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True or false: “Training for a marathon should be all about the long runs”

As many runners are currently training hard for their spring marathon and entering the final key weeks of preparation, there’s no time like the present to discuss the key elements in training for marathon. 

Of course, it’s important to build more time on feet over coming weeks, but focusing on the other runs in your week is just as important. I know how easy it is to get caught up in focusing just on the long run, but it really is just one component of your marathon training.

Having coached for 25 years and worked with beginners, club runners, the experienced and Olympians, I know that keeping your training in balance and enjoyable and remaining healthy is essential to arrive at race day fit, positive and ready to run at your peak performance.

The marathon day itself is only the final mile – training for a marathon and the weeks leading up to the race make the first 25!

The marathon journey will challenge you physically and emotionally and I often feel that the marathon day itself is only the final mile – training for a marathon and the weeks leading up to the race make the first 25!

While it’s definitely key to make sure your long runs are run at the right effort levels and progressing realistically, it’s also time to build your threshold running, keep in easy early morning recovery runs, occasionally complete a faster session and even include the odd half marathon or prep race to check progress.

Add in the weekly conditioning sessions and some cross training and you might just have the magic formula for your marathon success, provided you remain fully focused on quality recovery and nutrition at all times.

So, training for a marathon by focusing only on the long runs is a myth. To clarify why, here are my thoughts on how to get the final 10-12 weeks of your marathon preparation right (with a few tricks from Polar to help you):

Have a plan

Get yourself a training plan that builds training in gradual increments, but take ownership of it and change it to make it work for you and your lifestyle and fitness.

Remember you can always replace running with cross training to reduce the impact and the risk of running injuries. Indeed, if you have a niggle, please cross train and see a specialist immediately.

Make sure there are long runs that build, easy recovery run days and some weekly threshold or running economy runs.

Make sure there are long runs that build, easy recovery run days, some weekly threshold or running economy runs and use a sports watch with HR to hit the right heart rates zones. Don’t become that one paced runner always running the same routes!

Spread your volume

Build your long run by 10 mins a week and if you’re new to the marathon make sure the effort is super easy and fully conversational.

This could be 60-70% of your maximum heart rate focusing on being fully in the easy aerobic area getting your energy from stored fats and carbohydrates (glycogen).

In the final 8-10 weeks, some runs should contain periods or blocks of work at your planned marathon pace (MP) or intensity.

For example:

  • A long run of 2 hours 30 mins with 3 x 5K built in at marathon pace or
  • A long run with the last 60 mins at marathon pace

Quality as well as quantity

Whilst the volumes of your running will increase as the weeks go by, marathon success isn’t just about the miles.

The heart will get stronger as the stroke volume improves creating better running economy and fitness.

Adding some controlled faster efforts into your running week can help speed up the rate of your progression. Think of this as threshold running and aiming for 75-85% of your maximum heart rate. Time spent in this zone each week will make your long runs feel easier and goes a long way to giving you the final 10 miles of your marathon performance. The heart will get stronger as the stroke volume improves creating better running economy and fitness.

Top tip

Including some blocks of ‘controlled discomfort’ threshold effort into one of your weekly runs will help build a stronger, bigger heart and get your mind used to pushing.

Start with something simple like 5 x 3 minutes at a 3-4 word answer effort, building to 5 x5 minutes, 5 x 6 minutes or even 3 x 10 minutes with a short 90-120s recovery. Warm up well and perhaps include these blocks within a weekly 45-75 min run.

Be sure to complete this session on a day when you are recovered and your resting heart rate is low.

Run easy

The most common mistake I see many experienced marathon runner’s make is to run their easy runs or recovery runs too fast.

A clever marathon runner becomes efficient at using both stored fats and carbohydrate together on race day for energy. Long easy paced runs and shorter recovery runs at 60-70% max heart rate will see this energy system stimulated and developed.

There’s always a temptation to run harder as we tend to think faster must be better in life and performane. But, in marathon running and other endurance events this isn’t always the case. Red blood cells, greater capiliarisation and stimulation of the mitochondria happens at low intensity and your body utilizes energy from stored fats.

