November 10, 2011

"BIG" workouts and training philosophy for the marathon

The essential ingredients of our training plan are pretty simple: consistent mileage, long runs, short reps, long reps, and tempo runs. Nothing groundbreaking there!

The harder part is taking all these pieces of the puzzle and putting them together in a way that makes sense. No single workout alone is going to take you to a higher realm of fitness. However, if you assemble all the building blocks in the right fashion, you can make that jump to the next level. That part is a lot easier said than done.

I'm not really sure what the "foundation" of my training philosophy is based upon... I would say its based on everything and nothing. I've read lots of books about running as well as countless magazine / internet articles since I started running about 10 years ago. There is a ton of great information out there, as well as a lot of junk. The key, when coaching yourself, is to filter it down to the essential ingredients and find out what works for you. Luckily, the concepts that I have found that work well for me also seem to work well for Andrea, so we are able to do a lot of the same things in training. Rather than follow a strict Lydiard/Daniels/Canova/Hansons/etc schedule, I've taken bits and pieces from lots of places and tried to create something that is tailored to Andrea and I.

One term that we've been throwing around a lot lately is "BIG" workouts. The terminology is influenced by the folks who use it on the Fast Running Blog, and their influence comes from Tom "Tinman" Schwartz. I would just as easily call them "Race Specific Workouts." While his definition for them is a little different, I label them as the most important workouts of the marathon training cycle, and the best indicators of whether you are ready to run 26.2 miles at your goal pace. I don't really know much about Tinman, but I find it interesting that a lot of the workouts he prescribes are the same ones that I ended up coming up with when I was writing out our training calendar for the fall. I guess this really isn't too complicated of a sport after all. The basic concepts are going to work for a majority of athletes if followed consistently.

During September we did a mix of workouts to build strength for the marathon (5-8 mile tempos and long runs), but there was a bigger focus on hitting faster intervals (like 6 x 1 Mile, 400m-1000m repeats) to prepare for the Long Beach Half Marathon. After that race, the focus really shifted towards marathon-specific workouts. All our workouts in this cycle are summarized in the calendar at the bottom of this post. The "big" days have been starred:
  • Long runs are usually big days. You are on your feet for a long time, and I almost always finish with 1-2 miles at 5K-10K effort. On one of our long runs, Andrea closed the last 5 miles at close to half-marathon pace, while I did the second half of a 22 miler at marathon pace. That day doubled as a long run and tempo run.
  • 10 Mile and 13.1 Mile tempo runs. The 13.1 is an especially good indicator. I think that if you can hit your goal marathon pace for a half-marathon, at altitude, during peak mileage, you can run that pace for the full marathon at sea level when tapered. Long tempos can take a lot out of you, so I wouldn't recommend doing them all the time, but you need to include a couple of big ones in your final buildup to the marathon if you are serious about running fast.
  • 4mi-3mi-2mi-1mi and 2 x 5 miles start off at marathon pace and then the pace drops to half-marathon pace or faster. These workouts have a great physiological and mental stimulus. As Andrea wrote in this post, it is important to do workouts that you are good at. When I'm close to peak shape, these are workouts that I am good at, and build a lot of confidence.
In between big workout days, we've been doing shorter tempo runs at marathon pace (to continually train the neuromuscular system and legs what the pace will feel like) and shorter reps to maintain turnover and speed. Some weeks I will add in one more "moderate" workout day than Andrea, because of my ability to bounce back from workouts relatively quickly.

This is Andrea's debut at the distance, and my first time really training very specifically for the marathon. Yes, I ran well at Utah Valley in June, but did not do nearly the same amount of marathon specific work for that race. I sort of just built a huge base and then raced myself into shape over a 6 week period before that race. This time around, we've taken a more structured approach. To this point all of our workouts have gone very well, so in a little over a week we'll find out how this approach works. I have a lot of confidence that our training will have us prepared to run to the best of our capabilities on November 20.

Some words of caution... most runners shouldn't jump right into a schedule like this. It took a year to build up to the point where we could train like this, hit or exceed our target paces, and stay healthy doing it. In mid-November 2010, Andrea and I both started increasing our mileage with the goal of returning to racing in 2011. For me, it really wasn't until June/July that I could have even envisioned training like this, and for Andrea, it wasn't until after the TOU 1/2 Marathon that she felt ready to tackle the marathon. So if there is one message I want to get across in this post, its that its good to read about what works for other people... but after you absorb that knowledge, you need to be smart (and realistic) about applying it to your own running and racing goals.


  1. Hey Jake! I was wondering what you feel is the best indicator of where your pace stands for an upcoming race? I am 3 weeks out from a half and I want some some sort of reassurance that my goal time is realistic to where my fitness level is:) Thanks in advance!!!

    1. Half-Marathons can be tricky to simulate in training. I find that when I am doing heavy training, it becomes very difficult to hit my goal HM pace (esp @ altitude). I think a couple good workouts for 2-3 weeks out would be 6 x 1 mile @ HM goal pace or slightly faster... or a 5-6 mile continuous effort where you start just a tad bit slower than HM goal pace and then progress to goal pace. If you can do those, you're on the right track.