A put-all-your eggs-in-one-basket program that works if you let it
by Kevin Beck
Oh no, not another marathon-training article!
If you are a runner whose only real goal in the sport is to run your very best marathon—even if that goal obligates you to abandon every other reason for lacing up your shoes—you’ve no doubt been exposed to your share of advice. If your years of training and reading about how to improve your marathon PR (or at least not finish at death-march pace) have resulted in frustration and persistent self-doubt—“what am I doing wrong?”—and if, above all, you have an open mind, then keep reading. The next few pages may provide you with what you’ve been looking for.
This article is geared primarily to athletes with several years of consistent, focused training under their belts and the desire to improve competitively. It’s not designed for first-time marathoners unless they have an excellent record at shorter distances, and it’s not targeted to those whose goal is simply to finish the race.
Preparation for the marathon, along with every other physiological stressor that comprises “training,” is governed by the principle of specificity: That is, in order to improve at a given activity, you must duplicate, or at least approach the parameters of, that activity as often as possible.
Runners are familiar with this concept. We run intervals at or faster than 10K pace so we can run that speed in a 10K race. We run 26 miles (or close to it) in training so we can accomplish the same feat in a marathon. And so on. Mysteriously enough, however, this principle all but evaporates when it comes to one aspect of marathon training, even among the most ambitious and dedicated. Conventional training wisdom places due emphasis on the need to approximate the marathon distance and pile on the mileage in general. We’re also encouraged to keep up our speedwork while training for marathons, so that our legs don’t become lazy. But most typical schemes blithely ignore the essential need in training for your best marathon—the requirement that training conditions mimic racing conditions.
When Ronaldo da Costa, a relatively unheralded Brazilian, destroyed the men’s world marathon record with a 2:06:05 last fall, he revealed that the key ingredient of his training was performing time trials of 28 to 36 kilometers (about 17.5 to 22.5 miles) at or near marathon pace. The running community was shocked by da Costa’s gusto; I wasn’t. Since taking up the marathon in 1994, I have become convinced that such efforts, thought too taxing by conventional wisdom to fit into most training regimens, are essential to top performances at the 26.2-mile distance.
Alberto Salazar, the former American marathon record holder and a 10K standout before that, once claimed that the basic difference between training for the 10K and training for the marathon was the addition of the long run. Well, that may be true, but I don’t think Salazar had da Costa-like 20-milers in mind. I contend that long, intense training bouts are necessary for marathon success and that all else is secondary. Arguing with a 2:06:05 is difficult. This article spells out the whys and hows of this somewhat unorthodox—but physiologically sound—marathon-training plan.
Why It Works
Pete Pfitzinger, a two-time U.S. Olympic marathoner and an exercise physiologist and coach, agrees with the idea that just adding 20-, 22- or 26-mile runs to a 10K training schedule may not be enough to position most of us for a great marathon. “The argument for [long time trials] is that you are specifically training your muscles to work for a long time at marathon pace, so that fuel utilization and muscle-fiber recruitment are simulating race conditions,” Pfitzinger says. He explains that the ratio of fat to carbohydrate burned as fuel is specific both to pace (a higher percentage of fat is burned at marathon pace than 10K pace) and the duration of the run (the longer the run, the higher the percentage of fat used). Also, as muscles tire the trained athlete is able to call upon still-fresh muscle fibers in order to maintain a given effort level. Faster running trains the body to utilize fuel in certain ways; long runs teach it to recruit additional fibers when muscles tire. But only long, hard efforts maximally train all these systems at once.
The main drawback of such workouts is that they are extremely taxing, both physically and mentally. Who wants to run that far and fast in training? Won’t such exploits bring on days of exhaustion, like that experienced after a marathon? Won’t they increase the risk of injury? And how do you know they will work just because they did for one skinny Brazilian?
