How to create your own marathon training plan
As someone currently training for my seventh marathon, and having done extremely varying levels of training for each, I think I’m quite well-qualified to discuss the benefits and challenges of following a training plan while also trying to maintain a normal life. Pretty much every marathon I’ve done, I’ve attempted to follow one of the many, many, many plans that are out there. Most are 16 weeks long and can be chosen to take you either from being a non-runner or from a base level of fitness, and for varying levels of time-commitment each week, with usually 5 or possibly 6 days a week of training as a max, and 3 as a minimum. In reality, though, I’ve never really followed one perfectly and often got a few weeks in and ended up doing my own thing.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though. For many runners, especially those who just want to finish a marathon, or who are still early enough in their running career that getting a PB is a case of ‘a bit more training’ rather than ‘desperately squeezing another 2 seconds a mile out of their body’, you can afford for your training to be a bit ad hoc, and worrying about sticking to a demanding training plan might seem off-putting.
On that basis, what I thought I’d provide are some of the elements of a good training plan, that you can then throw together in a way that suits your lifestyle, ambitions, availability, speed, and so on. Think of it as a mix-box of ingredients that you can use to create your own recipe, like one of those MasterChef challenges.
The Long Slow Run (LSR)
The defining training run of long-distance runners, the LSR is, in my opinion, the most important of them all. It is the LSR alone, and particularly the longer LSRs of 18-22 miles, that will make the difference between petering out in the second half of the marathon and the last 8 miles being a hell on earth that you have to walk a lot of, or being able to maintain your pace and finish strong.
So what do we mean by long and slow?
Long is a variable term – it really means the ‘longest of the week’, so early on in your programme that might just be 8-10 miles, while later on it might be around 20. I would strongly recommend doing at least one 20 miler, and preferably two, but not going much above 22 miles in training.
Slow is also very relative. As you may have seen from my Brighton training, I’ve got into a bad habit of doing my LSRs at close to race pace which is certainly not what most authorities recommend. Some suggest a split of around a minute/mile slower than your race pace, but I suspect many mid-level runners will find that too slow. A better bet is to go on heart rate (120-140bpm perhaps) or simply perceived exertion. A very rough guide is that you should probably be able to maintain a conversation the whole way.
And how often? Once per week is about right, albeit with the understanding that in a 16 week programme the first few LSRs will be fairly short, and the last couple will taper off before the race, so out of 16 weeks you might only do 6-10 runs of over 15 miles, and fewer would be fine.
Most training programmes will put in some kind of a short, very gentle run either the day after the LSR or, more likely, two days after following a day off. It’s a good idea if you have the time, as not doing hard runs back to back helps prevent injury, but equally active recovery is better for you than simply having days of sitting on the sofa.
That said, of all the runs in your calendar I’d argue that the recovery run is the one you could most easily miss out as long as you find another way to achieve the twin objectives of a) taking a break and b) promoting active recovery.
You could do that through a couple of days off and a good walk on the second day, gentle cross-training by swimming or cycling, yoga and stretching, or any of a number of other possible activities.
Tempo runs are sort of the opposite of the LSR, being faster and shorter. The idea is to run at your anaerobic threshold, although since that’s hard to judge there are (as with the LSR) various measures of it. For those who race enough to know their 5K pace (and have a reasonably quick one), a tempo run is about 30seconds/mile slower than that. For those who have no idea what that would be, perceived measures are again useful:
- A run that feels hard, but not ‘all-out’.
- A pace that you could maintain for 20 minutes or more.
- And, for those with heart-rate monitors, a run at about 90% of your max HR.
The purpose of a tempo run is to increase your lactate threshold, and thereby increase the pace at which your body is able to clear as much lactate as it produces. This makes a huge difference in marathon running because you may well run much of the race at or below your threshold, and going significantly above it for a length of time is what causes your legs to feel weak and lifeless. Naturally, then, the higher your threshold is the faster you can go without hitting what is sometimes misleadingly known as ‘the wall’.
For marathon runners, then, tempo runs are probably the second most important after the LSR, and again are usually done once per week, with distance and pace gradually increasing over the training plan.
The last of the ‘big four’ that typically make up a weekly cycle in most training plans is interval training. Intervals are, as the name suggests, simply alternating periods of hard running and rest/jog/walk. Depending on the stage of training, event you’re training for, and desired outcome the intervals could be as short as 100m sprints followed by 50m jog, or as long as one mile hard running followed by half a mile walking, or whatever (that 2:1 ratio of work to rest isn’t a rule, by the way, those were just examples).
The intervals could be based on distance or time – so for example one of my common interval sets is based on 4 minutes on, 2 minutes off. It gives you a fixed recovery time, but in a way it’s harder because no matter how fast you go, you’ve always got to maintain it for 4 minutes, and no matter how slow you go on the rest, those 2 minutes seem like they’re up really quickly!
A type of interval training is Fartlek, which is not an acronym, despite people occasionally putting it in all-caps, it’s a Swedish word meaning ‘speed-play’. It allows you to create intervals as you run by simply deciding ‘I’ll sprint to the end of this road, then jog to that lampost, then sprint til I get to the park’ etc. Although less formal, and perhaps more prone to you subtly not working yourself quite as hard, Fartlek is great for
The point of interval training is to force your body to adapt by pushing it to work at a higher pace than you could sustain for a longer run, and then giving it a short recovery time so that you can do so again, and again. The theory is that the short, intense efforts should increase your cardiovascular efficiency and ability to run at speed more rapidly than would be achieved by going out and doing longer steady-state runs.
An alternative style of interval training that I’m a huge fan of is hill-training. As a PTI I much admire once said ‘hills are intervals in disguise’. Find a good hill, sprint up it, jog down it, repeat. Even if you’re not achieving the same speed as you would on the flat, you’ll get a much higher level of intensity, push your heart-rate up to close to max, and also work out different muscles in your legs and core. The regular hill training I do, in my opinion, is also one of the reasons why I’m not overly bothered by occasional gradients in marathons, and why it’s often on the uphill stretches that I start cruising past other runners. Believe me, it’s a good feeling when hills hold no fears for you anymore!