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13 Steps to Making The Most Out of Your Marathon Training Plan

You have committed yourself to a goal. You want to run a marathon, half-marathon, 10k, or whatever. It doesn't really matter what it is that you are venturing towards. What matters is how you choose to get there. The journey is long, and will require a tremendous amount of time and sacrifice, the forebears of anything worth pursuing. Your preparations will challenge you on both physical and mental planes, the likes of which you have never experienced. There will be times when you are on top of the world. There will be others, when all you want to do is quit. There will be sunny days, snowy days, and everything in between. As you embark upon this expedition, these very simple ideas, the Your 26.2 core values, can act as a beacon towards which to set your sights.

Have a Plan
Anyone who has ever had a good coach knows the importance of having a plan. We also understand why our coach was so frustrated when we veered off of his or her instructions. Perhaps we don't always appreciate our coach's foresight. But, with age comes wisdom, and we start to recognize that all of our training should have a very specific purpose. Too many runners are out there, living from one day to the next, with no real direction in their preparations. That's not training! That's exercise. If you are undertaking the journey of preparing for a marathon, be you a beginner, or a seasoned veteran, you should at least respect yourself, and the event, enough to think through your plan of attack. It never hurts to have a bird's eye view of where you're going, and where you've been. You should be able to identify which type of training you will be doing, during which cycles, and know how that relates to your upcoming race. Your training plan should address your specific limiters, and provide a gradual increase of stress, through volume and/or intensity. Without an appropriate plan, most runners will increase their volume and/or intensity much too quickly, or too soon, resulting in injury or burnout. Inappropriate training buildups lead to injury, which kills consistency, the key to unlocking your potential.

Take The Easy Days Easy
Recovery days should focus on just that, recovery! Too many runners try to use these days to further develop fitness. That should not be the purpose of the day. Take the opportunity to allow your body to heal from whatever stresses it has recently endured. It is a time to move blood through your system, with active recovery, promoting lean muscle repair. Failure to allow muscle repair will lead to peripheral fatigue (i.e. tired legs), and then sub-par performances in your coming workouts. It becomes an infinite vicious cycle, typically ending in burnout and/or injury. Use recovery workouts, today, to prepare yourself to push your limiters, tomorrow. Anyone can bury themselves day in and day out. That is not training! That is exercising.

Make the Hard Days Hard
Just as your easy days should be very easy, your hard days should be very hard. Our above rule, about descending everything, still applies here. So, hard days should always be approached at a best sustainable effort. If you are planning to do five one mile repeats, then they should be paced at the highest intensity that you can maintain for five of them. Not four, and not six. If paced properly, the last interval will be run at an all out effort, but will result in a time/pace that is either equal, or slightly faster, than the previous four. You want to be able to walk away from your best effort days very spent, with little to nothing left in the tank. To do so, you really need to focus on taking the easy days very easy, so that you do not enter the hard days with any residual fatigue. These are the ying and yang of effective run training.

How often should you have recovery workouts? That is dependent upon your particular training program, and the specific cycle of training that you are presently in. But, a good rule of thumb is that any workout that leaves you greatly taxed, saying "whew, that was tough," should be followed by a day focusing on recovery.

Descend Everything
Think of your training like an elastic band. You get much more out of it from a long slow stretch, than from a quick and sudden snap. Take this approach to every single season, workout, and mile that you do. Always finish strong, be it a recovery run or track repeats. The purpose of this is to allow your soft tissue to progressively adapt to larger and larger loads of stress. Build into your runs. Don't leave the door at the intensity that you plan to hold for the day. This will spike your HR, and push you more towards anaerobic energy utilization, rather than making your aerobic physiology more robust. Start your runs on the easier side, increasing the intensity as your body becomes more and more adapted to the workload. This will help to prevent injury, and ensure that your runs get faster and faster throughout. This is especially important in the heat, and on treadmills, where the body has a more difficult time cooling itself. There is little to be gained, both physically and mentally, by overloading your system too early into a workout, and then slogging through its remainder. Show some early restraint, and you will fully optimize each workout.

Never, Ever, Bonk
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a "bonk" occurs when your muscles become depleted of glycogen. In essence, it is a period of low blood sugar. I am sure that we have all experienced it, at one time or another. Cold sweats. Bleary-eyes. Slowed pace despite a high perceived exertion. The opportunity to eat will typically lead to gross overcompensation. This can all be avoided by fueling yourself properly during training. Never step out the door without at least two gels (or one bar) more than what you believe is required for your workout. A good way to determine this is that you should have at least 1/3 of your body weight in carbohydrates per hour. The physiological impact of a bonk is too great to allow it to happen. In the absence of muscle glycogen, the body actually turns on itself, breaking down muscle to create glycogen through other means, namely gluconeogenesis. We NEVER want to see the breakdown of lean muscle mass, if we can avoid it, as it helps to keep us injury-free! There are many, many things that we do not have control over in our training. This is NOT one of them!

Use a Recovery Drink
There is no better way to improve the physiological benefit of your workouts and improve your overall recovery, than to replenish muscle glycogen immediately following a workout. A good recovery drink should be used following all workouts that are draining, such as track repeats and/or long runs. It is often thought that a good recovery drink will be high in protein, in order to promote muscle repair. While protein is a very important component, it is actually more important that the drink contain a high glycemic carbohydrate such as dextrose. If this high glycemic carbohydrate can be coupled with an easily digestible protein, such as whey, then we are really onto something. Your most effective recovery drinks will contain a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. This will help to replenish muscle glycogen and begin the muscle recovery process. Better recovery from one workout will only lead to better performances in the next. A good recovery drink is often overlooked, but can really act as a springboard towards getting the most from your training.

