TRAINING THE HUMAN BODY FOR A MARATHON: Trust the Process
MARATHON TRAINING SCHEDULE
Plans can range in the number of weeks and miles, as well as the weekly commitment and daily routine. First-time marathoners generally start four or more months in advance, spending 16–20 weeks gradually increasing mileage and intensity. Runners with a strong training base or active routine (already running more than 30 miles each week) may register for a race and enter marathon training on shorter notice.
Look for training plans that range from beginner (around 18 weeks) to intermediate (often 16–18 weeks, with higher intensity workouts). A new runner will start with short 2–3 mile runs totaling around 15 miles per week; during the peak training, they’ll build to a long run of 20 miles with a weekly total between 40 and 50 miles. A more advanced runner will utilize a variety of easy runs, pace and interval training, and multiple 18 or 20 mile runs, totaling 500 or more miles in their training.
Let’s look at some sample marathon training schedules. In all cases, the runner starts out with a plan and maintains flexibility depending on their comfort and progress over time.
Short / Medium / Short / Long
Four runs per week, with a gradual mileage increase. Short runs build from 3 to 5 miles; long runs grow from 7 to 20 miles.
The focus of the beginner’s plan is to safely build mileage, not adding more than 10% week over week. Increasing speed is not a priority. The goal is to increase the body’s endurance to meet the demand for mental and physical fuel for multiple hours of sustained activity.
Cross Train / Short / Medium / Short / Pace / Long
Five runs per week, as well as weekly non-run cross training.
The intermediate marathoner has at least one race medal and aspires to improve their strength and comfort on the course. Cross-training increases muscular strength, and periodic pacing workouts enable a focus on a faster finish time or consistent mile splits, as well as performing under fatigue.
Cross Train / Quality 1 / Short / Medium / Rest / Quality 2 / Short
Five runs per week and one cross training session. Two runs include a focus on running quality.
The advanced runner approaches a marathon more scientifically. Rest days (and periods of rest mid-workout) are essential to allow for recovery, because the quality workouts push the runner to their respiratory and lactic thresholds. With intense running routines, cross-training ensures strength (and not neglect) for the (neglected) muscles that are non-essential to the running motion.
TIPS FOR SCHEDULING:
SET THE INTENDED TRAINING PLAN IN ADVANCE. SCHEDULE WORKOUTS ON THE CALENDAR TO TOTAL EACH WEEK’S MILEAGE.
ESTABLISH A REGULAR SLEEP ROUTINE, AND EXERCISE AT A TIME OF DAY CLOSE TO THE RACE HOURS.
SET ASIDE HOURS FOR POST-RUN RECOVERY AND DAYS FOR RESTING.
Runners have many lifestyles; the common thread is scheduling and commiting time throughout each week to train. Marathoners train in the morning (before breakfast), midday (lunch run, anyone?), in the evening, or anywhere in between.
Before an individual run, an athlete in training must ensure:
There’s fuel in the tank: Whether the night before or the most recent meal, have I eaten something that gives me energy? Sugar is quick energy. Complex carbs take time to convert to glycogen. e.g. I had a turkey sandwich on hearty wheat bread last night, and I’m starting this morning’s swim with a Gu.
Weather the weather: Am I wearing gear that allows breathability, proper temperature control, and mobility? e.g. #1 It’s 5°F, so I’m wearing 2 gloves, a hat and neck warmer, two tights, two socks, and three upper layers (a silk, a synthetic, and a wind barrier). e.g. #2 It’s 60°F and raining. I’ll go with shorts, a t-shirt, and a light rain jacket.
Know the run: Before I head out, what’s my plan? Am I here to take it easy, or am I pushing myself? How far and how fast? What’s my back-up if things feel uncomfortable? e.g. #1 Today’s an easy 4 miler. I’m running to the river and back, and not going to worry about my pace. I can turn around and walk home or grab a bikeshare if needed. e.g. #2 For today’s 18 mile long run with intervals, I’m going to start in Natick and run along the marathon course. I’ll start easy to warm up for two miles, then do a few cycles of threshold paces, totaling 4 miles. Most of the run will be light intensity, since I’m focusing on distance. When I reach Boston, or sooner if need-be, I’ll take the T to get home.
Time to recover: Whatever’s next on my schedule for the day, how much time will I have to cool down and stretch? Considering calories and fluid, what do I need to replenish, and what protein will I offer my muscles to rebuild? e.g. I should be at work by 9, so if I finish running by 8, I can stretch for 15 minutes and shower. After a glass of water, I’ll have a protein shake, a bagel, and fruit.
