Marathon running: common mistakes to avoid in your marathon training plan

Make sure your marathon training schedule is not littered with mistakes

marathon runnersIf you run marathons or are preparing to run your first marathon, you will be interested in the following letter, which we received from one of our American subscribers:

I have some questions about marathon preparation. Recently, I trained for a marathon, which took place in June of this year. Starting back in December of 1999, I used two-week 'cycles', with long runs every other week. The duration of the long runs gradually increased to 21 miles, and I completed three 21-milers before the actual marathon, with the last one three weeks before the race.

I tapered down to a long run of just 14 miles two weeks before the marathon - and nine miles one week in advance of race day. Throughout the training period, I carried out 'tempo' efforts at about an 8:00 per mile pace every week on Wednesdays. These tempo sessions included the following:

1. Five miles non-stop at 8:00 pace,
2. 4 x 2 miles at 8:00 pace, with two-minute recoveries in between,
3. 7 x 1 mile at 7:50 tempo, with one-minute rests, and
4. 8 x 800 metres at 7:40 speed (two weeks before the race), with one-minute rest intervals.

I also did your 'greyhound' workout (6 x 100 meters) during the week before the marathon. I wanted to run an 8:57 pace during the marathon, which would have given me a final clocking of about 3:55. During the cool months of December through March, I was able to run comfortably at an 8:20 pace for 18 miles without stopping, so I felt very confident about reaching my goal. However, as the temperatures began to heat up, I began to complete my longer runs more and more slowly, getting up to around 9:00 per mile toward the end. Still, this didn't worry me too much, since my goal speed was 8:57, and the marathon was to take place in a city with fairly cool weather. In addition, my tempo runs remained fast, even though I never advanced beyond eight miles of tempo running per workout (I had hoped to reach 12 to 13 miles, as recommended by Jeff Galloway).

Monday to Sunday: my typical schedule:

Monday: Four- to eight-mile run. For this workout, I simply ran at an easy recovery-day pace of about 9:15-9:30 per mile, with steady effort, and the length of the run gradually increased from four to eight miles. I also strength-trained on this day, using leg presses, leg extensions, calf raises, leg curls, military presses, lat pull-downs, tricep extensions, bicep raises, seated rows, Roman-chair exercises for my stomach, and 'flies'. I carried out this resistance routine for three months and then shifted over to two months of explosive stuff (primarily jumps and step-ups). During the two weeks before the marathon, I completed no strength training at all.

Tuesday: This was my day for cross training, starting with a 10-minute interval of cycling, a 10-minute interval of stair-machine work, and then a 10-minute burst of cycling and building up to 20-minute intervals of each over the six-month training period. My goal was to increase turnover and leg strength.

Wednesday: Tempo runs (see above)

Thursday: Another steady run at 9:15-9:30 pace, building from four to eight miles over the six-month preparatory period. I also strength-trained on this day (see Monday).

Friday: Total rest

Saturday: This was my day for long running. I started at 14 miles and built up to the three 21-milers mentioned above. For the 'off' week, I ran 12 to 13 miles at 8:50-9:00 pace.

Sunday: I 'aqua-jogged', increasing the duration of the workout from 30 minutes initially to about one hour during the last two months before the marathon. The idea was to exercise in a fairly running-specific manner while removing lactic acid and going easy on my legs. I employed a steady, moderate intensity.

What happened in the actual race
As you can see, this schedule eventually involved about 36 miles of running during 'off' weeks - and approximately 45 miles during weeks which included the longer runs. I believe that I tapered well before the marathon: I cut mileage in half two weeks before the race and to one-third of normal during the week before the race. I also rested for two full days before the race.

During the last week before the race, however, my quads felt especially heavy and unresponsive. Being conservative, I ran the first mile of the actual race at 9:00 pace and then settled in to 8:40 pace for the next 17 miles. I used energy gels to keep my leg muscles supplied with energy and drank plenty of water along the route. However, after 18 miles my quads felt really heavy, and I was forced to slow my pace. By the 20-mile mark, I was beginning to feel very emotionally upset (disappointed that I had trained so hard and yet was having serious trouble with the race), and my legs actually began to wobble. I walked for about 20 miles and then ran at a slow but steady pace for the last six-plus miles, finishing in an extremely disappointing 4:08.