Take Off The Loose Baggage
If you were wearing a 10-pound backpack on the morning of your marathon, what would you do before the start? Duh!!! You'd take it off! The same applies to excess weight. Of all the preparations you make, this will have the single largest impact on your race performance. It can take years of consistent training to realize the improvements that a 5-pound weight loss can produce. The typical aerobic improvement from year to year, assuming consistent training, is about 7s/mile. Each pound of weight loss, assuming that it is appropriate, is worth about 3s/mile/pound. So, those extra five pounds that you are carrying are worth about 15s/mile. That is over two years of training! Not only will get much faster, but you will also be less injury prone, as you will reduce the impact of each foot strike. So, lose nature's backpack and fast forward your development!

Limit Intake of Grains/Refined Sugars
Just because you are training for a marathon does NOT mean that you are entitled to eat anything that you want! Grains and processed sugars should be avoided, unless you are eating them within an hour of an upcoming workout, during a workout, or within a post-workout window that is equal in length to the workout itself. This will help to avoid unnecessary spikes in your blood sugar, which can tend to cause the storage of body fat. In addition, this limited intake of grains and sugars between workouts will leave plenty of room for more nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

Sleep at Least 7.5 Hours Each Night
This is probably one of the most overlooked details by runners, the world over. Life is busy. Between work, family, friends, and training…something's gotta give! Think of sleep as an integral part of your training regimen. Physical training breaks you down. Rest and nutrition build you up. This is a no brainier. All of the training in the world is useless without proper rest (and nutrition). If the time that you are devoting to running is habitually taking away from your ability to get 7.5 hours of sleep each night, and you are as time-efficient as possible in the other areas of your life, then perhaps you should devote less time to running. Sure, your volume will be lighter, but your ability to absorb all aspects of your training will be that much better. A well-rested runner is a fast runner.

Don't Race Too Often
In the Bible gluttony is described as one of the seven deadly sins. In running circles, race gluttony carries the same fate. Once the season starts, be careful not to race too often. Most races should require some sort of a taper and recovery period, and can therefore begin to put a dent into your training volume. As your trailing volume (average of the previous six weeks' total volume) begins to fall, race performances will decline, due to an eroding aerobic base and loss of sport-specific feel. This is very common in athletes who are chasing that elusive Boston qualifying time. If the first attempt at qualifying is not successful, it is a very common reaction to try again, too soon, without putting in a proper cycle of training. This will often lead to another missed qualification attempt. This can create an infinite loop of too frequent racing, lack of training, inadequate recovery, and missed opportunities. This is compounded, mentally, with discouragement due to sub-par performances.

Race The Distance That You Are Training For
Marathoners will often jump into 5 and 10k races, as tune ups for their main events. That's not what I am talking about. I am referring to the low-volume runner, who decides to jump into a marathon. I know what you're thinking. Who would do that? They exist! There are very few training protocols as potent as volume. Because of this, if you do not have adequate training volume for your event, your performance will suffer, significantly, due to system failure. You also run the very strong risk of injury and/or an extreme amount of required recovery time following the race. To ensure this does not happen to you, hit at least 2/3 of critical volume for your race distance. Critical volume is defined as 8/3 of your planned race distance. For the marathon, it equates to 60 miles of sustainable training volume. This does not mean that you need to be able to run 60 miles next week. It means that during your training program, you should be able to reach at least 60 miles of running, for at least two weeks during the final six weeks of your build up. This will help to ensure that you do not experience system failure. If you would like to run a marathon, then you should be able to reach at least 40 miles (2/3 of 60) of training volume in the weeks leading up to the race. You will still need to make some significant adjustments to your pacing strategies, in order to mitigate system failure, but you can feel confident that you will be pretty well-prepared for the distance. If you are unable to do this, safely, then it is recommended that you focus on racing shorter distances. It may take a year, or two, to build up to the required level of training volume. But, taking that time, patiently, will further aerobic development and help to keep you injury free.

Never Train Through Races
There are a few reasons that we do not recommend training through races. First, and foremost, going into a race already fatigued sets the mental groundwork for excuses, even before the gun sounds. When you don't perform as you would have liked, it is much too easy to fall back onto "Well, I was training through this one." This is a bad mental cycle of excuses to get into. You should be 100% ready to go, every single time that you toe a starting line.

It wouldn't kill most runners to take a little extra recovery. Runners are notorious over-trainers. When was the last time that you took a true recovery week? A week of intentionally lower volume, with a couple of planned off days. Taking a few days of recovery, leading into your races is probably something that you need, anyhow. Training through a race simply pushes that recovery to some other time. "Why do today, what you can put off until tomorrow?" has never rung more true.

Lastly, going into a race with a fully recovered peripheral system allows for much better stimulation of your core system. This will give you a much better opportunity to push your limiters. If going into a race will force you to juggle your volume, you are much better off getting it in, in the hours following the race, as opposed to cramming it in the day before. This allows for a solid recovery leading into the race, and then a very good quality day on race day. This is a much better proposition than two mediocre, ho-hum days. Either way, racing is hard enough. Why sabotage it with your training?

There Is No Magic...
You can look all you want, but you won't find it. Nothing has ever successfully replaced good, old fashioned, hard work. You may have the greatest training plan the world has ever seen. You still have to execute it.

Each of the above facets can be applied to any training plan that you may encounter. Taken piecemeal, their value remains inherent, but is limited. Together, they can completely change your life, as a runner. These are the nuts and bolts of how we guide our athletes. The general philosophies behind our success. These are the non-negotiables that make the difference between training with purpose, and just going out for a run…

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