Answers to Common Questions Regarding Marathon Training

I see a lot of confusion and questions out there about how to train for a marathon. Let’s go through a few common questions regarding marathon training.

How many weeks should I train for a marathon? 

The standard range for marathon training is 16-22 weeks. Where you fall in that range is going to depend on a number of things: 

  • 1. What is your fitness base now including your weekly mileage and your long run? 
  • 2. The number of marathons you have run in the past. 
  • 3. Your goals for this race. 
  • 4. Your injury risk and burnout risk. 
  • 5. Personal considerations (recent races, recovery time, etc.). 

If you have never run a marathon before or are returning to running after a significant break, and currently have a low-mileage base you will likely need 20-22 weeks to slowly build miles and properly prepare for a marathon. If you have a solid base already but need to build your long runs more, then you fall in the range of 16-18 weeks of training time. Superfit runners coming off of a recent race or with a large base already built who are comfortable with higher mileage can probably get away with 12-14 weeks of marathon prep. Everyone is different though, so personal considerations apply. If you know your body needs more recovery time then consider a longer training period so you have time to build in the necessary recovery. If you know you burn out quickly then a shorter, more intense training period may be appropriate. If you are injury-prone then a longer, slower build might be best. You know yourself best and need to consider your personal circumstances. No one training plan fits everyone perfectly.

How long should my longest run be?

As usual, it is different for every runner and depends on training and racing history, personal circumstances, and race goals. The standard suggestion for your long run distance during marathon training varies from 16-26 miles. More important than the mileage of your long run is the amount of time spent on your feet. The exact duration of your longest run during marathon training depends on your anticipated finish time. A 5+ hour marathoner needs to be prepared to spend more time on their feet than a 3:30 marathoner. The 5+ hr marathoner may need a 4-4.5 hr long run that covers 18 or 19 miles. The 3:30 marathoner on the other hand doesn’t need a long run longer than 3:30 hours and might cover 20-22 miles in that time. 

A runner should also consider their risk of injury in determining the length/time of their long run. If you are injury-prone you might not benefit from running as far on your long runs simply because you increase your chances of injury. Knowing your recovery time will also help you clarify your long run. If you recover quickly from long runs, then they are a good training tool for you. Some runners don’t recover easily from long runs, however. It is often those who are better at sprints who don’t handle long runs well. If that sounds like you – you may not want to go super long on your long runs. 

Lastly, your current fitness, your race history, and your race goal all impact the length/time of your longest run. If you are embarking on your first marathon (and just want to finish it) and haven’t run more than 6-8 miles at a time before, you should build your training miles slowly and may top out around 18 miles for your long run. If you are an experienced runner, with higher current miles, several marathons under your belt already, and have set a challenging finishing goal, then you will reach higher miles in your training and your long run will be longer. 

Workout types for marathon training.

A common mistake in marathon training is to focus only on long, easy running. Yes, as you get closer to your race, the majority of your training will be long runs. However, the farther you are from your marathon, the more you can focus on other aspects of running like speed intervals and tempo runs. 

Even though you likely won’t be running your marathon as fast as you run speed intervals, they are beneficial to your marathon training because they improve your VO2max as well as increase your blood plasma volume (increasing your ability to tolerate heat) and improve muscle capillarization (which helps deliver blood and oxygen to working muscles). 

Tempo Runs increase your lactate threshold by increasing the size and density of mitochondria in your muscles which improves your ability to process and utilize lactate as a fuel. 16-20 weeks out from your goal race, you could be incorporating 2-3 speed interval or tempo runs (sandwiched between endurance runs and recovery runs) in your training. Remember, you’ve got to go fast to get fast! 

8-12 weeks out you could transition to a mixture of endurance runs, steady state runs, and recovery runs. A steady state run is similar to your endurance run pace but just a bit more intense. Steady state runs are important in developing a strong aerobic engine – definitely important when running a marathon! 

Lastly, don’t forget to taper over the last 2 to 3 weeks of training. A well-thought-out training plan will allow you to focus on simply doing the work!

Should I strength training during marathon training?

Strength training is all the rage these days. It is supposed to cure all evils when it comes to running. An important thing to consider when deciding if you are going to incorporate strength training in your marathon training plan is your available time. If you have plenty of time to fit in strength training around your marathon training, then yes, add strength training to your plan. If you are struggling to fit in your runs or skimping on sleep, then adding strength training may not be the best idea. Strength training does not provide so much benefit to your marathon training that it is more important than your running or recovery. 

If you are easily injured then making time for strength training may be a good idea. In order to get the most benefit from your time investment though, it is important to understand how to elicit strength gains with your strength training. In order to get stronger, you need to lift heavy. I’ll say it again, in order to get stronger, you need to lift heavy. How heavy? Heavy enough that 5 to 8 reps leave you maxed out with only 1 or 2 reps left in the tank. If you can easily pull off 30 reps you are not lifting enough weight. You may certainly get sweaty and burn some calories, but you aren’t eliciting strength gains. The great thing about lifting heavy is that if you are doing it correctly, 2-3 sessions a week of 20 to 30 minutes is sufficient to augment your running. 

Timing of strength training is important too. Mechanistically strength training and endurance training oppose one another. Meaning one inhibits the other. In order to get the most out of each training session, your strength training should happen 3-8 hours after your endurance training. Your endurance training should happen at least 18 hours after your strength training. The best place to schedule your strength training is later on the same day as your hard run or first thing the next morning. You certainly don’t want to strength train on your off day. Strength training is not recovery! 

So, decide if you have time to fit strength training in your day and make sure you are lifting enough weight to get stronger. Don’t be afraid of lifting heavy! 

How many miles per week should I run during marathon training?

Once again, it really depends. You need to consider your unique situation. How much time do you have? Are you easily injured? How many miles have you been running historically? Are you getting enough sleep? 

If you have endless amounts of time to devote to training then a slow, consistent build of miles can safely get you to higher miles. If you are prone to a particular injury then you probably want to keep the miles down. Are you coming off a regular race schedule or is marathon training new to you? Your answer will affect how easily your body is likely to adapt to longer miles. Are you already juggling a very full schedule and getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night? Then you probably don’t have time for higher mileage. Quality sleep and recovery are more important than squeezing in 50 miles weeks. 

Other things to consider are training intensity, time on your feet, and personal enjoyment. The higher the intensity of your training the lower your volume should be. If you’re running mostly long, slow, distance, you can probably handle higher weekly volume than if you are focused on running speed intervals. 

Time on your feet is another important factor. A runner who can maintain 8-minute miles can run farther in the same amount of time than a runner who runs 12-minute miles. The 8-minute per mile runner will be able to handle a higher weekly volume than the 12-minute per mile runner just based on the amount of time spent running. 

And if you just plain old love running, then run long miles! If you don’t particularly enjoy the long runs, then go easy on them – otherwise, you won’t stay a runner for long!

Should I run every day in marathon training?

For the majority of runners, no, you should not run every day while marathon training. Rest and recovery are just as important as the running. It is the combination of stress and recovery that lead to training adaptations. Even elite runners take rest days. 

Be sure your rest day is restful. Don’t schedule your strength training on your rest day or go for a big family hike. That is not resting! If you feel you need to move then go for an easy walk, take the dog around the block, do some relaxing yoga or focus on foam rolling. Rest up so your body is ready to make gains during your next training session.

All runners are unique! 

So you see, all runners are unique and need to approach training with an individualized approach. Your unique circumstances will drive your training. Listen to your body, train hard, recover well, get a good night’s sleep, fuel and hydrate properly, and remember to have fun!

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