How to Find a Good Marathon Program
Who wants to run 26 miles? Most of you may cringe and rightfully so – it’s not exactly a fun activity. There is a small minority of people though who love distance running and a bigger majority who want to cross running a marathon off their bucket list.
I’ve come across plenty of people who want to run a marathon. More often than not, too many people decide that their first ever competitive event should be knocking out 26.2 miles. They put about as much thought into it as picking out their favorite ice cream flavor. In my professional opinion, it’s always wise to crawl before you can walk. Your tactical approach should start small with 3, 5, and eventually 10Ks. Work your way up to the main event.
Several times a year a client presents me with a marathon program that they found online. I prefer to work with my clients one on one with stuff like this because most plans found on the internet are pretty basic and just require that people slowly tack on more and more miles as the weeks go by. It’s a flawed approach and it’s also relatively boring. Boring is a bulletproof way to extinguish any motivational fire you have to train hard.
While I want to help everyone, I know I can’t. There’s simply not enough time in the day to write out different programs for everyone (everyone needs their own approach after all). Since everyone is unique and needs their own approach, I can’t publish a workout and state that it will work for everyone. I can however give you some inside info on what to look for if you decide to DIY your training and try to scour the internet for running plans. So here’s your cliff notes version of How to Find a Good Marathon Program.
Build Up Phase
Every training program should start with what is called a preparatory period, or the build up phase. As the name implies, this is where you start to create a foundation for endurance. The initial build up phase requires that you start getting some mileage in, but this is to where you have the most individual differences. Some can handle more miles than others, several aren’t in as good of shape as they would like, and plenty may not have the time to commit to a certain mileage.
A good plan should incorporate a little bit of additional work in the build up phase, such as some stride work (1). Of course, recovery days are needed but most programs are smart enough to incorporate into their plan. Scope out a plan that has you running 4 to 5 days a week.
Unfortunately, this is part of the training where unprepared individuals can also get injured, hence the need for an individual plan. Make sure to spend several weeks on your flexibility before running. Lastly, always follow a program that requires less work. It’s always better to under exercise than to overdo it.
As your training progresses, your plan should start providing what I call sensible variety. Sensible variety means that you’re doing different things in your training that supplement your end goal, not just change for the sake of change. This part of the plan includes threshold, interval, and repetition training among others. We won’t get into everything here, but just understand that these different modalities are meant to improve your speed and make your body more efficient at handling exercise.
The last thing you want is to see a big giant hill in your race when you never saw a hill in your training. If the plan you found is just miles added onto miles with no changes in the intensity of how you run, it might be best to ditch that program and start another search.
A taper occurs in the final weeks leading up to your race and may be the most important part. Tapering is basically making sure that you’re in peak shape the day of your race. It’s not as easy as it sounds; sport scientists continue to study – and debate- what a good taper involves. A taper doesn’t involve just planting it on the couch and waiting for your race – you still have to train.
A proper taper should cut the amount of work you do by about half (2). This means that if you ran 50 miles a week, you should reduce your training to 25 miles. Also, the more you train, the longer you need to taper. Someone who puts in 12 hours a week training needs a much longer taper than a person training 6 hours a week (2).
My goal with this is to help you find a program that works for you. Even programs that are written by professionals may have to be scrapped if they don’t work for you. Your concern is that you find a program that gets you to be your best while keeping you injury free. Running a marathon is a skill as much as it is talent, so don’t be surprised if getting good at them takes several different programs.
1. Daniels, Jack. Daniels’ Running Formula: 3rd Edition. Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics. 2014; pp 47
2. Mujika, Inigo. Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance. Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics. 2009, pp 86
Originally written: August 4, 2014