Smashing the Myth of the 20 Miler
by Jim Gerweck
You might expect a training program devised by the Hanson brothers, Keith and Kevin, to be a little different than the usual rehashing of principles and schedules. Given the success of athletes from the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, you wouldn’t be surprised if it was effective, too. And if you knew about their athletes’ high mileage, you’d figure on lots of long runs making up the cornerstone of their schedules for non-elite runners.
Well, two out of three isn’t bad.
Looking at the schedules for both beginning and advanced marathoners, you might think there’s a typo—the longest run is 16 miles. In fact, the absence of a long run of 20 miles (or more) is one of the main principles of their marathon philosophy for mortals.
“The necessity of the 20-miler for marathon success is a farce,” says Kevin Hanson, noting that it’s one of the first things he and his younger sibling Keith tell aspiring marathoners at clinics they sponsor at their suburban Michigan running stores. “It’s just a convenient round number that people have endowed with some mythical properties.” To prove his point, Kevin notes that European training plans often top out at 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). “Does that mean they’re 1.4 miles less prepared than Americans? It’s ridiculous.”
While it’s clear that their training philosophy has worked for the elite athletes in the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project (Trent Briney and Clint Verran finished fourth and fifth at this year’s Olympic Marathon Trials, and Brian Sell was 13th after leading much of the race), is it effective for less gifted runners who don’t have the time or ability to put in high mileage week after week?
Although there are hundreds of graduates from their clinics who have notched big PRs by following the program, Kevin Hanson needs to look no further than across his kitchen table for the most vivid testimony.
“When we first started doing this my wife was training for a marathon, and she said there was no way the schedules would work,” he says. “And to make sure she proved me wrong, she followed them to the letter.” The end of the story is that on race day, his wife Nancy ran negative splits en route to a 2:59:21 PR. “So that’s one thing she admits I’m right about.”
The Hansons’ schedules are based on the philosophy that no one workout is more important than another. “On some schedules, you rest the day before and after the 20-miler,” says Kevin. “That’s putting too much emphasis on one workout. And for someone whose weekly mileage is going to top out at 50, it means they’re doing 40 percent of their running in one day.” To people who question whether the elite Hansons-Brooks athletes do longer runs, he replies, “Sure, they’ll do a 20 to 22 miler, but it’s part of a 130-mile week. So it’s actually a smaller percentage of their total volume than it would be for someone doing less mileage.”
The other question they usually get is how running only 16 miles can prepare you for running a full marathon. “People say, ‘there’s no way I could run another 10 miles,’” says Kevin. This brings up the second main principle of their philosophy, that of residual training effect. According to Kevin, it takes 10 days for the benefits of a workout to appear in the body. “That’s why so many people quit a program in the first week.” Extending this principle, it also means that when a Hansons-trained runner sets off on a 16-miler, there’s already three workouts’ worth of fatigue in their legs. “So it’s not like running the first 16 miles of a marathon, it’s more like the last,” says Kevin.
Their schedules for both beginning and advanced marathoners are nearly identical, and striking in their simplicity. The “Beginner” and “Advanced” labels are based on marathon experience rather than speed or ability; a beginner might actually be faster at shorter distances. A toned-down version of the plans followed by the elite Hansons-Brooks runners, they focus on three Something of Substance, or S.O.S., workouts each week. There’s one recovery day and three days of easy running, when the emphasis should be on keeping the pace slow and building weekly volume.
Thursdays are increasing-distance marathon-pace runs, although the pace is only marathon goal pace. “The point of these is to get your body to know what marathon pace feels like,” says Kevin. “The big mistake most people make is going out too fast and crawling at the end. ‘But those first miles felt so easy,’ they always say. This way you develop a sense of pace at various levels of fatigue.”
Tuesdays are speed sessions in the first half of the training, morphing to strength workouts as the race nears. The difference is that the speed workouts total three miles of fast work at between 5K and 10K pace—”We usually tell everyone 10K, because they wind up going faster anyway”—while the strength workouts are run only 10 seconds per mile faster than marathon goal pace, but with twice the volume of total intervals, such as 6×1 mile or 2×3 miles, with about half-distance recoveries.
That pace is established based on recent performances at other distances, and can be adjusted until the strength sessions begin. “After that you’re pretty much locked in,” says Kevin.
The long runs, which alternate with somewhat shorter runs every other week and top out with three 16 milers, should be run at a pace that you’re sure you can hold for the distance. “The emphasis is on the volume, not the speed,” says Kevin.
Racing at shorter distances isn’t a formal part of the schedules, but Kevin realizes most runners will want to hop in one or two during the course of the buildup. “Out here the Crim 10-miler is big, and it comes near the transition from speed to strength for people training for the Detroit Marathon,” he says. During a race week, Kevin advises skipping the marathon-pace run, instead doing your Saturday mileage on Thursday. Then run the race, preferably on Saturday, and resume the schedule.
“Races are important,” he admits. “They’re the only way to simulate holding your pace in a competitive situation, running in a pack, and practicing hydration and refueling on the run.” Also, feedback from some early races may allow you to be more aggressive in your marathon goal.
The last week of the schedules is a modified taper. “The body thrives on consistency,” says Kevin. “The taper is a way of resting without letting [your body] know that something’s up. [A full taper] is like sleeping 11 hours when you normally sleep eight—you sometimes feel groggier.”
The three miles the day before the race is a way to vent nervous energy and allow for a better pre-race stretch and sleep. “You don’t warm up for the marathon, so basically you’re doing your warmup the day before.”
Finally, if sickness, injury, vacations, or any of the other hubcaps life may roll into your lane cause you to miss a few days, don’t try to make up the workouts. Simply get back on the schedule where you would be. “Anything you miss is important, but no more important than any other workout,” says Kevin.
|S.O.S. Something of Substance Training|
|2||8||6||Speed||Off||3 or 6||Off or 6||3 or 6|
|3||4 or 8||Off or 6||2 or Speed||Off||3 or 6||3 or 6||3 or 6|
|4||4 or 8||Off or 6||4 or Speed||Off||4 or MP 6*||4 or 7||4 or 6|
|5||5 or 10||Off or 6||5 or Speed||Off||3 or MP 6||3 or 6||5 or 8|
|6||5 or 8||Off or 6||5 or Speed||Off||4 or MP 6||5 or 7||4 or 6|
|7||6 or 12||4 or 6||Speed||Off||MP 5 or 7||4 or 6||8 or 10|
|8||8||4 or 6||Speed||Off||MP 5 or 7||4 or 7||6 or 8|
|9||10 or 14||6||Speed||Off||MP 5 or 7||5 or 6||6 or 10|
|10||10||5 or 8||Speed||Off||MP 6 or 8||6 or 7||5 or 8|
|11||15||6||Speed||Off||MP 8||5 or 6||8 or 10|
|12||10||5 or 8||Strength||Off||MP 8||6 or 7||8|
|13||16||5 or 6||Strength||Off||MP 9||5 or 6||8 or 10|
|14||10||7 or 8||Strength||Off||MP 9||6 or 7||6 or 8|
|15||16||5 or 6||Strength||Off||MP 9||5 or 6||8 or 10|
|16||10||7 or 8||Strength||Off||MP 10||6 or 7||6 or 8|
|17||16||5 or 6||Strength||Off||MP 10||5 or 6||8 or 10|
|18||10||7 or 8||Strength||Off||MP 10||6 or 7||6 or 8|
|19||8||5 or 6||5||Off||6||5 or 6||3|