Coach’s Q and A – Marathon training

You may just have got into the ballot or gained a charity place for a Spring marathon such as the London Marathon, Brighton Marathon or Paris Marathon and have questions about your training. I thought I’d share commonly asked questions and my responses.

When should I start training for a Spring Marathon?

Classically runners train for 16 weeks, from a “good base” for a marathon. For a Spring Marathon training starts around Christmas. Now, you may be thinking what is a “good base”. It varies depending on your level;

Novice runners need to be running  approximately three times a week.  All these runs will probably be similarly paced but one of the runs – usually the Sunday run – should be 10-20% longer than your (two) mid- week runs.

Intermediate runners will be running regularly anyway and their runs should be of varied pace – for example 1) steady 2) speed/ tempo session 3) long run going up to 90 mins of running time.

Advanced runners are likely to be running 4-5 times a week already and this should involve 1) speed/ track session 2) tempo 3) steady and 4) a long run up to around 2 hours of running time.

You also need to do strength training in order to be as strong as possible and future proof yourself against injury. Runners need to focus particularly on activating their glutes and this can be done simply with body-weight exercises like the bridge, donkey kick and fire-hydrant.

Cross training which you enjoy also plays an important part in training to build on your strength, cardiovascular fitness and as a recovery aide, so try and fit in non-load bearing exercise like swimming (read about my training) or cycling.

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What does a 16 week plan look like?

Each runner is different and if you work with a coach like me to design your training plan then your plan will fit around your goals and lifestyle. Across all levels of runner, the main change from your base training to your 16 week plan is to add distance to your long runs. This trains the body for the endurance requirements of marathon running. Long runs should progress incrementally over the weeks by no more than 10% in distance each week. Plans for every level of runner should include step-back / rest weeks where the body has chance to adapt and recover.

For novice runners the long run should be completed at an easy and conversational pace, pauses for drinks / snacks and loo visits are fine. You should think about your route in advance and ideally run with a friend so that you make the experience as pleasant as possible. For your first marathon the long run is about time on your feet rather than aiming for a particular pace.

Intermediate and advanced runners should complete sections of their long runs at Goal Pace in order to simulate the challenge of race day. For advanced runners through training the Goal Pace should become second nature.  Goal Pace should only be done for specific sections of the long run, and a common mistake even well-trained runners make is to run too quickly on the easy sections of the long run, which impacts their ability to recover and train through the rest of the week.

In addition to adding miles for the long run, runners at all levels need to increase the total volume of their week and the steady run is the obvious one to add miles in. As a rule of thumb you can look at your long run distance and the total distance of the other runs in the week should equal that. For example if an advanced runner plans 20 miles for their long run, the rest of the runs in the week should add to that, such as – 8 mile steady, 6 mile speed/ track and 6 mile tempo.

You should continue to work on the strength training and cross training that you did in the base building phase.

How far will I run on my long runs?

The science tells us that training up the early 20’s (miles) gets you the endurance stimulation that you need to be able to cope on race day.  Doing more miles puts you at such a high injury risk plus a prolonged recovery period that for most it isn’t really worth it.

For a novice runner I’d suggest you go up to 21 miles once in training. For intermediate 4-5 times over 20m and between 5-8 times over 20 miles for advanced. For advanced runners, some may go up to 25-26 miles in training, this requires specific preparation and rest days around it in order not to overload the body.

How should I fuel my long runs?

When running for around 90 mins your body needs to replenish carbohydrate stores in order to work most effectively.  Lots of runners opt for energy gels/blocks, others go for real food like bananas or dates which can be easier on the stomach, but are harder to carry. You should plan to refuel before 90 mins, so that the carbs are available to the body when it needs them. In terms of scheduling your refueling during a run you can work this out precisely for your body weight on sites like Sports Nutritionist’s Anita Bean’s. Personally, I take my first gel by 40 mins and keep taking gels them at 40 min intervals. I like the Maurten brand which isn’t too hard on the stomach.

How do I recover from my long runs?

Cooling down and stretching will help you to adjust and get comfortable after a run. Refueling is key to recovery – think the three R’s – Re hydrate, Refuel (carbs) and Rebuild (protein). You should aim to get 20g of protein within an hour of finishing exercise.  Sleep is incontestably the most important recovery tool. Active rest is the way to go instead of hitting the sofa, so think about moderate intensity cross training that you enjoy the day after a hard run. For more on recovery see an article I recently contributed to in Runner’s World October issue.

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Should I have races in the diary as well as my marathon?

Having a 10km or a half marathon in the diary in late Nov/ early December will serve to keep you honest with your training on the lead up to Christmas.

During your 16 week window your training should include a half marathon no closer than three weeks to the marathon itself.

For novice runners a half marathon will give you a chance to have a rehearsal ahead of the main race. Practice fueling, kit, travel arrangements and your pace. If you can find a course that reflects the terrain that you will run for your marathon then this will give you the best simulation.

For intermediate and advanced runners you may be looking for a PB and from that you can use tools like the Slate Marathon Pace Calculator to predict your finishing time (and work out your Goal Pace) for the marathon itself.

Or you may choose to use the half marathon to practice your Goal Pace for a sustained period in race conditions.

What is tapering and how does it affect my training plan?

Dropping volume from your training gives you the opportunity to fully recover and adapt from the training you’ve been doing in the preceding months, so that you are in the best shape possible for the event itself. Your training schedule should stay the same in terms of number of runs, but the distance, particularly on the long run will reduce. Speed sessions will remain in the plan and these will get your legs turning over quickly and keep your body in contact with what running hard feels like.  Your last hard session should be about 10 days before your event.

When should I use sports massage?

If you have the time to get a sports massage on a monthly basis this will enhance your training and reduce the likelihood of injury. You should have a sports massage ideally a week before your marathon as it is like a workout itself, so you need decent recovery time. In South London I recommend Herne Hill Sports Massage.

How do I stick with my training plan and overcome challenging runs?

Training for a marathon takes some mental discipline to find time for running around other commitments in life. Remembering why you are doing it, whether it’s running for charity, or to beat a personal goal will help you to stay motivated.

Give time to building up your mental approach for sessions which you find hard – this could be the long run, or speedwork and use these tactics on race day too. Have you got a mantra which you can use when the going gets tough in training? What images will you create in your head to motivate yourself? If you have a specific target time this can help to focus the mind – for example when I ran sub 3 hours earlier in the year having such a definitive goal really helped me. Here are more tips on a positive mental approach to running in my blog.

Sub 3 hour marathon