“Understand your body, find the limit, push one step further, rest, and then do it again.”
In May of this year, I ran the BMO Vancouver Marathon, my first marathon effort after getting back into running in my early 40s. There are many lessons you learn, both during marathon training season, and the actual marathon itself, lessons that are indeed life changing: You are stronger than you realize, and most limits we experience in life, are limits we set for ourselves.
Learning that you can successfully work through self-doubt and physical struggle in order to reach the finish line, sets you on a new life trajectory, one that resembles no path you have ever been on before.
After running my first marathon, with several other races completed throughout the past three years, I believe there are three important principles that are required when designing an effective training plan: Effective plan development, improved nutrition, and a focus on recovery. Each element requires focused attention as significant failure with any of them can cost you on race day.
Today I will share with you my personal schema, largely learned from, 1) my own experience, 2) suggestions by John Stanton in Running, the Complete Gide to Building Your Running Program, and 3) full potential, the future of running.
If you are a first time marathoner, the method that I propose is for you. Your goal is to finish, not break national records. Elite and well seasoned marathon runners can use the same elements (and many do) that I propose. However, elites in particular, have an entirely different focus that often requires attending regular running clinics, and/or hiring a coach. Either way, there is something for everyone in the proposed method.
There are several items to be aware of when preparing for your first marathon. Consider the following as you proceed:
- It is assumed that you are already running. You have likely run a series of shorter races, and even progressed to completing at least one half-marathons in the past year.
- You know your weaknesses and potential injury complications. Over time, you learn that not all bodies are made the same, and that each person presents with unique injury potential. For instance, if your knees gives you problems, you are aware that your knee needs special attention off the road, and may require a sufficient warm-up in order to prevent injury that can land you on the couch for two weeks.
- As a runner, you are aware of your strengths and what to build on. For example, if you do well on longer runs, this is an area to maximize on, while at the same time not forgetting the importance of tempo training, etc.
- You have met with your general physician and disclosed your intention to run your first marathon. Your physician has given you the, “green light!”
- Consider investing in a training tool such as the Polar V800 or various models of the Garmin watch running series.
Building Your Plan
Training plans require several key elements in order to successfully cross the finish line on marathon day. Following is my personal formula:
- Sessions – It is recommended that you train five (5) days per week. If you are feeling particularly spent, cut back to running every other day for a couple of weeks, and focus your efforts on your long run day during the weekend.
- Length – You will need no less than sixteen (16) weeks to prepare for your marathon. I have a marathon coming up on May 7th of 2017. That means I must start training on Monday, January 17th. Sixteen weeks includes your running taper that typically occurs two to three weeks prior to the event.
- Progression – Your weekly mileage (or “klicks” if you are with me in Canada) starts light and progresses slowly, peaking on the 10th week of training. You should build no more than 10% in total weekly distance to prevent muscle skeletal injury.
- Weekly Distance – On average, you should run between 40k and 80k each week, with some weeks lighter than others (i.e; in the beginning and taper weeks).
- Long Distance Runs (LSD) – It is important to have one long session once a week (and no more). This is traditionally done either on a Saturday or Sunday. Build slowly throughout the course of your training plan, with your final, and longest LSD session four weeks before the actual event. Your longest LSD session should never exceed 32k. This will prevent injury during training.
- Hill Work – Running hill repeats is an essential endurance building exercise. It is highly recommended and should be done no more than one time per week, especially if you are prone to hip injury. You will notice a considerable performance increase in your LSD running sessions after mastering hills.
- Speed Work – Do one tempo run per week. This is best measured by using the zone system. Thus, it is important to have a method to record your training zones to understand your VO2Max and upper/lower limits of your tempo sessions. Do no more than one tempo workout per week lasting between 30 and 60 minutes. Again, like hill work, doing regular temp sessions increases your performance on long run days.
- Intervals – I believe that intervals are absolutely optional, assuming that you are maximizing on hill and temp running sessions. Intervals are a great way to get in focused effort distance, and can increase VO2Max considerably.
- Fun Runs – One workout a week should be perceived as relaxed, unfocused, and validating. Not every effort must be harder and faster than the last. Run into town, grab a coffee, socialize, and hit the road again. You should feel energized by these efforts.
There is no more important aspect of training than nutrition. The reason for this is two-fold. First, especially as training season ramps up, you must provide your body the tools it needs to rebuild what has been broken down. This is only accomplished through a compressive approach to nutrition. Most marathoners are keenly aware of their nutritional needs between training sessions.
Second, nutritional needs during long runs is essential to master…and believe me, it is not as easy as one might think. You must replace both electrolyte fluids and calories during sessions longer than an hour in order to make it through any long session. Each persons biology is different, and it takes time to learn what combination of fluids and nutrition help more than hurt.
For instance, during one 32k session last year, I thought it brilliant to take along Kettle Chips. What an excellent source of potassium and calories, right? I could not have been more wrong. The last 15k of that session was miserable as I quickly became bloated and felt like I wanted to vomit. I have learned that gels are the best source all around as my body responds to them with little drama.
If I could make one important suggestion, I would consider shifting over to a plant-based diet. You do not have to commit to becoming vegan, although that would be a wonderful idea indeed! But, do make the majority of your diet plant-based. You will notice a considerable increase in your endurance and rate of recovery. If you need a good introduction, check out Scott Jurek,’s, “Eat and Run”.
The time you spend away from running is as important as the training sessions themselves. Your body needs time repair. Recovery days should focus on fixing any problems with dehydration, and also be a time for eating awesome food. The most effortful active should be yoga. I suggest avoiding the “recovery run” very popular among runners today. You should be in motion in order to keep things loose. Don’t over do it! Recovery days are designed to be low impact in order to allow your body to go through the natural inflammation process associated with hard efforts.
Training Plan Example
Following is a snippet of my third month in training planned for 2017. You will see a mixture of various types of runs during the week that takes into consideration the above design suggestions. You will see a series of long running session held on Sundays, with focused relaxed, hill, and tempo efforts during the week. Each week takes into consideration the effort of the previous, and it is understood that efforts can be moved according to how I am feeling on a given day.