Part 1 of Spring into a Marathon discussed the different training plans on offer to train for a marathon. You should, by now, have chosen your training plan, and if you’re following a 16 week plan, you may well have already officially started training. But do you know why you’re doing the sessions you’re doing? Do you know their relevance and importance in getting you marathon ready? Do you feel confident in adapting your plan if something comes up or you can’t do a session on the prescribed day?
If your answer to any of these questions has been no please read on!
The First Phase
Weeks 1-4 of a 16 week plan are all about building a fitness base. In order to be able to get the most from the later sessions building on speed, endurance and distance you need to have a good base of regular training and to have built up to your first double-figure runs of the plan.
Even if you already have a good running base, it’s important to follow the shape of a marathon plan as it will cater for “stepping back” every few weeks, a key factor in avoiding over training. We will cover that in more detail later.
For those of you who aren’t already training regularly, this first phase of the training plan will help you to get into a consistent training routine. The earlier you establish this routine, the easier it will be when you get to the middle part of training.
As the weeks go by, the intensity of your training plan will increase, but this will be in correlation with your fitness so don’t be put off by the longer, harder sessions later in the plan. Focus on each phase as it comes and the whole thing suddenly becomes a lot more manageable.
There are three key elements to the marathon training schedule. These are the long run, and the two faster sessions, typically held on a Tuesday and a Thursday (depending on the plan). If you are following a three-day-a-week plan, these will be your only running sessions. If you are following a plan with four or more runs and you need to miss a run for some reason, try not to make it one of these three key sessions.
The most important session of the week is the long run. The long run starts off at around 1 hour, and will build up to 3 hours or more later in the plan. Usually this will be scheduled on a Sunday. This is for a couple of good reasons: it tends to be the day of the week that most people have enough time to train, and it also happens to be the day of the week that most running events are held on.
If your race is on a Sunday but, for whatever reason, Sundays are not convenient for you to take the time to put in a long run, you could move this by a day either side, but you shouldn’t really move this run much more than that or you risk problems towards the end of your schedule when you get to the taper*.
This run is what will develop your endurance and get you to the finish line of your race. The long run develops your body’s ability to burn fat for fuel and optimises your muscles’ ability to retrieve and use oxygen efficiently. This training focuses on developing your slow-twitch muscle fibres, which are essential for endurance events. As well as these physical benefits, you will also gain the psychological advantages of confidence in your ability to cover long distances, patience in pacing, practicing the correct clothing and nutrition, getting used to the stresses of distance running and learning motivational techniques.
Try to take your long runs at a comfortable pace – you should be able to talk in short sentences, although keep it quiet if you’re running by yourself, you don’t want strangers thinking you’re talking to yourself! If you can chat away effortlessly then you may be taking it a little too easily. If you have a heart rate monitor, try to keep your heart rate at around 60-65% of your working heart rate (WHR). If you don’t already know your working heart rate, please read our accompanying post “Heart Rate Zones: Explained“.
The pace for these long runs may seem slow compared to what you’re used to, but it’s better to go off slowly and be able to complete the distance, than find yourself burning out a few miles into your run.
* Taper is the last phase of marathon training, and will be covered at a later date. Please note that if your marathon is held on a day other than a Sunday, it really would be best to do your long run training on that same day.
Tuesday Speed Session
The purpose of this run is to sharpen your body’s ability to run fast. It works on the fast-twitch muscle fibres, the ones that contract quickly to provide speed and power. Because these muscle fibres fatigue quickly, this training is usually manifested in short speed bursts, such as 200m to 800m sprints, although these sessions will likely increase to 1mile and 1.5mile repeats, to develop speed endurance.
You should be working at fairly hard pace, which is often quite uncomfortable. But don’t worry, because of the jog or walk breaks between, you should always feel recovered before your next repetition. If you’ve raced 5k or 10k before then use these paces as your guide: shorter reps such as 200m – 400m should be run at roughly 5k pace, the longer reps of a 800m to a mile or more should be taken at 10k pace. These bursts should take you up to around 85-95% of WHR.
However, if you’re not used to speed work don’t worry too much about working flat out at these sessions in this first phase of training, at this stage these sessions are simply there to get you used to a bit of faster training – you don’t want to burn yourself up before the plan really gets going!
Thursday Tempo or Steady Session
These sessions come in a few different varieties and can often be quite confusing. Below are the main terms used, along with a description of their purpose:
- Steady: this pace should be similar to that of your target marathon pace. So if you’re aiming for a marathon time of 4 hours 30 mins, this should be around 10 minute/mile, and if you’re targeting 3 hours flat then your steady pace should be 6:50 minute/mile. This should feel comfortable, but focused, around 65-75% of your WHR. The purpose of this run is to develop a level of efficiency, and also get you used to the pace you should be running on race day. Aim to start this run at the target pace, and keep it up for the entire duration.
- Tempo: this term is used to describe a pace that is “comfortably hard”. Tempo sessions are generally a short warm up of around a mile, followed by a faster pace run of between 2 and 4 miles, with another slow mile to cool down. The faster section should be run at around 85% of your WHR, or half-marathon pace, if you have one to go by. You should only be able to talk in short bursts of a couple of words or so, if you can spout a whole sentence you may need to pick up the pace. This run increases your lactate threshold: the point at which your body is no longer able to use oxygen to provide energy and the lactic acid system begins to kick in (see “Running on Empty” for more information on energy pathways).
- Brisk: some plans may use the term “brisk”, this is a tempo session run at around half-marathon pace.
- Threshold: if your plan uses the term “threshold” this is usually around your 10 mile race pace, so a little faster than “brisk”.
Swapping and Changing
As we’ve already identified, if you do have to miss a session, try not to let it be one of the three key workouts detailed above. If you miss a recovery run, it won’t have much of an impact on your training, but miss too many speed sessions and you may struggle keeping pace, or miss too many long runs and you can expect not to last the distance.
Having said that, there will be days when the prescribed run just isn’t practical. Maybe you have to stay late at work, or you’re feeling a little under the weather. Don’t be afraid to move your sessions around a bit once in a while, just remember not to put two hard sessions in a row – there should always be a day of easy running or complete rest between long runs and speed or tempo sessions.
Onwards and Upwards
Hopefully this post has helped you to more fully understand the reasoning behind the type of training in the first 4 weeks or so of your plan, and the individual sessions that make up your schedule.
Soon we will cover the importance of stepping back in training to help you keep fit and healthy for the long haul, and some useful strengthening workouts that can help you to avoid injury and get the most out of your training.
- Runner’s World, 2012. In the Long Run [Online] Available at: http://www.runnersworld.co.uk/general/in-the-long-run/163.html [Accessed 1st January 2013]
- Runner’s World, 2012. Pace Key [Online] Available at: http://www.runnersworld.co.uk/racing/pace-key/86.html [Accessed 1st January 2013]
- Runner’s World, 2012. RW’s Ultimate Marathon: Monthly Theme [Online] Available at: http://www.runnersworld.co.uk/racing/rws-ultimate-marathon-monthly-theme/123.html [Accessed 1st January 2013]
- Fitcetera, 2012. Running on Empty [Online] Available at: http://www.fitcetera.co.uk/2012/10/running-on-empty.html
- Fitcetera, 2013. Heart Rate Zones: Explained [Online] Available at: http://www.fitcetera.co.uk/2013/01/heart-rate-zones-explained.html
CC Image “Run” courtesy of Saurabh B on Flickr.