Marathon Training Tips

I put this list of marathon training tips together for a friend who asked me to be her personal trainer while I was in the hospital being treated for leukemia! Obviously, I couldn't oversee her training directly, so I created a comprehensive list of basic advice for her.

As long as this list is, it is still just basic tips. There's more to learn, but following these tips can get any man under a 3-hour marathon and any woman under a 4-hour marathon.

As usual, do not start any training program without the consent of your doctor!

Every tip on this page assumes that you are good enough health to begin a jogging program of up to 15 miles per week today. If you are not in that kind of shape, see How to Start Jogging.

The person to whom this advice was written had already completed a half marathon. This advice will work for you if you can jog three miles per day, five days per week. If you cannot, see How to Start Jogging.

Here's the list of marathon training tips:

  1. Every good training program, from 5K to marathon, is based on three hard training days a week. The other days MUST BE easy.
  2. Unless you need additional mileage for half marathon or marathon training, you don't even need to run on those other days. Some people enjoy the easy runs, which is good.
  3. You should take one day a week off of running.
  4. The three hard days are a tempo run, an interval day, and a long run. Some people like to do a tempo run on Saturday followed by a long run on Sunday. Only the tempo run can be done on a consecutive day with one of the others.
  5. For a marathon you need to work up to an 18 mile run once a week and a total of 52 miles per week. You can cheat a marathon down to 40 miles per week, but usually you need to average twice the distance of the race in a week for four weeks prior to running the race.
  6. The last week before a marathon or half marathon should be VERY easy. Do about ten miles for the week, and make all of them easy and fun.
  7. The next to last week before a marathon should not be a full training week, either. Limit your long run to 10 or 12 miles that week and cut your mileage down to no more than 30.
  8. As you work up to the 18 miles in one day and 52 miles in one week, limit your increases to 10% per week on the weekly mileage and one mile per week on the long day's mileage.
  9. The long day's mileage is the place to be flexible. I like to jump two miles at a time and do that every two weeks. If you find the new mileage difficult, run it an extra week or two before you do the next two mile jump. (Being sore the next day is not difficult. Feeling like you may not make it is difficult.)
  10. I like to run almost all my weekly mileage, but a long day's run is not all running. Especially once you're running more than 10 miles on your long run, you should walk a hundred yards or a quarter mile every now and then, perhaps every two miles. Get a feel for how much and how often you should do this. The idea is to keep your legs from getting sore during the run. This can make a HUGE difference in the later miles. (One man ran a 2:15 marathon, fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials, walking 1 minute for every 10 minutes he ran.)
  11. Any runner who does not stretch after she runs is lazy and a fool.
  12. Don't warm up by stretching. Walk or run slowly--very slowly and easily, so it feels like a warm-up--for 5 to 10 minutes before every run. If you want to stretch before a run, do it after the warm up jog. You will still have to stretch after you run as well. You can warm up for 5 minutes before an easy run or a long run. You must warm up for 10 minutes for tempo and interval runs.
  13. Except on long runs, cool down by walking or jogging very slowly for at least half a mile. You don't have to do this on long run day because you are already running slowly. You can cool down during your stretch.
  14. Long runs can be flexible, both in speed and distance. You have a general goal of running 18 miles on the long run for four weeks prior to the race. (Reaching 22 miles would be even better; do NOT reach 26 miles prior to the marathon.) However, if you felt awful one week and ran 14, then enjoyed the following week and ran 20, that would be fine. You can also run a little faster (but still slower than you will run the marathon) one week and slower another. You can throw in a race pace or slightly faster two miler in the middle of that run. You can walk a mile to make the long run easier. This is flexible for the long run.
  15. The intervals are not flexible. Don't cut yourself slack unless you are scared of hurting yourself, and don't push the time unless it's very easy. If it's very easy, and you go faster than the time, then schedule your time to be faster the following week.
  16. Your goal in preparing for a marathon is to achieve an interval day upon which you can run 10 half miles in the same number of minutes as the number of hours in which you will do the marathon. If you want to run the marathon in 4:30, then you want to build your interval training up to 10 half miles in 4:30 each. In between each half mile, run another half mile at least a minute slower than the interval was.
  17. The tempo run is the most flexible of all. Normally, a tempo run would be 2 to 6 miles at your marathon race pace. (Remember, though, you are warming up for about a mile and cooling down for about a half mile, so you're running 3.5 to 7.5 miles on those days.) I would recommend running 2 miles at your race pace every week on your tempo run, plus occasionally adding a half mile or mile at race pace (timed while you're running) during your long run. Developing the ability to know you are running at race pace is important.