Those are valid questions. Let me suggest first of all that any marathon-training program that “guarantees” success is not worth your attention. Sure, there are sound programs out there, and following one is better than having no structure to your training. But there are so many variables involved in marathon preparation and the race itself, it’s folly to “promise” a great race to every competitor. Furthermore, the marathon is not for the meek. If you are training merely to finish, fine; your slow 20- to-26-milers will carry you through. If you want to push beyond the bounds of your current performance standards, though, you’ll need a little more oomph.
Endurance is built over a period of years and is largely limited by our ability and desire to tolerate exhaustive training; as a result, many of us find the marathon perversely gratifying—if we remain healthy (and that’s a big if), we can continue to improve while our performances at shorter events stagnate. To do so, however, we need to narrow our focus and keep in mind
what it is we’re really aiming for.
What Kind of Workouts?
The program that has produced the best results for me includes a minimum of three runs of at least 15 miles in the 10 to 12 weeks before my goal race. I do them at or slightly faster than goal pace.
I’m convinced this has made me a better marathoner. When I was training for my first marathon, I averaged 90 to 100 miles a week over a three-month span, logged five runs of 22 to 25 miles at 6:20 to 6:40 pace, and did enough speedwork to crank out a still-standing road 5K PR of 15:25. I tapered significantly over a three-week period. I thought all the elements of a 2:30 marathon were in place. But race day arrived, and although I never “crashed,” those 5:45 miles became impossible for me to hold somewhere around mile 18. I wound up at 2:39—6:05 pace.
Training for the distance the next fall, I added a twist: On three of my six runs over 20 miles, I threw in the last 10 on the track at 5:45 pace. Race day produced a 2:33 this time. In 1997 I again tried something new: incorporating 20K, 25K and 30K track segments at or just below 5:40 pace into longer runs. These workouts were spaced three weeks apart. They took a considerable toll, but I treated them as “races” in their own right and, for three or four days afterward, rested altogether or jogged four to six miles. That fall I ran 2:30 in less-than-perfect conditions.
Last fall, because I was racing more often than usual, I swore off these long, hard workouts while training for the Hartford Marathon. I still did plenty of “typical” long runs and knocked off a 25:17 8K—my first PR at a short distance in years—the week before the marathon. With that sort of speed, sub-2:30 again seemed like a sure bet. Around mile 19 in Hartford,
though, right on 2:29 pace, my form faltered. Again, I didn’t crash—my mileage base and 20- to 26-milers probably guarded against that—but I gradually slowed to 6:20 pace and wound up with another 2:33.
It’s worth noting that my average weekly mileage, total number of long runs and the frequency and type of shorter, interval-style workouts were consistent from season to season.
Alex Tilson, a Harvard M.B.A. student, is a disciple of the long-hard run philosophy. Prior to recording a 2:29:10 at the BayState Marathon in 1997, Tilson had built what he calls “a great all-around endurance base.” But his training lacked specific ingredients. While training for the same race in 1998, Tilson, aiming for a sub-2:22, performed five half-marathon time trials at 1:11, often incorporating these into 27- to 30-mile runs. He did one 20-miler on the track at 5:25 pace—exactly the speed his marathon goal would require. He averaged 90 to 95 miles a week.
“I tried to run a 31-flat 10K because I was sure I’d need that sort of speed for a 2:22,” Tilson relates. “In fact, I never broke 32.” But he was exquisitely focused on his goal. “Don’t think you can show up on race day and do something you’ve never done before,” he insists. “A lot of people think they can draw on some special magic because it’s ‘race day,’ but you need to
be honest with yourself.” After his long track sessions, Tilson usually took to the pool for a day or two to give his legs a break. Last October, with the temperature rising above 70 , he ran a 2:22:45.
One of da Costa’s workouts includes a 30K time trial in which each 10K segment is 30 seconds faster than the last; the final 10K stretch is done at marathon race pace. Another is 5 x 5K, with the first 5K done at marathon pace and each successive one 10 seconds faster. The basic principle is the same: A significant proportion of training is done at or near race pace for the goal distance. As such, it’s really no different than a mile, 5K or 10K training regimen.
