About half the people who run a 5K find that they're better at it than they are at sports that require short bursts of speed. Of these, about half find that they're even better at 10K and of that half, half are better at the 1/2-marathon. Of those better at 1/2-marathon, half are better at the marathon. It's of these 5% who excel at the marathon distance that champion marathoners come and they set the standards for marathon training. None of their expertise helped me, who excelled at 5K and did worse the longer the race, no matter what I tried. Looking at 3:00 schedules, I'd think "Well, of course if you could do those workouts, you could break 3; those are the workouts I did when I ran 2:45... and I was trying to run 2:30!" I'd think that most people who succeeded with these plans were being too cautious, running only slightly faster than they did in training, while they would think that I was super-talented, racing much faster than the training would predict. Following the plans of others, I'd run at pace for 15-22 miles and then fall apart (how long has it been since you ever heard of someone "hitting the wall?"), struggling to finish; the further I ran at pace, the slower I'd run the final miles, always ending in about the same time. The one time I tried to run negative splits, I ran evenly throughout, finishing a few minutes slower than my best.
Every time I failed, I learned. While the experts could say "I did this and it worked," I was learning why some things work for some people and nothing worked for me. Now I think I have the perfect plan - too late for me to use it.
Most 3:00 marathoners can run a mile under 5:30 (or are very close to that). My plan is for those speed demons who can run a sub-5 mile, yet keep falling just short of breaking 3 in the marathon. [My next post will be a plan for running a sub-5 mile.] The next thing that's required is being able to run long distances frequently at 8 minutes per mile. A good pre-season test is to run, for several weeks, 13 miles at 8 min./mile (or 1/2-marathon in 1:45) five days per week, with two days of complete rest each week. A few runners can go straight from this to breaking 3, but the following schedule is for those who need a lot of specific training to reach the goal. The workouts themselves should look familiar ro most marathoners.
This is a three week cycle, Monday to Sunday.
M1-Th1, Sa1-T2, Th2-S3, T3-F3: easy days of 6 miles at 8 min/mile.
F1: 2.5 hours (19-20 miles) with 2x[5x1mile in 6:24 to 6:30 - 1 minute recovery]
W2: 3 hours (23-24 miles) with 10@8, 6-10@6:51, 4-7 @8
M3: 2.5 hours (18-19 miles) with 2x [4x1200meters in 4:00 to 4:10 - 3 min. recovery]
Sa3: 2.5 hours (20-21 miles) with 1/2 marathon race
S3: 3 hours (20-22 miles) with 8x30 second sprints
This, I believe, is the correct amount of each needed stimulus, at the correct intensity and with the correct recovery, in the correct order. An explanation of each long workout, with how to progress at them is below. Scheduling such long runs on weekdays is a challenge in itself, but I think it leads to the feeling "I can run long any day of the week." Moving a workout a day earlier or later is often necessary - you have a life outside running, after all - but it makes it harder overall.
Friday 1: "Threshold" running
I have issues with the entire concept of threshold running, but it's essentially a pace one can hold for about 90 minutes and 1/2 marathon pace is close to that for a 3:00 marathoner. Five one-mile repeats with one minute rests gives a time for 5 miles that would be comfortable if run continuously. Quickly building to that speed after brief recoveries is challenging, but gives a good "feel" for that pace, which should be just about the "ventilatory threshold," that pace where one's breathing pattern naturally shifts - in my case, from a breath every four steps to every three. The first set of these should be do-able, but the second, after having run for a long time, will be very difficult to complete, so progress is measured in how many repeats are accomplished at pace (if and when your pace falls apart, keep doing the remaining repeats at whatever pace you can manage). If you're able to do this workout before being able to do the others in this schedule, you can progress by lengthening the repetitions and recovery up to 2x [2x2.5 miles with 2.5 min. recovery].
