What Training Should I Now be Doing for a Spring Marathon?

By Karen Hancock

Patrick has run a good marathon this year and wants to do a better time in London 2006. He asked me at my Greenwich hills session what training he should be doing now. When I suggested that he should be doing long runs of at least 2 hours once a week, he was a little surprised. But think of this: from this weekend (4 December), there are 20 weeks to go to the London marathon, and with a 3-week taper, that only leaves 17 weeks of serious training. There may be interruptions due to illness or injury to manage, and you'll want to give over some weekends to key races, so my advice is to get started now. The more of those 20 mile plus runs you can fit into your build-up, the stronger you'll be at mile 24 on 23 April 2006. And you need to build up to running 20 miles, if you cannot already, so start that build-up now and make a training plan.

Training for a marathon in phases

All good performances arise from excellent preparation. From now until 3 weeks before your marathon is your preparation period, which should include two phases: a general preparation phase lasting up to Christmas, followed by a more specific preparation period lasting until 2 April, 3 weeks before the London marathon.

General preparation phase to Christmas

During these weeks you should have been developing your all-round fitness, especially endurance and strength, by gradually increasing the total volume of your training (usually measured in miles per week and total number of runs per week). You should also be working on strength, core stability and improving your running technique. This work will make you a more efficient runner (i.e. able to run faster for a given energy cost) and less prone to injuries. You can increase your endurance by increasing the length of your longest weekly run and by adding say a 5th or 6th run (at an easy pace) per week if you are currently doing 4 or 5. But don't add more than 2 miles in one go, and every 3-4 weeks cut back on the volume of training for a week to give your body a chance to recover before the next increase in workload.

Your weekly training should include runs at 3 different paces: (i) Long run/recovery pace (about 1 min per mile slower than your target marathon pace); (ii) Marathon pace plus (target marathon pace plus up to 20 seconds per mile, getting faster as you get fitter); and (iii) lactate threshold pace (about 15k pace for many of us). In addition, you can usefully add off-road hills training to improve your leg-strength and running technique or a cross-country race for the same benefits.

Getting the mix right

How should you divide up your mileage and your week? The bulk of your miles (about 50-60%)should be at your long run/recovery pace to increase the number of mitochondria (energy factories) and capillaries (carrying oxygen-rich blood) in your muscles. About 25% of your mileage should be attempting to get close to your marathon pace, and will require concentration and self-discipline. These runs are easiest to do if you have a group to run with, and many Serpies do these on a Wednesday night, running distances of 11-14 miles with their club-mates.

You only need to run 4-5 miles at your lactate threshold pace each week. These runs will nudge up your racing pace at all distances from marathon to 10k. They are pretty tough to do, so you could break it up into an interval session by say running 3 x 10 mins with 3 mins recovery between each. Lengthen the duration of the hard effort or reduce the recovery as you get fitter, and add a couple of miles at an easy pace at the beginning and end of the effort as your warm-up and cool-down. For your hills sessions, which I recommend doing fortnightly, find a longish grassy hill up to 200m long and run repeats, making a good effort on the uphill and using the downhill as your jog recovery. Work in sets of say 3 sets of 4-6 efforts, with a few minutes' jogging between sets. Add a couple of miles at the beginning and end and you have about 6 miles of running in total. Even though the London marathon course is flat, I think hills are a great investment in your leg-strength, running form and mental strength. Running off-road also spares your joints a little.

Racing during general preparation

What about racing? Racing is great for keeping you motivated, for practicing race strategy (especially pace-judgment) and for seeing how your training is going. But racing is a great stress on the body and the immune system. Race often enough to keep you motivated about your running and able to monitor your progress, but not so often it interferes with your training for your longer-term goal. So pick races for which you will do a mini-taper (e.g. half a week of very little running) no more than once a month. Anything else you want to race should be treated as purely a hard training session, with no taper. Saturday cross-country races are particularly good for this. Racing more often than this means sacrificing too many long runs and could compromise your marathon in the spring.

Christmas Day

Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year – the day of the weekly Long Run for many of us. I shall not be missing mine. Every year for many years I have done a Long Run on Christmas Day and enjoyed my Christmas dinner with a much clearer conscience as a result, so I can highly recommend it. If you get up early, your run needn't interfere with socialising with the family. And it's traditional to wear a Santa hat or tinsel and to shout a cheery Christmas greeting to other runners or cyclists you'll see out on the day. If you have children who run, or a less-fit partner, you could be sociable and take them for a few slow miles first so they can enjoy the virtuous glow too.

After Christmas

This is when the training becomes more specific, increasing in both volume and intensity. Your long runs should get longer, you can swap your lactate threshold session for a 10k pace session every 3 weeks or so, and your marathon-paced runs should get a little faster. You will also need to select some key races to enter to enable you to gauge your fitness and practice race preparation and race technique. Many of the pre-London races fill up quickly, so do get your entries in on time: good planning makes for a personal best in your marathon.

Good luck!

December 2005