Marathon Training Plan
Jon Warren, M.Ed.
Head Coach, Rice University Men’s Track and
When making cookies I can take a recipe – regardless of whether it is
Wolfgang Puck’s or my next door neighbor’s – and follow each step explicitly.
One cup of sugar to the greatest chef in the world is still one cup of
Many marathon training programs found in magazines or marathon expos are
often ones that detail workout recipes for top-level runners. As a coach, I very
much enjoy hearing the exact details of what a superstar marathoner did leading
up to a record setting race.
However, unlike baking cookies, sugar is not always sugar in these training
recipes. The recipe cannot be followed exactly. The ingredients of such recipes
often need to be tweaked a bit before they can be used in baking a slower
runner’s training program.
Some ingredients in a superstar marathoner’s training recipe might include
- Weekly mileage
- An interval workout
- A standard long run
Each of these must be adapted to meet the needs of the slightly different
(and, yes slower) runner. They cannot be done exactly as written. Confusion
usually occurs when runners and coaches mistake speed and distance for effort
Specifically, lets look at the above three recipe ingredients and compare an
average marathoner (4:22, roughly 10-minute pace) to an elite male marathoner
(2:11, roughly 5-minute pace).
If the top level runner runs 100 miles per
week, he will take about 10 hours of actual running to accomplish this. If the
average marathoner attempted such mileage using a similar effort (not similar
speed) it would take him or her over 20 hours or more of actual running. The
average marathoner would benefit much more by adapting the time the elite runner
spent on the road for his or her training and not the mileage. The average
runner would be better served by adapting the 10 hours rather than the 100
An Interval Workout
Again, when comparing more challenging sessions (for example an interval session of 5 X 1 mile repeats with 3 minutes rest between each mile), you should take into account effort and
duration instead of time and distance. The top-level runner might run the mile
repeats at approximately 4:30 each. If an average marathoner ran 5 X 1 mile with
3 minutes rest, he or she would run each mile in about 9 minutes.
Running hard for 4:30 and running hard for 9 minutes are two completely
different workouts. The workout sheet may say 5 times a mile with 3 minutes
recovery, but one’s body does not adapt equally to such different running
durations. The average marathoner would reap a better benefit by running 5
repeats that are about 4:30 long. These would most likely be half-mile
The Long Run
Sugar is unquestionably not sugar when
trying to adapt an elite runner’s training recipe for use by an average
marathoner. The long run is usually the step that is followed verbatim and this
is a mistake.
An important thing to remember is that a top-level marathoner’s racing goals
and training purposes are completely different than an average marathoner.
Completing the distance of 26 miles is not a challenge to top-level runners.
These folks run a 24-mile run in training to prepare them to race very, very
fast; not to help them simply finish.
So, how long (not far) an average marathoner should run in their long run
definitely should not be something that is gleaned from an elite marathoner’s
training recipe. The time spent running should be based on physiological
principles that prepare the athlete to best achieve their goal – often which is
to simply make it to the finish line in one piece. I recommend a max long run of
3:30, regardless of distance covered.
A great cookie recipe followed to the letter will most likely lead to a great
cookie. A great marathon training recipe, however, if followed exactly, might
leave a bad taste in your mouth.