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Marathon Training for Beginners

There are two components to long distance running, cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal resilience. As race distance increases, there is a much larger musculoskeletal resilience factor than a cardiovascular fitness component. In other words, if you are going to race short, fast races, you need the ability to get oxygen from the atmosphere to your mitochondria as fast as possible. If you are planning on running all day, you need the ability to tolerate compressive and ground reaction forces on your musculoskeletal system. A marathon fits into a middle ground, that challenges both components. While some elite runners are taking their cardiovascular system to the limit for two hours, those of us who will take twice as long will likely feel the stress mostly in our joints and muscles by the last six miles. 

This training program will have three runs per week along with two cross-training days and two rest days. The three running days will consist of a short/fast run, a medium run, and a long run. Choose your days as you like, just make sure that you have a rest day on either side of the long day. Cross-training can be biking, swimming, aerobics class, or hike, with an emphasis on moving in a different way than running. 

The short run day will be either a three or four mile run, with an emphasis on cardiovascular stress. I like to do these on the treadmill, as you can adjust your pace and elevation easily. I begin with a five minute warm up at about a 5.5 mph at 0% incline. At the 6th minute, I go to 6.0 mph for the rest of the first 10 minutes. For the remaining twenty minutes, I will increase the speed .1 mph each minute. By the time you are done with 3 miles, you will be going about 8.0 mph. Obviously, you can adjust your speed if you are faster or slower than me. Another type of short run I like is a hill run. Start with a 5 minute 5.5 mph warm up and then go to 6.0 for 5 minutes. At the 10 minute mark, increase the angle by .5% every minute for 10 minutes, then decrease the incline every minute for 10 minutes. At the maximum speed or incline, you should feel like your rate of perceived exertion is at a 9/10.

The middle run day can be outside or on a treadmill. The purpose of this run is to be a bridge between the short and long run. You should run at a pace that is comfortable, but not able to have an easy conversation. This run should feel good, and give you confidence about the fact that you are able to run for an hour or more without passing out. You should not need any nutrition, but may want to drink some water when the time exceeds one hour.  If you are running on a treadmill at the gym, they typically won’t allow you to go beyond an hour.  I like to split the run into two sections with a walk to the water fountain in between.  This really decreases the mental fatigue of running 8s and 9s on a treadmill.  

The long run is the most important part of training. If you need to skip a run, make it a short or middle distance. Always figure out a way to get your long run in. Long runs should begin with excellent hydration and nutrition the night before as well as during the run. Make sure that you have at least one liter of water and a goo/bar/shot block for each hour you are out. Your pace should be such that you can have a conversation, but maybe not recite the preamble of the Constitution, with a rate of perceived exertion of about 5-6/10. Don’t feel bad if you have to walk or run walk for half or part of the long run. This part of the training is really working on the musculoskeletal resilience factor. This is where you will find out if your ligaments, muscles, and cartilage take the abuse. If you are feeling some tendonitis as you get past the ten mile mark, make sure that you find a good physical therapist to address any biomechanical dysfunction. 

Overtraining can be a problem for endurance athletes, with symptoms that range from fatigue and decreased athletic capacity to increased resting heart rate and susceptibility to infection. While the strict definition of overtraining involves a state that takes weeks to recover from, I know from experience that my body doesn’t respond well to running more than three days per week. By the time I am half way through a 12 week training schedule, I feel very fatigued and even my short runs don’t feel good.  

It is important to note that this training schedule has you running a maximum of 20 miles.  The goal of this program is to improve your endurance to the point where you can do 20 miles without a tremendous amount of difficulty.  Most people find that miles 21-25 are the most difficult.  As a 4+ hour marathon runner, if you can keep running during these miles, and walk only through water stations, you will be passing many others in the race.  This is the part of the race where your mental toughness is really tested, and your ability to find a meditative state is important.  If you are planning on running a 4 hour marathon, you must be able to run 20 miles in three hours, or 9 minute mile pace.  

The point of this training schedule is to improve both your cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal fortitude in a progression without feeling overtraining symptoms. If you feel overly fatigued during your day, take a look at your cross training and rest days. Make sure that you are resting properly. Six hours of mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and shoveling dirt is cross training, not resting. Good nutrition and hydration are important factors that you need to work on during your long runs. Because most of us are not attempting to win the race, the most important thing is to feel good and improve your running ability. 

This schedule is designed for someone who runs on a regular basis, and has done a few half marathons. Always consult your medical practitioner before beginning a training program, and discontinue training and seek medical advice if you have pain while or after you run.