"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, April 2, 2012

A few scattered thoughts on marathon training

There's a joke going around: If there's two DVDs and one's labeled "9 Minute Abs" and one's labeled "8 Minute Abs," which one are you going to get?

I keep getting reminded of this as people are asking me about various training systems. Someone will tell me they want to run faster, but they don't want to work harder and, in fact, they have less time to train than they did the last time they raced. It's like saying you want to lose weight, but you don't want to diet or exercise. Lots of people are willing to take your money with the promise that they can teach you how to do that, but when has it ever worked?

There's been a sudden surge in interest in the Hansons' training plan [article], which is noted for having no run longer than 16 miles. It appears to be the opposite of Jeff Galloway's plan, which relies almost exclusively on running the longest long run possible. In fact, both appeal to the same type of runner (the "I want to do the absolute bare minimum necessary - it's efficient!" type) and both suffer from the same fault, which I call "hollowness." A hollow plan is one that might work for a 2:30 marathoner or a 4:30 marathoner, but not for a 3:30 marathoner hoping someday to break 3:00.

Galloway's plan works for the slowest of marathoners because, for them, the challenge is completing a run of 26 miles at any pace. It works for elite marathoners because, at a training pace of 6 minutes per mile, a 30 mile training run is still only three hours long. I have never met anyone who's successfully used it to run faster if they were running 3 to 3 1/2 hours.

The Hansons' plan works for slower marathoners because it has very high mileage for them. A 5 hour marathoner probably has never averaged 50 or more miles per week and this kind of increase in mileage, if it doesn't lead to injury, will undoubtedly lead to better fitness and consequent faster finishing times.

The Hanson plan can work for very fast runners as well. The classic example is that Grete Waitz broke the world record in her very first marathon, never having run more than 13 miles (21km). If one's already in very good shape for racing 10K's, then running a weekly 10 miler at marathon pace plus a workout of 2 or 3 mile repeats at marathon (or faster) pace might be all one needs.

The problem is that it doesn't work well in between. A 2:30 marathon is very different from a 3:30, which is very different from a 4:30. The most basic difference is the pace at which one races compared to the pace at which one does one's long runs. Slower marathoners will race slower than they train and their plan should then look like an ultramarathoner's, where the long run is all-important. Faster marathoners race at 1-1.5 minutes per mile faster than they're training and, for this reason, tend to hit a collapse point ("the wall")between about 2:45 and 3:15; if one's finishing under 2:30, they never reach that point. Elite marathoners and short distance specialists moving up to the marathon have to worry about a different collapse point, which happens at about 75 minutes - watch a marathon and you'll probably see someone in the lead pack completely fall apart between 13 and 17 miles because they misjudged the pace they could hold.

Just because a plan has advocates that are at opposite ends of the spectrum doesn't mean it works for everyone. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..." - The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats.


pensive pumpkin said...

okay, so not only did you just explain why i found all training plans so confusing and annoying- you also quoted one of my very favorite poems.

there are reasons i like you and am still talking to you. clearly.

Karen said...

I haven't heard of anyone doing very well with the "Run Less, Run Faster" plan.

Now I'm not fast by any means, but I find my best marathon plan is a mishmash of several different plans. Only after a few marathons, I'm finally figuring out how much I can train before I hit an injury.

So when are you going to try and rake in some extra cash by creating your own plans for us sheep to follow? :)

Alene Gone Bad said...

I'm a little confused trying to follow your discussion, but it does make sense. I think there's that segment of people in the middle who tend to be semi-experienced runners, will never hit a sub-3, but have to struggle to make improvements on their 3-4 hour marathons. The people who run sub 2:30s tend to not have done as many marathons. They still have some speed left in their legs! But I don't know...all I know is that at my age and a gazillion marathons and ultras, I'm getting slower and slower and struggling harder because the workouts that used to work for me don't work the same anymore. But being the hardheaded recalcitrant curmudgeonly crone that I am, I continue to search the universe for answers...

Robyn said...

"Run Less, Run Faster" seems to be quite effective for half marathon and 10K training (I'm trying it this year), but I agree that it doesn't seem to have enough "there" there for a marathon. Maybe that's true of other low-mileage training programs as well.

Carilyn said...

Great post, Steve. I have found coaching the runners who want to go sub-3 my most challenging because we have to be very specific with their training - enough distance AND enough speed to get the job done without causing injury or overtraining. It is a very fine line, and we are constantly adjusting.

Love your insights, as usual.