Here's my real dilemma: I'd like to run another marathon in December to qualify for Boston, but I don't know how to change my training so as to get a better result. I could move the tempo runs up to half the race distance (13 miles), instead of eight. I could do longer runs of 22 to 24 miles, instead of just 21. I could carry out longer speed sessions, i. e., with more quality intervals than just 8 x 800. I could conduct strength training more frequently than twice a week (truthfully, though, I felt and looked stronger).

had run three previous marathons in around 3:57, without an organized training plan! This was the first time I used a good schedule, yet I ran 11 minutes slower than usual and had lots of trouble late in the race. The weather on race day was absolutely beautiful - cool (50 degrees) and low humidity, so I can't attribute my poor performance to environmental conditions. What should I do to help ensure that my next race goes much better? (end of letter) That's a situation that many of us have been in: despite months of very careful preparation and diligent work, a race turns out to be somewhat disastrous. Marathon running can be a very humbling experience!

So what went wrong?
This runner's basic marathon-training plan was a relatively common one, yet it was inherently flawed. To understand why the actual marathon race went south, simply focus on one key aspect of the training: this runner was moving along at goal marathon speed or faster every Saturday during the six-month period, for at least 12 miles on 'easy' weekends and for as many as 21 miles on 'long-run' Saturdays! Three weeks before the marathon itself, the runner in effect ran 80 percent of a full marathon (21 miles) at approximately goal pace. Two weeks before the race, the runner covered over 50 per cent of the marathon distance (14 miles) at race pace, and one week before the big event he ran more than 33 per cent (nine miles) of the full race. By the runner's own admission, the average speed of these runs decreased steadily from March through June. Thus, the increase in temperature which corresponded with the beginning of this training slow-down is probably a red herring; what caused the decrease in speed was most likely not the upward movement of mercury in the thermometer but the relentless pounding away at race pace, week after week. One week, the runner covered approximately a half-marathon at goal race pace; the following week he ran as much as 80 per cent of a full marathon at race speed. Small wonder the quads began to feel sluggish as the race date approached! In general, it is not a good idea to carry out a long run every weekend, because recovery from one long run is seldom complete before another long effort is started. Thus, muscle and connective-tissue stress accumulates over time, and running capability tends to decline. When each weekly long run is carried out at planned race pace, rather than an easier tempo, the situation becomes even worse.

This runner also incorporated a large number of very damaging - yet fairly common - training mistakes into his overall programme. Here they are:

Mistake no. 1
Carrying out three long runs during the four-week period before race day - a 13-miler four weeks before the race, a 21-miler three weeks before the marathon, and a 14-miler two weeks in advance of the big day (we might also count the nine-miler at race pace one week before the marathon, which would give us four long runs in the pre-race month). For a runner with average leg strength, it takes at least a month to recover from strenuous marathon training so that the race itself can be completed with rested, healthy leg muscles; scientific research suggests that during this month before the race no workout should cover more than about 10 miles. This principle was violated three different times by the runner above, and as a result his quads were not really ready to race on marathon day - they were still reeling from the punishing training which had been conducted.

Proper strategy: to promote better recovery while still enhancing the ability to run marathon-type distances, carry out a long run every two to three weeks (not every week), gradually increasing the duration of this effort to 22 miles, only 10 to 12 of which are covered at race pace; on alternate weeks, complete shorter-duration quality training. Complete the last long run at least four weeks prior to race day.

Mistake no. 2
Carrying out just one workout per week at faster than goal marathon pace. For endurance runners in general, max running speed is a good predictor of marathon potential, and for individual runners improvements in max running speed almost always lead to upgrades in marathon performance. It is difficult, however, to enhance max speed when only one 'speed' session is completed per week, especially when that 'speed' session is more of a tempo run than a higher-intensity effort. Proper strategy: complete at least two faster-than-marathon-pace workouts per week, mixing interval workouts at 10-K, 5-K, and 3-K pace with neural training (see Mistake no. 3) and placing less emphasis on tempo runs.

Mistake no. 3
Failing to complete any neural training, i. e., failing to train at VO2max speed (i. e., vVO2max) and omitting 'super sets' from the overall programme. It is certain that vVO2max workouts produce more gains in vVO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy than any other type of training session; these three physiological variables are great predictors of marathon success. It is likely that super sets have a similarly strong physiological effect.

Proper strategy: carry out a neural workout every 10 to 15 days during the early stages of marathon training - and every week during the last eight weeks before a marathon.

Mistake no. 4
Emphasizing non-running-specific strength training. For the first four months of the pre-marathon training period, this runner emphasized strengthening exercises which involved isolation of particular muscles or muscle groups and seated or lying-down postures. These kinds of exercises are likely to have only a small (or no) impact on actual running strength (i. e., the ability to consistently take longer strides and the ability to be more stable and economical when the foot is on the ground during the stance phase of the gait cycle; if you doubt this, read Owen Anderson's piece on one-leg exercises earlier in this issue).