Becoming efficient at running with stored fats will be crucial for race day success and consistency of pace.

Remember, you only have enough carbohydrates (glycogen) to run close to your marathon effort for 90 – 120 minutes so becoming efficient at running with stored fats will be crucial for race day success and consistency of pace.

Recovery and regeneration runs pre-breakfast are a key component to your marathon training week… so slow down!

Keep in touch with pace

Lots of slow running and time on feet in marathon training can leave a runner feeling sluggish and short of pace.

That’s why it’s good to put in a shorter faster session every couple of weeks to boost leg turn over and even VO2 max within your marathon build up, especially for the experienced runner who runs most days.

Think about a shorter interval session focusing on speed endurance reps in the top zone and above 85% challenging also the anaerobic system.

This could be:

  • 10-12 x 400m’s at 5km pace with a short 60 second recovery between each
  • A set of 6-8 x 1km at 10k pace with 90 seconds between each or
  • Even your local 5k park run completed at high intensity

It’s good to rev the engine and keep in touch with pace, even in marathon training.

Fuel it right

Spending time thinking about your nutrition and adding as much variety as possible into your day to day diet will help you stay strong, energized and healthy by increasing your available energy and keeping your vitamins and minerals topped up.

Top tip

Unless there is a clear medical reason to do so don’t exclude whole food groups from your diet.

Carbohydrates from healthy, complex sources, protein with most meals and plenty of fruit and vegetables is the way to go.

A blood test can help you check your levels for key markers such as iron, B12 and zinc amongst many others.

Recovery and regeneration

This is the cornerstone to your marathon training and success. All training is the stimulus but how you choose to recover will determine your fitness, progression and outcomes.

Make a habit of measuring your resting morning heart rate and monitoring the numbers and trends. A resting heart rate few beats higher than normal could tell you:

  • You haven’t recovered from your last long run or harder session and another easy day or rest is required
  • You are stressed or dehydrated
  • If more than a few beats higher, you could even be fighting an infection or virus and need full rest and some easy days

Armed with this daily health check your training can now be strategic and planned based on how you feel and the bodies current status.

Elite athletes don’t just rigidly follow their training plan without thinking: they are flexible and adapt the plan to how the body feels day by day. Be prepared to move runs around and consider extra rest if required.

Better still, take the Orthostatic Test and monitor your recovery along with how your fitness improves.

Sleep and more sleep

Getting to bed a little earlier a few nights a week will have a bigger impact on your marathon training than any other variable. If you’re going to run longer and train harder in marathon prep, you have to match this with extra rest and quality sleep.

Injury and illness can often be traced back to poor volume and quality of sleep. By tracking your sleep, you can see which patterns emerge and affect your sleep and start making changes. You improve when you are sleeping!

Marathon mindset

Marathon training is a journey and isn’t always a smooth, linear process. There will be runs that don’t go to plan, races where you don’t feel great, and runs you’ll need to miss or change.

As the weeks go by, make sure you focus on positive outcomes each week, it’s about what you DO complete, not what you don’t.

Keep a training diary and note down 2-3 positives every week.

Keep a training diary and note down 2-3 positives every week: runs that went well, conditioning you completed or an improvement in your nutrition. In a few weeks, you’ll have banked of mindset boosting evidence of your progress.

Add comments to your Polar Flow account and track your progress as your training weeks build. Having that running data and evidence before you will give you confidence and make your progress visible.

The easy week

Your body gets fitter as a result of balancing your training load and recovery. Your training creates a stress but it’s not until you recover that all of the adaptations take place which will make you fitter.

Every 3-4 weeks look to include a lighter week of training, cutting back your volumes to allow your body a bit more adaptation time.

Respect your rest days, your body will back your back!

Be consistent!

I believe this is the core principle in marathon training. A runner who trains consistently, sleeps well, eats sensibly, cross trains, looks after their health and banks 10-12 progressive and consistent weeks will have the fitness to perform at their best on marathon race day.

Being consistent in all areas makes a better marathon runner!

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share so that others can find it, too.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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