There are variations on the theme. Some of Pfitzinger’s athletes run 12 to 15 miles at the pace of a typical training run, then pick it up to race pace in the last five miles; the idea is to shorten recovery time. Other times, they’ll run eight to 10 miles at goal pace (with a warm-up and cool-down, of course). But Pfitzinger agrees that longer, more intense bouts are effective.
“There is a mental and physical recovery involved,” he cautions, but says it would it be useful to do such workouts every second or third week.
Foreign athletes have long had a leg up on Americans when it comes to long, hard workouts, according to Mark Conover, a 1988 Olympic marathoner. “The standard stuff we all learn, like six times a mile or five-mile fast continuous runs, seems ingrained in Americans,” Conover says. “That’s all I did for my marathon preparation, while others like [Gelindo] Bordin and the Africans hammered out some quality 40K-plus runs. They run 2:07 to 2:09 and win medals and prestige, while Americans continue to suffer.”
Boring is Better
Where your long, hard runs should be done is a matter of personal taste; I’ve always done mine on the track. This offers the advantage of close pace monitoring, and a pair of others as well: minimal pounding and the ability to set up aid stations for ample carbohydrate intake. These two factors are vital in training runs of this intensity, because recovery from these bouts
has been shown to be strongly dependent on both. Many athletes training for marathons tend to fall into chronic states of low-grade glycogen depletion. (Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate.) This clearly limits their ability to do the workouts they aspire to, which can erode confidence and throw them into moods that annoy everyone around them.
“The body stores carbohydrates most readily in the first hour after exercise,” Pfitzinger notes. “Part of my personal secret to being able to train more than other people was that I intuitively sensed that it was important to get the carbs in right after the long runs.” A still better
option is to consume as much as you can during your long runs. In addition to the physiological benefits, it prepares you for race-day conditions, when you’ll be taking in fluids and carbohydrates while running at high intensity—a valuable skill to master in itself. The choice of fluids, energy gels or other sources is, in my experience, relatively unimportant. Stick to
what you find most palatable; as long as you’re taking in enough, your body will find a way to put it to use.
Of course, some would simply choose to run races in the half-marathon to 30K range for these workouts. Pfitzinger used to sometimes run 30K or 20-mile races for marathon training, and twice ran the first 20 miles of the Boston Marathon at 5:15 pace, about 5% slower than his goal marathon pace. Bill Rodgers did the same. The primary drawbacks to this strategy (besides entry fees) are 1) that you might be jolted by the competitive milieu into running
harder than you should, defeating the workout’s purpose; and 2) downhills, particularly late in the race.
That raises the issue of pounding. Ask any beleaguered soul who’s struggled to finish the Boston Marathon course—famed for its uphills but more noteworthy for the placement of the downs—and suffered terrible leg soreness for a week or more afterward, as I did in 1996. It’s the breakdown of muscle fibers that limits our training in the first place; that’s why runners can’t do the routine four- and five-hour workouts put in by swimmers, cyclists and cross-country skiers.
Still, many runners like to do hilly long runs, believing it will “toughen them up” and provide added benefit. But as Pfitzinger notes, “Downhill running causes the most muscle damage because of the large amount of eccentric [braking] forces involved.” If you’re training for a fast marathon, you’re probably going to select a flat course, so it seems reasonable to stick to flat courses in training. Even if you’re training for a course with lots of downhills, like Boston, Pfitzinger says that while it’s a good idea to incorporate hills into your long runs—he cites the consistent success of Rodgers at the Boston Marathon after training extensively on the course—it’s probably best not to tackle really mountainous terrain in training, because the pounding may prove too much.
If you find a track too stultifying, a flat dirt or short-grass surface (which would probably involve lots of “laps,” too) would be OK. A flat road course might work, but the surface, traffic and increased difficulty of getting fluids into your body make this a sub-optimal choice.
The Route to Recovery
Ideally, you should be able to recover from a long, hard workout in about five to seven days. Until then, you won’t be able to do much more than putter along at a pace considerably slower than your typical training speed; pool running is another option. Most runners are paranoid about taking that much “easy” time, but rest assured: Your body is busily repairing itself—if you allow it to.