  18. continued: Other than the 2 miles that lets you learn your race pace, tempo runs are for enjoying getting faster. You can run 6 miles at race pace as a tempo run if you enjoy it. Otherwise, do 2 miles at race pace and then do what is known as "fartlek" (Swedish or Finnish for "speed play"). Don't wear yourself out, but speed up to where you feel like you're floating along at a fast but comfortable speed. Slow down when it becomes uncomfortable, then continue to vary your speed so that you feel like you're running fast and enjoyably. It's speed training, but it should be different than intervals. The peaks should be lower and the valleys higher. You can play, but don't turn it into an interval session of slow jogs and rapid running.
  19. When you're building up on the intervals, you begin with at least 3 half-mile intervals at whatever speed you can handle. Get to where you can run the intervals at the speed you want, then begin to increase the number of intervals as you can handle them. Don't be afraid to do 6 one week, then 5 the next, nor to jump straight from 4 to 7 if you feel like you are not injuring yourself.
  20. Your easiest days of the week are the day after intervals and the day after the long run.
  21. You will need to make a schedule for doing plyometrics. These will not only increase your leg speed, but they will increase your strength to help prevent injury and improve your running style. You should do these either 2 or 3 times per week. After an easy run or tempo run is a great time for these.
  22. Beginning plyometrics:
    1. jump roping (one hop between the rope turns, no double hops), sets of 50 to 100 turns each, three sets;
    2. hopping back and forth across a line, as fast as you can, only on your toes, 50 touches, 2 sets;
    3. Find a solid step or bench you can jump off of. Jump off and immediately leap back onto it, keeping your feet on the ground as short a time as possible. Get your balance before you do it again. Three sets of 10.
  23. To improve on the plyometrics, do (a) faster, do (b) with something to jump over that gets higher, and do (c) from a higher step.
  24. There are a lot of other plyometrics you can do. An easy one is to do fifty-yard dashes with each step being a leap that is as high and far as possible. Rest between dashes and only do three.
  25. If you're doing those plyometrics three or more times per week, you can cut down to just one of them for a little while if you get tired of them. Find ways to get up to three at a time three times a week by fitting them in somewhere else in your day.
  26. The point of plyometrics is speed. It's better to jump over something short quickly than to jump over something tall slowly.
  27. Anti-injury exercise 1: Do deep knee bends before every time you stretch after you run. Don't drop your behind to your ankles when you do. Shoot to go just past the point where your thighs are parallel to the ground. Also, don't go all the way up. About halfway up is good. Do enough of those to make your thighs burn slightly, then rest a few seconds, and do it again.
  28. Anti-injury exercise 2: Do balance exercises regularly. Maybe you can do them after you run. An excellent one to do is the quadriceps stretch that Wind Dance used to do. You pull your foot up behind your rear end while standing on the other leg. Then you bend over and raise your foot and hand into the air behind you. (Do you recognize what I'm talking about?) Actually, if you can do this, you don't need any other one.
  29. Anti-injury exercise 3: One-legged calf raises. Stand on one foot and do toe raises. Try to do them in sets of 10 without setting the other foot on the ground. Do one foot, then the other. Shoot for 30 or 40 toe raises on each foot.
  30. The exception to doing the exercises and stretches after a run is when you start thinking about not running because of the after run work. If that's the case, skip them ... on an easy day, one day. Keep the after-run stretches and exercises minimal so that you don't hate facing them. If you want to have a full stretching program do that separately from running (and warm up before you do them).
  31. Variety is the spice of life. When I got tired of my intervals, I switched to a smaller distance and ran faster. I would do that one week, then go back to my plan the next week.
  32. Every now and then you will feel like your legs are heavy. That's no big deal until it gets continuous. If it gets continuous, you have to take a week off. Yes, that's right, a week, but your body will get stronger and faster during that week. Ongoing heaviness or slowness is your body telling you it needs to rest so that it can rebuild things.
  33. Keep your abdomen strong. There are many ways to do this, but here's one you can use. Lay on your back with your arms stretched out to the side. Draw your knees up to your chest with your legs bent (of course). Extend your legs until they are straight and your heels just touch the floor. Do not put weight on your heels. Draw your knees back to your chest (or close), then rotate your hips, keeping both shoulders on the floor, until you drop your knees to the floor (or as close as your can) on the right side. Raise your knees back up, extend your legs again, touching your heel to the floor, then draw them back and drop your knees to the left side with both shoulders on the floor. Repeat this, slowly and smoothly, without counting reps until you feel a good workout in your entire stomach area. It's good to do a second set, but you don't have to.

Those are my marathon tips. Happy trails!