I was planning on doing a post on how to write one's own schedule for training for a marathon, rather than using one found in a book or downloaded off the net. I quickly discovered the problem anyone who's tried this has to overcome: one of the regular readers of this blog is a 2:30 marathoner, while many are in the 5 hour range - those are very different things! What works for one would be a disaster for another. Still, there are some ideas that I think one should keep in mind when shopping for a schedule.
I divide marathoners into four groups, based upon the number that's most important to them. First, there are those for whom 26.2 is the only number, who have trouble imagining why they signed up to run that many miles and just want to get across the finish line. Second are those who care about number of finishes (or streaks at one race, or number of states or countries in which they've finished marathons). Third are those who are fixated on finish time. Lastly there are some who care about place; time doesn't matter as long as they get their trophy.
If you're hoping to finish a marathon at a slower pace than your usual training pace, especially if you know you'll be walking and you just want to finish, avoid any training schedule that contains speedwork - it'll just get you injured before the race. Run half an hour to an hour whenever you can, taking off a day whenever you need to, but never taking off two days in a row. One day, run as far as you can before being reduced to walking. Then try to extend that long run: wait at least one day per mile run to try to run further, until you can manage a run of 16-20 miles. Then you'll be ready to finish a marathon, albeit uncomfortably.
If you plan to run the marathon at the same pace at which you train, say 4:30 to as fast as 3:30 (8-10 min./mile), then long runs aren't as crucial and mileage becomes more important. Long runs of 2.5-3 hours are still very important, but running longer than that becomes counterproductive. The more miles run, the more likely one will be able to finish comfortably - to a point. Regardless of finishing time, marathoners running their best times tend to average 75 minutes per run. The very high mileage some top runners do is due to running more than once per day, not running longer. When one can do a long run every other week and the time on one's feet approaches that 75 minute average, it's time to think of running faster, not more (one is moving into the next category), but at this level, speedwork still is not important.
Runners looking to run the marathon 1/2-1 min. per mile faster than their average training runs are the basic competitors. They're running 65 miles per week or more and looking to finish in as fast a time as possible. The one change to make in training at this level is to incorporate some mileage at predicted marathon pace or better. Looking at what people actually do, rather than at what coaches advise, I find that 75-90 minutes per week run at marathon pace is ideal; runners who can't manage more than an hour rarely make their goals, those who run 1:45 or more at pace have underestimated their abilities. The amount of time spent running fast should be increased gradually, rather than trying to leap into running hard an hour and a half each week. One can start by simply doling out the minutes equally every day: 11-13 minutes will be 1.5-2 miles; at first, this will be possible for only a couple of days, but eventually one should be able to do this every day for a week without undue difficulty - if one can't, one probably isn't ready for racing the marathon distance. These fast miles can be divided other ways, including doing all of them in one run, which becomes a very hard run approaching a 10 mile or 1/2 marathon race, but this should not be attempted often. The more comfortable one becomes doing the speedwork, the more likely the goal time will be met. [I should point out that this "plan" has never been followed by anyone. I think I tried it once, just to see if it could be done.]
The last class are the champion runners and the "rules" for them become quite complicated and have to be tailored to the individual's strengths and weaknesses. One can find endless training schedules for these runners, but they probably aren't right for anyone but those who write them.
So, find a schedule if you like, but look it over to see if it meets the criteria I listed and adjust it as necessary.
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