Thursday, March 1, 2012

Understanding Your Marathon Training Program (Part 1: The Beginner Programs)

Many new runners today are motivated to start running because a marathon is on their bucket list. These new runners often don't know much about running and aren't sure how to proceed. Many join running groups where they often get support, but where they don't always get all of the information they might need to fully understand what they have undertaken. 

Often a runner may find a program on the Internet on his or her own, such as the  Hal Higdon's marathon programs or those at Marathon Rookie, or any of a variety of other standard programs out there. Or, he or she might join a group and be handed only the schedule itself, without much explanatory information about the purpose of the various workouts in the plan. For a new runner it is sometimes easier just to follow the plan without worrying about the "why" of it, but eventually if one continues running, it is good to begin to understand the various components in a solid marathon training program and to understand how each contributes to your running fitness.

Most marathon training programs have some combination of the following types of workouts: aerobic runs, long runs, recovery days, hill runs, tempo runs, and speed work..  The combination of these workouts that you need and the details related to these workouts change with the type of program (beginner, intermediate, or advanced) and which type of runner the program is intended for (new or experienced).

The basic beginner program for new runners doing their first marathon, such as Hal Higdon's novice programs, typically focuses on three of the five types of workouts: aerobic runs, long runs, and recovery days.  Let's take a look at this type of program.

Aerobic runs:
For all beginning marathon programs the most common type of run that is included will be an aerobic run of various distances. This is just what it claims, a run that is meant to improve your aerobic capacity, which means that it helps strengthen your heart and lungs, as well as build strength in your legs.

It is important that these runs be done at a comfortable aerobic pace, which means you should be doing them at a pace that allows you to "run within your breath." You should be moving fast enough to get a workout, but not so fast that you are unnecessarily stressing your body. Your heart rate should be elevated and your breathing deep but comfortable. These are those "conversation-paced" runs that are most pleasant when done with a group or partner. Don't be fooled by the easy and enjoyable nature of these runs. They are providing the foundation you need to handle the other more strenuous workouts in the program. Don't be tempted to go too fast. These are the runs that should make you smile and be glad you are a runner.

Long runs: For marathon training, this is a key component. Long runs are designed to help your body make the physical adaptations needed to cover the distance. It also trains you mentally to deal with the rigors of the longer race distances.  A typical marathon program will have these either once a week, or when the mileage gets higher, will have the long runs every other week, with a medium length run in between. This is because the long runs are strenuous.  It is important to allow ample recovery time between them. If the schedule calls for a step down week, do not decide that you don't "need" the easy week and keep pushing.

There are a variety of physiological changes that take place during a long run. Besides the obvious benefits to your heart and lungs, your body learns to store more glycogen so that your muscles will have more available for fuel on race day. It also teaches your body to burn fat more efficiently for fuel. These are the more common changes that most have heard of, but there are also deeper physiological changes that go on, such as increase in the number of capillaries that take blood to your muscles and increases in the number of mitochondria in your cells, which helps with energy production on the cellular level. 

Also, for those who have not run long before, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your legs develop the necessary strength and flexibility to meet the demands of running these longer distances.

These workouts also help the runner develop mentally. We learn to persevere even when it is uncomfortable. We learn that yes we can go that one more mile. We learn that if we hang in there through the rough patch that it often actually gets better after a while.

The long run should be done at an easy aerobic pace, just like those shorter easy aerobic runs, possibly a bit slower. The goal here is to cover the distance comfortably. As the distances get longer, do not be afraid to walk occasionally. In fact, some beginning marathon programs, such as those promoted by Jeff Galloway, plan walking breaks into these runs. (Yes, you are still a "real" runner if you walk during the long runs and marathon!) I did my first marathon training using a run/walk plan, and I still walk through the aids stations in my marathons. 

For the marathon, the long run is a key workout that must be respected and which should not be neglected. It is the most important workout in your schedule, and if you miss one, you should try to make it up on a following day if possible. If you miss too many, you seriously reduce the chances of completing your marathon.

Recovery days: Recovery days are days in the program that are meant to give your body a break and to allow it to repair itself and grow. These are especially important for beginning runners who may not be used to the impact forces related to running.

There are two main types of recovery "workouts" that might be included in a beginner program. One type is total rest, where no other type of exercise is done, except possibly some stretching or yoga. These days are most important the day after a long run. For new marathoners, those long runs are very stressful. A complete rest from exercise the day after a long run is one of the most important things you can do to help assure that you will get to the starting line in good shape.

The second type of recovery day is a cross training day. This can include a variety of activities, including biking, swimming, weight training, yoga, rowing, walking, or just about any other type of light physical activity you enjoy. The important thing to remember about these is that they are "RECOVERY."  Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the activity that we are doing that we end up doing a harder workout than we intended to, so it leaves us tired for our next running workout. I have been guilty of this many times myself.

However, the key day to remember NOT to do overdo it is if you are doing a cross training day the day before a long run. It is very important not to go into your long run with a tired body or tired legs. The long runs are hard enough without any added stress, especially when they start being over two hours in length. Be extremely cautious with recovery the days before and after your long runs. A strenuous weight workout the day before a long run could be the thing that pushes your legs over the brink and put you at risk for an injury that will put an end to your marathon dreams.

Many beginning marathon programs are made up exclusively of aerobic runs and long runs, along with recovery days.  This is a good plan for beginners at the marathon distance, especially beginners who are new to fitness, running, and/or who may be overweight. This type of program gives your body a chance to adapt to the stresses related to the act of running itself and running long distances before stressing it further by worrying about speed. These types of plans are smart for a beginner to choose if you want to enjoy your first marathon and be injury free. Do not worry if you hear other more experienced runners talk about various types of speed workouts, or if you read an article somewhere that mentions them. For your first time, just worry about covering the distance. That is enough. There is time later to do it faster.