WHAT FUELS A MARATHONER?
Aside from ensuring balanced energy and muscular strength, a focus on food quality benefits gut health, avoids inflammation, balances hormones, and satisfies the taste buds. Calculating fuel for a workout must account for the intensity and duration, comparative to the time of day. Some runs can be fully pre-fueled; longer, more intense exercise may also require a mid-run refuel.
While the human body is a complex system, the nutrients that help us thrive can be simplified down to carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Carbohydrates include sugars and fibers, both of which are responsible for our energy. The body converts all carbs to basic sugars, called glycogen, and fiber helps the sugars provide energy for long periods of time. Protein maintains our strength, offering energy for many hours and providing essential building blocks (called amino acids) to help repair muscle tissue after exercise. More easily and with more storage capacity than carbs, fats can be easily stored as fuel (energy) to be burned when needed, but ketogenic (breaking down fats) processes typically commence once glycogenic (burning sugar) reserves are depleted. The body can be fueled by carbs or fats, but will typically rely on carbs first.
PRE-RUN: A runner wants to ensure there’s glycogen in the tank. Consume a combination of complex and simple carbs before exercise. Hydrate in the days or hours leading up to the run, with the amount of fluid intake depending on the duration and climate. Electrolytes are most effective after exercise; be careful to avoid sugar-rich electrolyte sources.
MID-RUN: For runs that require refueling, simple sugars are the quickest fuel. Longer periods of exercise may benefit from other calorie sources, especially those that satiate psychological cravings. For a runner’s sweet tooth, a bite of chocolate may be the 25th mile miracle; a half-banana at mile 13 may be the potassium (an electrolyte) boost that avoids cramping. For all runners, an elevated heart rate will lead to perspiration. Sweating removes water from the body, and vital organs will need fluids to restore normal functioning. Replenish fluids with water or an electrolyte drink, depending on the workout intensity and the body’s heat exchange.
MID-RACE: When competing in a race or event, follow the fueling strategies used in training. The body is remarkably adaptable and will learn to be efficient with the fuel that it knows. Check the race plan: what fuel will be on the course? Know the water stops as well as the body’s fluid preferences. Train organs, muscles, and the mind to perform with specific fuel sources, and train the digestive system to release fluids and solids at non-race times. Avoid introducing new foods or changing the sequence of nutrients during a race. Especially when the body has all attention focused on forward muscular movement, the digestive system is vulnerable. During a race, foreign foods and fluids may lead to upset insides. For the body, despite possible nervous energy, the race is just another workout. When it comes to race preparation and day-of, eat whatever you’re most comfortable with that you know will also provide the right fuel for your workout.
POST-RUN / RECOVERY: Second to allowing the muscles to gradually cool down, restoring fluids and nutrients should be a first priority for health and wellness. Alongside fluids, include electrolytes like sodium, magnesium, and potassium to help rebalance fluid throughout the body. Consume protein quickly to kickstart muscle rebuilding. Eat enough calories (maybe not all at once!) to replace the quantity that were burned.
e.g. A full glass of water or more, perhaps with Nuun electrolyte tablets. A rich source of protein: fish, poultry, or synthetic sources (include whey, plant-based proteins, both in powder and bar forms). Carbohydrates that include sugar and fiber, for quick relief and a sustained feeling of fullness.
WHY ARE WHOLE GRAINS AND BROWN RICE GENERALLY CONSIDERED HEALTHIER THAN REFINED GRAINS AND WHITE RICE?
All carbs become sugar, which are essential for living. Simple carbs are converted more quickly than complex carbs. The complex, “whole” carbs last longer as a source of energy, and are less likely to cause a sugar spike, which are typically followed quickly by hunger.
Complex carbs, such as whole grains, take many hours to convert into glycogen. They’re rich in fiber, and often offer vitamins and minerals. e.g. whole grains; starchy or green vegetables; beans, lentils, peas
Simple carbs, like sugar, can be burned immediately after consuming, which is why many endurance athletes fuel with densely-packed sugars. e.g. sugars and syrups; fruit juices; candy; refined grains
To understand the necessary elements of smart training, consider the body’s physiology during a physical workout. Primarily, aerobic cardiovascular workouts exert respiratory and skeletal-muscular systems. Especially at its performance threshold, the body creates lactic acid, which can build up in muscle tissue, causing stiffness and cramps. Muscles warm during a workout, and after cooling off, will begin to stiffen.
