry with them small packets of highly concentrated carbohydrates. These liquid carb packs should be consumed at regular intervals as you run to keep your free floating sugar reserves well stocked.

What happens if you don’t have proper nutrition while you are running? If your body runs out of sugar to use for energy and is unable to metabolize fat or protein stores fast enough to create energy, your body will essentially shut down your running mechanisms. Runners call this “bonking.” When you bonk, you simply are unable to run; you can walk, but running becomes nearly impossible. You may also experience symptoms of:

  • Muscle cramping

  • Stomach upset

  • Headache

  • Nausea

Feeding yourself correctly while you are running with plenty of water and with regular intervals of sugars can help prevent the bonk and can keep you on the road while training and during your race.

Recovery after the Marathon

Marathon race day will arrive, and if you have trained properly, you will be ready. Once your marathon ends, you will likely be exhausted. Your body has been through a grueling race, and you need to do the right things over the next couple weeks to ensure that you properly recover.

First things first - did you suffer any sharp pains in your muscles or joints during your marathon? If so, tend to those right away with the R.I.C.E. method. Having ice on hand to apply to sore knees, ankles, and feet may be a good idea.

During your training, you likely only needed to use ice exclusively. After your race, you may need to use heat to improve localized blood flow to tissues and to help improve overall tissue mobility. Heat should be applied about 3 days after your marathon. Most marathoners find that heat applied to their muscles after the marathon can help improve flexibility and can relieve muscle soreness that may be lingering since race day.

Using ice immediately after race day and then switching to heat for sore muscles can help you correctly manage inflammation that occurs from running 26.2 miles. This can help you recover quickly and get you back on the road and training for your next race.

The marathon can be a grueling race, but it can also be a rewarding accomplishment. Running 26.2 miles should make you feel proud, and looking back over the weeks and months of training are typically an enjoyable experience after your marathon. By training right and by working to remain injury free during your marathon, you can be sure to have a positive outcome on race day and come across the finish line with flying colors.


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