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Components of a Good Marathon Training Plan

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When it comes to searching for the best marathon or half marathon training plan it is important to note that not every plan is suitable for everyone. Many factors contribute to being able to tolerate one plan over another, such as how the body reacts to exercise and how much time one has for training. Personal goals also play a role in which training plan to choose as well. You will find that some training plans incorporate a multitude of components, while others are very basic. Beginners and those who have a goal of just finishing a race, no matter what pace can get away with a minimalist approach with few running days per week. Advanced runners and those wanting to set personal records should incorporate more miles at a variety of speeds. Whatever your goals are for race day, it is important to understand the necessary parts to include in your plan in order to achieve the best results and limit injury risk.

Must-Have Components

The Long run

All marathon and half marathon training programs should include a long run. This run is easiest done on a day with the most available time, such as the weekend. A gradual increase in miles, by no more than 10%, is the safest way to plan the long run. A good strategy for beginners is to increase this run by a half-mile each week until they feel a significant improvement in their endurance. Running long at even a slow pace naturally builds endurance by training the body to store more glucose for energy and increasing the growth of capillaries and mitochondria, which help transport oxygen to the working muscles.


Many runners skip this component when preparing for races, since they believe running is all they need. Unfortunately running only strengthens body systems and muscles solely for the task of running. Only incorporating running into your plan will eventually lead to overuse injuries. The key to limiting this injury risk and keeping the whole body strong is to include cross-training activities such as resistance training, swimming, cycling, or other fitness classes.

Flexibility Exercises

As with any exercise, running will develop tight muscles. Keeping muscles as flexible as possible will not only help running feel easier, but it will reduce injury risk as well. Most tears in muscles and tendons occur from overusing tight muscles, which is common in the Achilles tendon and hamstrings. Flexibility exercises should be a daily component of every plan. Besides static stretches, using a foam roller and other massage tools are other good options to relieve tightness in muscles and tendons.

Rest Days

Surprisingly even beginners sometimes skip proper rest. Recovery days are extremely important in every training plan in order to avoid overtraining syndrome. Exercise produces tiny tears in muscles and rest days are when the body repairs these tears, which is what increases strength. Therefore, if these vital days are skipped, the body can never really build proper strength.

Components for Improving Pace

Speed Intervals

If you are looking to improve your race finish time, it is best to fit in runs with a variety of paces. There are plenty of interval workouts to choose from using a track or road. If you are training for a short race such as a 5K or 10K, shorter intervals of 200m or 400m are ideal, while longer intervals of 800m and above are useful for half and full marathon training. Below are a few good workouts that help improve overall pace and fitness.

4-8x 800m repeats with 400m recovery jog in between

5x1000m repeats with 800m recovery jog

3-5x mile with 3 minute standing/walking rest

If your goal with the speed work is to specifically improve pace, the recovery time in between intervals should equal the time it took you to run the interval. If the goal is to improve endurance, the recovery time is best to be shortened to about half of the interval time. The goal of this type of workout is to try to hit all of the intervals around the same pace each time.

Tempo Runs

A tempo workout is basically a set time or mileage within a run that is done at a comfortably hard pace, or threshold pace. Some will call this run a “lactate threshold” run due to the lactic acid that is released into the muscles during the run that eventually causes fatigue. These workouts help train the body to push through this hard pace for longer before fatiguing, leading to being able to hold your goal pace on race day. A sample tempo run is: After a 2-3 mile warm-up, run 3-6 miles at threshold pace, and follow it with 1-2 cool-down miles.

Hill Repeats

Not only is it important to practice running uphill and downhill if that’s what your race calls for, but hill workouts help build muscle strength and power, improve posture and breathing, and running cadence. If you do not have hilly routes around to run on the road or trails, the treadmill works just as well with the incline setting as high as a 4-6% grade. Performing 4-10 sets of 45 seconds to 2 minutes of uphill and downhill running will leave you feeling stronger and a more efficient runner.

To be a successful runner, there are many components to incorporate into your training program. It is important to understand that proper marathon training requires a good amount of time, since it includes more than just running. Not every athlete responds the same way to the same programs. As long as you are incorporating the necessary components—the long run, cross-training, flexibility, and rest days—you can be a successful marathoner. If you are interested in improving your performance and are having difficulty developing a plan, consider hiring a coach. It is always possible to adjust your training plan to work with your current lifestyle. Listening to your body is a key factor, so if you are feeling overly tired or have symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness, it is important to incorporate more recovery time.


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  2. Leeja Carter, John Coumbe-Lilley, Ph.D., Brenton Anderson, Strategies for Working with First Time Marathon Runners, Journal

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