“Cooling down” after a workout allows the heartrate to return to normal, bringing oxygen distrubtion back to the body’s baseline. Like other muscles, after many workouts, the heart will be conditioned to exert less effort for the same routine and require less time to recover.
Strength and weight workouts, such as anaerobic weight-lifting or running drills that push a personal threshold, create micro-tears in muscle tissue, requiring time and nutrients for muscles to re-build. Creatine and lactic acid are two enzymes that the body secretes (and may build up to cause cramps during exercise) as muscles are exerted. To restore skeletal and muscular strength, the body requires recovery time, as well as reconstruction fuel in the form of protein and carbs. Carbohydrates restore energy reserves for muscles, and proteins contain the amino acids that chemically rebuild muscle tissue to be even stronger.
Recovery requires care for the mind and body, as well. Allow time to rest and refuel, and create mental reassurance that recovery is part of the body’s training. Alternating other activities into a running schedule can strengthen non-stressed muscles while offering rest time for stressed muscles. Cross-training increases strength in the core (such as abdominal, pectoral, and lateral muscles) and should also provide supplemental focus on the muscles responsible for rotational (also called transverse) and lateral (or side-to-side) mobility. Alternating non-running activities helps strengthen the body to avoid injuries and boredom and to sustain the runner’s lifetime mileage.
Injuries? Yes, setbacks are inevitable, though can be curtailed through careful attention to the body’s feedback. Though experienced differently by each individual and sometimes masked by natural opiates, like endorphins, pain is the body’s warning signal. Before resuming running, check with a specialist and exercise in ways that are safe to avoid further affliction to the affected areas. Swimming, for example, is a low-impact, all-season sport that increases joint mobility and respiratory strength.
In training for any performance activity, having a plan is the first essential step to achieving your desired result. Whether the intent is to finish or the ambition is to win, follow and trust the training process to improve performance. Don’t be scared by fatigue, soreness, and hunger; all the downsides of rigorous training can be mitigated by proper care and attention to the body.
Ready to run? Not so fast — well, at least not every time. Consider varying running workouts between runs that focus on: speed, distance, pace, and hills.
Speed: head to a track or a segment of a path with a known distance. Practice short intervals, ranging from 100 to 1600 meters, with the speed of each interval inversely correlated with the distance. Sprint the shortest distances and run the longer intervals, allowing time for breath and heartrate to recover in between.
Distance: for starters, those long runs are purely about mileage. Without focusing on time, find a scenic out-and-back, a loop, or a rewarding destination to reach by foot.
Pace: focusing on a challenging pace for a full or partial run can aide the body’s mental and physical systems to respond to a demand for consistent performance, sometimes under fatigue. For a shorter distance, consider training at a 5k goal pace; for long runs or segments, practice maintaining the marathon goal pace.
Hills: especially when the race course calls for fluctuating elevation, consider pushing the mental boundary to build new strength in “rebound” muscles. Both uphill and downhill, avoid leaning, especially not at the waist; stand tall, and the hill will come. Maintain an even and challenging pace running uphill and down, and do the up-down hill circuit multiple times.
Cross training options vary, and should focus on supplementing the main muscles of running. When trying a new activity, get suggestions from experienced athletes or trained coaches. Options may include high-intensity boot camp or weight lifting circuits or less-strenuous workouts like lap swimming.
To build and maintain flexibility, incorporate routine stretching practices, especially after running. Yoga is an excellent option to maintain warm, long muscles and establish a mental focus on breathing and visual-muscular coordination; for some ideas and sample yoga sequences, see Rebecca Pacheco’s videos online with Runner’s World.
For more training schedules and sample workouts, contact me by email or Strava, join a local running club for a coach and/or community, find resources online (such as Hal Higdon), or pick up a book about the science of running (such as Jack Daniel’s Running Formula.)
THE BOSTON MARATHON COURSE
The first race, held in 1897, covered 24.5 miles.
In 1924, the course start line moved from Ashland to Hopkinton, Mass. for the distance to conform to Olympic standards.
Due to a net elevation loss, the course does not qualify for the current standards for world, American, nor Olympic record competition.
The 0.4 mile ascent between miles 20 and 21 became known as “Heartbreak Hill” when the defending champion passed his competitor but was later defeated in “heartbreak”.
The course record is held by Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya. His 2011 finish in 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 2 seconds was the fastest marathon ever at the time.
Cheers from the women students of Wellesley College creates a so-called “Scream Tunnel,” sometimes heard from a mile away.