So your marathon entry is confirmed next spring but the marathon journey in reality, starts months earlier. Many of the world’s best athletes will race 5k, 10k and cross country in the early part of the autumn/winter before stepping across and into marathon training early in the New Year.
If you are already in good shape and 5k/10k race fit, then 12-16 weeks of marathon prep is normal enough.
However, for those of you who are running your first marathon or are less experienced, we need to build a solid platform and marathon base ready for the New Year when the long runs kick in. Our catch phrase here is ’10 miles by Christmas’ and this is almost the perfect distance to have arrived at in your long run ready for the New Year. In reality this can be 80-90 minutes by Christmas in your long runs. Build up gradually in the weeks ahead and add 10-15 minutes per week and no more to your long run. This allows the body to gradually adapt, build fitness and reduces injury risk.
When the marathon plan kicks in with 16 weeks to go early in the new year, the long runs will step up from 90 minutes to between 2-3 hours frequently, depending on your pace. Knowing you can already run 10 miles or 90 minutes at the start of this plan is reassuring and allows the body to make these transitions successfully and gradually.
There are other key elements that need to be worked on in this pre marathon training phase though. Let’s once again work on our threshold* training and make sure at least one run per week contains lots of periods of running at roughly 80-85% of your maximum heart rate. This type of threshold running massively strengthens the heart and dramatically improves endurance, but be careful to get the effort level right and working at “controlled discomfort” intensity or 3-4 word answer pace is what is required (these are not sprints or high intensity effort…but instead cruising at pace).
A typical session might start as 3×5 minutes of a 2 minute walk/jog recovery built into a 45 minute run but develop into 5×5, 5×6 and 3×10 minutes by Christmas or within your marathon prep.
Another key element to look at is your strength endurance and this is often created by completing a weekly set of continuous hills. Find a sensible gradient and run up for 45-90 seconds at threshold intensity before turning and running back down (falling forwards lightly) and then turning again at the bottom and repeating the process until the time block is complete. Again, you might start with 3×5 minutes and build this up to 3×10 as the winter months pass. It is also worth setting one or two shorter racing goals to build confidence and keep you motivated. Perhaps enter a local 5k, 10k or 10mile race, following a plan that includes the occasional interval session geared towards these distances.
There is nothing like having targets and markers set within your journey on the road up to the end of the year. You won’t drift or let the weeks slip by if you are busy training for another race, even if it isn’t your main marathon goal yet.
Finally, use this period to really focus on your strength and conditioning plan and perhaps also see a good running physio for an MOT to find weaknesses, hotspots and areas for improvement. The clever runner develops a conditioning plan and works on this once or twice a week to prevent injury and get ready for the rigours of the post Christmas marathon preparation. So ask yourself this question: do you want to be one of those people who wakes up with a hangover on New Year’s day totally unfit with a mountain to climb that is 26.2miles long in just a few months time? Or do you want to wake up safe in the knowledge that plenty of miles have already been banked and a foundation has been laid that already has you organised and sorted at Base Camp 1?
*After the long run, threshold runs are probably your most valuable workouts. They are run at a controlled, brisk pace – about 80-85% of your Maximum Heart Rate. You’ll only be capable of uttering a couple of words to your training partners. Tempo/threshold runs improve your lactate threshold (the speed above which your body struggles to cope with the lactic acid created by burning energy without oxygen), your running economy and aerobic capacity.