Da Costa, in contrast to the vast majority of marathoners at his level, incorporates days of full rest into his marathon training. Most every runner I’ve known who has adapted this type of training plan acknowledges the need for total-rest days. I believe that one or two days off from running after any hard run exceeding 15 miles is a good idea in order to avoid injury or
burnout. I’ve never been hurt doing this kind of training; my one and only significant injury was a stress fracture incurred when I tried to boost my mileage over 120 a week.
Racing, Mileage and the Taper
When undertaking this training plan, you’ll want to shift emphasis away from short, intense speedwork and short races. The reason is that this type of training, even done wisely, will leave you with a burden of fatigue, even if you don’t always feel it. Your performance in interval workouts and shorter races is likely to suffer, leaving you to wonder if this plan really works. But I’ve always found myself ready to go when the marathon rolls around.
High mileage—whatever that means to you—is important, but its distribution is just as vital. If you can tolerate 90- and 100-mile weeks, go for it. I’d advise scaling back every third week or so to give yourself a break. It probably isn’t useful to do anything long or intense within seven to 10 days of the marathon, though I’ll sometimes do eight or 10 miles at marathon
pace 10 to 14 days before the race. This is the time to focus on stretching, hydration, adequate carbohydrate intake and catching up on sleep. I always cut my mileage and intensity drastically in the last two weeks before the race; most fast running I do at this point is at marathon pace.
All Good Things Must End
This program is geared to anyone who’s willing to put all his eggs in the marathon basket. I’ve seen too many people for whom this style of training works not to be convinced it’s valid. But as noted earlier, there are no guarantees in the marathon. Also, the type of workouts suggested here aren’t exactly fun to perform. No one I know enjoys running 50, 60 or 75 laps on a track. You’ll be tired a lot, and you are unlikely to race well at shorter distances.
Still, the benefits are difficult to deny. You’ll develop a keen sense of pace. The way you’ll feel at the end of those sessions provides a great rehearsal for the fatigue that creeps up late in a marathon. On race day, when the finish-line banner is in sight and your goal is well in hand, you might be grateful for those long time trials—or as grateful as anyone can be after maxing out for 26.2 miles.
Kevin Beck is the newsletter editor of the Central Mass Striders. When not training, he’s usually chasing after his yellow Lab puppy, Komen.
This schedule is based on a three-week cycle; when training for a marathon, three such cycles should be employed, followed by a three-week taper. The program does include long runs at “moderate” effort–i.e. the sort of long runs you’re probably accustomed to doing. Running long at a relatively relaxed pace has physical and mental value; it simply may not be sufficient to maximally enhance performance.
You can vary the interval workouts, but focus on high-volume, marathon-intensity type sessions. One workout Ronaldo da Costa does is a 6K-5K-4K-3K-2K-1K ladder, all of it at or near marathon pace. It’s probably not necessary for most of us to do 21K of intervals, but training your body to handle marathon pace as often as possible has great value. All hard pace running should be preceded by a warm-up and followed by a cool-down. Adjust the mileage on easy days (or make them rest days) depending on how you are feeling.
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
|Monday||rest/crosstrain||10K-15K marathon-pace run||10-12 miles moderate|
|Tuesday||rest or 4-6 miles easy, depending on how you feel||4-6 miles easy||8×800 meters 3-5 seconds faster than 5K race pace (10-12 miles total)|
|Wednesday||6-8 miles easy||10-12 miles moderate||6-8 miles easy|
|Thursday||10-12 miles moderate||long (22-26), moderate effort||10-12 miles moderate|
|Friday||4-6 x 1 mile at 5K race pace (10-12 miles total)||4-6 miles easy||6-8 miles moderate|
|Saturday||10-12 miles moderate||6-8 miles easy||6-8 miles easy|
|Sunday||10-12 miles moderate||10-12 miles moderate||20K, 25K or 30K at marathon pace (depending on whether you’re in the first, second, or third three-week cycle)|