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Marathon Training Plan

Jon Warren, M.Ed.
Head Coach, Rice University Men’s Track and Field

Marathon Training Plan

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 sugar.

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 the following:

  • 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 and duration.

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).

Weekly Mileage

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 miles.

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 repeats.

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.