Wednesday 2: Marathon pace running
This incorporates running at race pace near the end of a run of the same duration as the race itself. "Speed" runners would have little trouble running 6-10 miles at marathon pace, but doing it after having already run 10 miles makes it feel like an all-out race (be sure not to run this too hard and make it a race run in training!) When you can no longer hold the pace, or at 20 miles, whichever comes first, drop back to training pace to finish up the three hours. I find these last "recovery" miles to be grueling and often much slower than usual training pace (8 min/mile here), but it's these miles that improve your stamina. Improvement, then, comes not only from increasing how many miles you run at pace, but how fast you run the last miles.
If you get to the point where 10 miles at marathon pace seems easy, instead of running more miles at pace, try alternating miles 15 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace with miles 15 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace.
Monday 3: Maximal Oxygen Uptake Intervals
This, the one true speed workout of the schedule, will look insanely difficult to a pure marathoner, but not to a true 5K specialist. Compare this to the Yasso workout of 10x1/2 mile in 2:40to2:45 with equal recovery and it suggests a 2:45-2:50 marathon finish. The repeats are done at 2 mile to 5K race pace, with recovery less than the time spent running, not allowing the heart rate to recover, so the last repeat should be near maximal heart rate (for some runners, much of the workout will be at or near maximal heart rate). The way I suggest doing this is to start on a long and steep hill and running up at what feels like 5K effort for 4 minutes and then returning to the bottom as quickly as possible (3 minutes may be impossible). Progression comes by doing the workout on lesser slopes - and longer repeats - finishing with 1200m on the track. Finding appropriate hills is difficult, even for those who live in hilly areas; if hills of the right length can't be found, try ro put what slope you can at the end of the repeat.
The second set of repeats, after having run long and hard already, will be extremely taxing. If your next race in the schedule is longer than a half-marathon, do not attempt the second set.
Saturday 3: Race
After doing an all-out race, the last thing you want to do is to turn it into a long run by adding on miles, but running after one's depleted one's glycogen stores improves fatigue resistance. Ideally, one would increase the length of the race each three week cycle, but races of the proper length are more difficult to find now than they used to be. The goals would be: 15K in 57:42, 10 miles in 1:02:20, 20K in 1:19:10, 1/2 mar. in 1:23:58, 25K in 1:41:12, 30K in 2:03:41, mar. in 2:59:59.
Most systems of comparing race times will say that these times are all harder than a 3:00 marathon, especially at the shorter distances. For a 5K specialist, however, the challenge is the length of the race and this progression is reasonable.
Sunday 3: Short speed
I suggest doing this workout on a cross-country course or easy trail, using GPS to measure distance and not paying much attention to actual pace. This is meant to be an easy run, done back-to-back with the race day; the fact that it is the day after a race creates its own difficulty; there are runners who will think "I have a long run tomorrow. I better hold back in my race today," so it's important to think of this as an easy, relaxed run.
Interspersed in this run, include 8 short sprints. They need be only 5 seconds long, which will tap into the creatine phosphate energy system without anaerobic glycolysis and can be separated by 15 to 20 minutes. As one improves, one can progress to a 5 second all-out sprint, followed by a 25 second "float" at about one mile pace and then a 15-20 minute recovery. If one becomes adept at this, one can shorten the recoveries to 4x[2x30 sec. sprint - 30 sec. recovery] and finally 8x30 sec. - 30 sec. recovery, which falls into both the Tabata HIIT and Billat MVO2 training methods... but again, remember this is meant to be an easy run.
It can take some runners up to 10 days to replenish muscle glycogen stores after a long and hard workout and even longer to recover from races of half-marathon or more. Because of this, I suggest the Western Australia method of glycogen replenishment. In the 2-4 hours after each long run in this schedule, gorge on high glycemic index foods, which "tricks" your body into storing more muscle glycogen. Personally, I drink a gallon of water with 8-10 ounces of corn syrup and a teaspoon of salt in it and add a pasta meal; if possible, I add a cup of coffee (caffeine increases the loading) and a glass of milk (the insulin response to this glucose load also brings amino acids into muscles damaged by exercise). This can be uncomfortable and sickening the first times you try it.
Practice taking in fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrates in the marathon pace runs and in the races, as you'll need to be able to handle that in the marathon. The other long runs can be done on an empty stomach, which may help your body adapt to spare glycogen reserves.
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