Proper strategy: start preparations for a marathon with six weeks or so of whole-body strengthening, with an emphasis on exercises which involve most of the muscles in the body simultaneously and which avoid seated and reclining postures. Then move on to hill training and exercises which duplicate key aspects of the gait cycle, including one-leg squats, high-bench step-ups, one-leg hops in place, bicycle leg swings, reverse bicycle leg swings, eccentric reaches with toes, and arrested step-downs, focusing on weight-bearing exercises which require high degrees of coordination and must be carried out with full body weight supported by one leg at a time. Finally, finish with about eight weeks of explosive work, including hops, bounds, sprints, one-leg squats with lateral hops, in-place accelerations, Indian hops, drop jumps, and high-knee explosions. These moves enhance the ability to run fast, and as max running speed increases, it drags marathon pace along with it.

Mistake no. 5
Using gels during the marathon itself. This is very tricky business, since exactly the right amount of water must be taken in with each packet of gel. Take in too much water - and you end up with a hypotonic sports drink in your gullet which delivers too few carbs to your leg muscles. Take in too little water - and you concoct a syrupy goo within your intestines which actually drags in water from surrounding tissues and spurs diarrhoea. Pour sports drink down your throat along with the gel, and you might as well begin scouting around for a Portaloo.

Proper strategy: it is possible to use gels during the race, but you'd better have a sports-drink expert or exercise physiologist calculate your water intake for you. It's far easier to simply use sports drink throughout the race (remember never to mix sports drink with water), a practice which will increase your chances of avoiding GI upsets and delivering enough carbohydrate to your muscles.

Mistake no. 6
Employing a training programme which is devoid of variety. Note that although our marathon runner attempted to make the overall training schedule progressive by broadening the duration of the cross-training (aqua jogging, stair-machine, and bicycle) workouts, the easy runs on Monday and Thursday, and the Saturday long run, the programme is monotonously similar from week to week. Although the workouts get longer, the types of training sessions utilized do not change.

Proper strategy: avoid a too-heavy dependence on tempo and long running, substituting an array of higher-quality workouts, including neural sessions (see Mistake no. 3), lactate-stacker workouts (two-minute intervals at close to max pace, separated by four-minute recoveries), hill climbs, fartlek efforts, speed-strength circuits, 800-metre intervals at 3-K pace, 1200- to 1600-metre intervals at 5-K speed, 2000- to 2400-metre reps at 10-K pace, and competitions ranging in distance from 5K up to the half-marathon. These kinds of exertions will have a much broader - and larger - impact on the key physiological variables which are important for endurance-running success, including vVO2max, lactate-threshold running speed, and running economy. They will also promote the ability to run faster, which is critically important for all types of racing.

Final points
Completing our analysis, it's important to bear in mind that aqua jogging does not remove lactic acid from the leg muscles (see Sunday's workout above); in fact, if the aqua jogging is above a fairly minimal intensity, it will actually increase muscle lactic-acid concentrations. In truth, there's no need to fret about lactic-acid levels in the muscles. Most of the stuff is removed or metabolized within minutes after a workout is over, and of course lactic acid does not cause muscle soreness or stiffness.

Note, too, that this runner can run much faster than 4:08 - or even 3:57 - for the marathon. If he can complete 18-mile runs at 8:20 pace relatively early in the overall preparatory period (as indicated in his letter), then the range of paces between 8:00 and 8:20 - not 8:57 - can be utilized to select a reasonable goal velocity, depending on how aggressive one wants to be at goal setting. An 8:20 pace would of course produce about a 3:38 marathon - and automatic qualification for Boston for this runner. That can happen without problem, as long as he doesn't get burned out during training.

Bottom line?
Remember that it is your overall fitness which will determine your success at marathon racing, not the quantity of miles in your training log or even the number of long runs which you have completed. In fact, too many training-log miles will make your legs feel like logs on race day. The idea in marathon training is to 'peak' in neural and physiological fitness and in the ability to run long at goal marathon speed about a month before the race - and then to reach an even higher 'peak' in marathon capacity over the last four weeks by combining less total running and greater rest with the right amount of intense - but not prolonged - training. If you can pull that off, while retaining your confidence, you will have the greatest chance of running your best-possible race.

Jim Bledsoe

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