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Effective Marathon Training

The marathon is the stamp on your running passport that signifies you’ve arrived. After the marathon you’re a runner and no one can take that away from you!

The marathon shouldn’t be feared, but needs to be respected and your training needs to be geared around the huge distance you’re running.

If you get your training right and execute the right race plan for you, then the marathon can be a great day out!

We believe that effective marathon training needs be well planned and well thought through. It should include training that’s suitable for you and your ability and shouldn’t be at one-paced but include running sessions at varying effort levels, which will make you fitter! Effective marathon training should also be run to perceived effort levels and not to set paces. The problem with running to a set pace is that you try and achieve that pace no matter what the weather conditions might be or how you’re feeling, whether you’re properly fuelled and hydrated or stressed and not slept properly … there are a number of factors that can mean you do not hit a set pace and only end up training way too hard and risk injury or illness.

The marathon is a test of endurance, however endurance can not be built up overnight, it takes years and years to build. Many people wanting to run the marathon often only give themselves 16-weeks to do it all in. In reality, we need a good period of easy running in the build-up to the marathon and you should aim to look at the 16-weeks as the real preparation towards race day.

The first thing that makes effective marathon training is having a period of steady running and conditioning as part of a build up, before a serious 16-week build up.

The training needs to build up gradually, it isn’t possible to go from running 5 miles to 15 in one fell swoop. The training must allow for a gradual progression in pace and distance. Many runners improve their fitness dramatically in the first few months of training. Unfortunately muscles, joints and connective tissue need longer to fully and safely adapt.

If you do start to feel any aches and pains, ignore them at your peril! Your body is great at telling you what it wants so start listening to it. The key to good training is consistency and you can’t be consistent if you’re injured. Take an extra rest day and allow your body to recover. It’s much better to take one day off immediately than a week off later on.

The marathon is not all about the Long Run, it’s certainly an important element of your training plan but there are other building blocks required, however these will depend on how advanced you are in your running life:

  • Threshold Running – Speed endurance, run at around 80 – 85% of maximum effort. These runs improve your lactate threshold, your running efficiency and aerobic capacity. All this helps to improve your race times at all distances and ultimately your marathon performance

  • Hills – During the beginning part of your training you should aim to include hill running to help build endurance and leg strength

  • 10k work – For those at the sharper end of the race, it’s important to continue with some slightly faster paced work, to keep the legs turning over a bit faster and maintain some speed in the legs. This won’t be applicable for every runner but is an important element of your plan.

Runner’s can get obsessed with the long run, especially when talking about the marathon. The long run is just ONE element of effective marathon training. You should have one long run a week, ideally on the same day of the week (and at the same time towards the end of your training) as the marathon itself. The idea of the long run is to get your body and muscles to effectively use your body’s fat supplies, instead of relying on only glycogen (as this will run out after 90-minutes or so of running)

The long run should be run at a completely conversational effort and can be anywhere from a minute to a minute and a half a mile slower than your target race pace. At the beginning of your training, the aim is simply to get time on your feet so don’t worry about distance or pace. We have coached athletes who have run the marathon in under 3 hours with a long run that ended up no longer than 16 miles. The longest long run/walk we recommend is 3 hours, anything longer than this and there really are only diminishing returns to be gained.

The aim with our training plans is to include the long run at the end of a week and this is often preceded with a harder session the day before. The idea of this is that you go into the long run on ‘tired legs’ and therefore mimic some of the fatigue you’ll feel at the later stages in the marathon.

Any effective marathon training will contain one or two practice races. This is not only a chance to test your pre-race day preparations and iron out any chinks in your plan, but it’s also a real opportunity to test your fitness and provide you with a fantastic insight into your current shape.

This also means that you’ll be in a position to work out what sort of time you should be aiming to run the marathon in, especially if you race a half marathon. Broadly speaking, if you take your half marathon time, double it and add twenty minutes, this will give you a fairly accurate predicted marathon finish time.

Any effective marathon training plan will also include some marathon pace practice and we generally include this towards the end of your long runs when you get closer to race day. This pace needs to be realistic (see above) and you need to be sure that you feel comfortable running at this pace during your long run training sessions. How are you going to race a pace if you have never practiced it?

Your training should also be supplemented with lots of rest! You don’t have to slog away every day. Try to have at least one day a week of doing no training at all as this will help your body recover and prepare it for the next training assault. And if you're on a rest day, do exactly that … don't feel tempted to build a shed or lay the patio!

Effective marathon training is also not just about running but instead needs to include cross training (for example swimming, gym bike, elliptical machine or rower) to allow you to keep working on your cardiovascular fitness whilst not pounding away on the pavements. It’s also important to work on your core and body strength to make sure that you’re able to keep your form together in the latter stages of the race when you’re feeling tired. It’s a common misconception amongst runners that you can only run to get better at running. Whilst you need to run, you also need to be doing complimentary work, such as core training.

Effective marathon training should be recorded. This helps you stick to your plan but it’s also something to look back on if you’re feeling down about your training and it can provide fantastic motivation and give you a real confidence boost a few days before the race. So make a note of how you felt during different sessions, what went well, what the weather was like, your effort levels and paces. We work very closely with Garmin and can thoroughly recommend their products to help with your training. Many of our athletes use Garmin Connect to keep a training diary. Using a Garmin means that you not only have accurate paces for different intervals but you also have accurate heart rate data for sessions and can train to heart rate, and really do some effective training.

Effective marathon training will also taper you down towards the big day. You can’t run hard all the way up to the race so from about 3 weeks out you need to say, that is where I am at, continue training but do not expect to see huge fitness gains during this time. The taper is designed for you to feel fresh and ready to run your best on race day. For some of the taper it is more than likely that you will feel sluggish, this is not surprising and you will start to pick it up towards the marathon. Our plans actually keep your training regime the same, just reduce the intensity of workouts. For more information on the taper then take a look at our article on tapering…

Stay mentally positive during your training and Good Luck!

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