Fight or Flight
By Kevin Beck
Planning is the essence of marathon running. If the race is a straightforward test of bodily reserve and mental resolve, the training that precedes it is a comprehensive course of study requiring dedication, savvy and resilience.
Runners who focus on distances under 10K can often attain top form without detailed week-by-week prescriptions; combining frequent racing at or near target distance with a rotation of appropriately timed, tried-and-true workouts can bring them to the starting line of their goal competition(s) in peak shape. Not so with the marathon, the careful preparation for which involves a build-up of three to five months and incorporates a blend of increased mileage, marathon-specific workouts, and tune-up races—a recipe that obligates athletes to skirt the edge of fatigue even under optimal circumstances, and which allows little to no room for error.
Thus a conflict arises: Marathon training leaves little to chance and doesn’t allow for skimping, but entails a higher-than-usual risk of illness or injury. As a result, few marathoners actually see their golden design through from A to Z. When your marathon training is rocked by sickness, aches and pains, or other circumstances, how do you adjust your training and goals? More importantly, how do you know when it’s best to wait for another day altogether?
You’ve probably selected a popular 12- to 24-week training plan that includes build-up races, tempo runs, intervals, long runs, and marathon-pace runs. Maybe your scheme is a hybrid, built to spec based on what’s worked for you before. Regardless, if you have an upcoming marathon and a time goal to go with it, it’s unlikely that you’re just winging it.
Because such plans normally involve cycling weekly mileage so as to incorporate regular rest periods, keeping with their rhythms is important for both physical and psychological reasons as you train your body to handle the aerobic and metabolic demands of a multi-hour footrace. Thus, being forced off-course during marathon preparation not only costs you directly in the form of lost training, but throws your whole plan into disarray because of the uncertainty of where you should pick up again once you return to action. Should you merge with your schedule at the point you left off or keep training as if you’d not had a break? The answer to this, and many other questions posed by an interruption in training, depend strongly on your individual background.
If your training is interrupted, the most important thing to establish is whether you should even race your goal marathon at all. Every training setback is unique in terms of timing, severity, impact and so on, so there’s no simple way to determine the “perfect” compromise. But the following checklist will help you evaluate your situation and, just as in optimal periods, allow you to make the most of the training you’ve done.