Some beginner marathon programs include workouts related to developing strength and/or speed. The two most typical types of workouts included in these programs in a beginner marathon plan are hill runs and "fartleks." 

Hill runs: Hill runs are often included in beginner programs. There are a few reasons for this. Running on hills helps develop strength in the legs. It also helps develop running efficiency. Finally, it prepares you for running hills in your marathon.

These hill workouts can be informal, such as doing an aerobic run on a hilly course, or they can be more formal with a specified number of repeats and a specified type of hill. These workouts are more strenuous, both aerobically and muscularly. You do not have to run these workouts insanely hard to benefit. Try to run these at a pace where you know that you are giving a comfortably hard effort, but not run so hard that you feel that you are exhausting yourself or over-stressing your legs.You should be sure to take a recovery day after a hill workout. Most schedules will give plenty of space between a hill workout and a long run. If you miss a hill workout and want to make it up, be careful not to do that too close to your long run. While hill workouts do build strength, they also increase your chances of injury if you overdo it. 

Fartleks: Most beginning marathon programs do not recommend formal speed work for beginning runners. However, many programs will include "fartlek" runs. "Fartlek" is a Swedish word that means "speed play." These are typically aerobic runs in which a runner picks up the pace and runs faster occasionally. This can be done in a variety of ways. One can do faster running using landmarks, as in speeding up to a particular sign, tree, or other landmark, or perhaps for one block. One can do it by time, speeding up for say 30 seconds or a minute every five minutes. I have even done fartleks based on music on my MP3, speeding up at the chorus of a song or for an entire song. These workouts should be fun. You should enjoy the faster bursts as a way to introduce yourself to thinking about running faster in a fun and non-stressful way. 

(Occasionally a beginner program may include either tempo runs or speed work of some type. If you have that type of beginner program, please see Part 2 of this post for information on those types of workouts.)

These are typical workouts for a basic beginner program. For some runners, a more challenging program may be more appropriate. Who might be a good candidate for a more advanced marathon training program? The more advanced marathon programs work well for someone who has completed their first marathon successfully and is ready to start thinking about a time goal. Another type of runner that might begin with a more advanced program is one who has raced for a year or more at shorter distances, 5k to half marathon, and is now ready to move up to the full marathon distance. These runners won't be challenged enough with a basic marathon program. A third type of runner might be an athlete who has a strong background in an aerobic sport which develops leg muscles, such as biking or soccer.

All of these type of athletes might look for a marathon program that includes workouts related to developing speed, which include the remaining two types of workouts: tempo runs and speed work.  These two types of workouts, and some programs that include them, will be discussed in Part 2


  1. Great information Lori! It's so important to understand why you are doing what you are doing when you first embark on distance training. A lot of overdoing it injuries and burnout can be prevented with this information. Of course, as someone that's completed 17 half marathons, 4 marathons and 1 ultra, it appears it's time to move out of my novice training plan comfort zone. Nah, just found a "senior" plan that sounds ideal! I need time to bike!

    1. I think you have passed the point where you could reasonably be called "novice." However, it is also about goals. You like to do so many different activities that a novice program may work best to allow you time for all of your different activities. Those intermediate programs are WORK.

    2. True Lori. There are triathlons calling my name!

  2. This comment is from Beth, who for some reason can't get the comment to go through:

    First, thank you for saying run/walk is running! Too many people look at me like I'm cheating or something. I definitely don't physically feel like I am!

    Second, even though I've finished two marathons, I still mostly follow the beginner program with a few adjustments--making those early long runs a little longer by a mile or two. This summer, I'm probably going to follow an intermediate calendar, just because it has two 20 milers I think and I want to see if I can do that. But if I can't do it, I'll just go back to the beginner program. I just run to finish.

    Third, I cannot stress the aerobic runs enough. I neglected them somewhat for my first marathon--it's hard to get outside when it's dark and cold. And TeamP at the time wasn't the most supportive of beginner marathoners I felt. There just wasn't anyone (or very, very few) at my pace, going my distance. I always did the long runs, but probably only half of the aerobic runs--I think it was one factor of several that made my first marathon kind of miserable after mile 16. So I did most of them for the second--big difference in how I felt. I made it to mile 23 without falling apart, then kind of fell apart for about 30 seconds. :) Then I just finished it.

    1. Beth,
      That is one of the things I love about ultras. It is a much more relaxed atmosphere, and walking is an accepted part. I have run a 3:23 marathon, and yes I did walk several times in that marathon through the aid stations. I wish people would not be so judgmental.

      Thanks for sharing your experience with neglecting those aerobic runs. It can be hard in the winter, but it does make a definite difference in comfort on race day.

    2. Beth,
      From a walker, I know you are a marathoner no matter how your feet cross the finish line! I've heard "cheating" too. I guess I cheat the entire distance. I didn't know marathons had rules, they have time limits. :-) Like Lori, my daughter takes walk breaks at water stops. My implementing walk breaks into her training and races, she has shaved nearly an hour off of her marathon time.

      I also understand the lack of training partners. It sometimes makes a marathon training program even more intimdating at times. In additiion, as women, more difficult to navigate because we don't want to be out in the dark alone.

      Good luck with your new training plan! Maybe you'll consider an ultra down the road. I had a blast on my first one.

  3. Great post! Thanks for the information


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