The 80/20 Guide To Marathon Training: 9 Running Coaches Give Expert Advice
We asked running coaches and experts one question:
What 20% of marathon prep training would get me 80% of the results I’m looking for?
In other words, what is a relatively small thing that I can do to yield big results?
We received a number of fantastic responses from skilled coaches, physical trainers, and injury prevention experts, so we took the time to curate the best advice into marathon preparation categories. From long-runs, rest & recovery, fueling up, and more, these experts delivered the goods.
Before we dive in though, I’d like to note that we have cut down on a lot of great advice that just wouldn’t fit. For the purposes of this article, I am focusing on one or two aspects from each running expert. This is why we are including links to their various websites and social media pages, so you may follow and learn more about their respective expertise.
NOTE: If you’re new to marathon running, we recommend starting with our article “The 26.2: How Long and What To Expect When Running A Marathon”. This will give you some context before the advice below makes you feel overwhelmed.
Ready to take your marathon training up a notch? Let’s dive in.
Focus On Mileage
One consensus among the experts is that mileage is a crucial component to success. The long run was mentioned as something that needed to be respected and adhered to weekly. In addition, the weekly total mileage was also stated as very important.
Carina Heilner, a running coach for Run Runner Club of America, speaks up about increasing weekly mileage as an integral piece.
Carina Heilner – “Mileage is the most important aspect of marathon training. Mileage itself will improve your marathon speed. The marathon is all about improving the body’s ability to run for a long time and the only way to do that is to run more miles and be consistent. Running long runs will be a big aspect of marathon training and increasing weekly mileage. These runs are essential to teaching the body to improve glycogen storage, handle glycogen depletion, and manage the decrease in energy as you use up your glycogen. They will also teach you to increase running economy, and increase emotional and psychological ability to handle the discomfort that comes with long runs.”
An equally important piece, mentioned by Heilner as well as other coaches, is the long run. Lauren Sheu, an RRCA Certified Run Coach for Running for Wellness has a lot to say on that topic.
Lauren Sheu – “The long run is the backbone of marathon training and is essential for success. The purpose of the long run is to teach your body to improve glycogen storage. The long run also teaches you how to handle discomfort when you are feeling fatigued. Long runs help you to build confidence and mental stamina to prepare you for a successful race day!”
As someone who has distance trained, I can speak to the truth in both of these. If you do not remain dedicated to the long run, you can find yourself inadequately trained come race day. Equally essential is the mileage you put on your legs weekly and monthly. Suffice it to say you can’t just look at one thing. There is a larger picture to marathon training.
Some runners and coaches prefer to think in terms of Time on Feet, rather than total mileage. In other words, you try to spend as much time running as you think it will take you to complete the marathon. This gets you accustomed to running for a long time.
Running injury expert, Damien Howell, advises athletes too, “Progress long training runs to the total time expected to complete a marathon. The goal is to run/walk the expected time it will take to complete the event in order to practice the mental effort required.”
Don’t Skip Strength Training
Some runners focus so much on running that they neglect other training aspects. Your body can start to break down under the stress of intense training and high mileage. This is where your time spent on strength brings about big dividends.
Denise Smith – Certified Running Technique Specialist – “Twenty percent of a runner’s time to strength train is well worth the effort to help a runner perform at their best and prevent an injury. Strengthening can be worked into any training plan and offer a fun, challenging alternative to logging long runs and sprint intervals. Once a runner understands that strengthening not only helps them manage forces that work on their body, but can also help them with things like stability on one leg, reducing the risk for pain, and can ultimately lead to running faster, the more likely they are too eagerly Google the words “strengthening for runners.”
Some experts hone in on the particular areas of the body that need attention for runners to become strong and find success in the marathon.
Brett Durney – Co-Founder & Trainer at Fitness Lab, tells us how important strength is. In particular, Durney focuses on building strong core glutes. “At any one time 7-8 x your bodyweight will be transferred through each leg when you are in run stride. It’s so incredibly important that your body is stable and that your energy is channeled towards moving forward in perfect form. Any wasted energy due to weakness and instability will hold you back in both training and the end event.”
Quick Tip: If you have beach access, try sand running intervals or distance sessions to help increase leg & core strength.
Be Sure To Warm-Up Properly
As a running author, I dedicate plenty of time to how runners should warm up in order to prevent injury. Tamara Elzey, Technique Specialist Running Coach for Simple Solutions, has great running advice but I was particularly interested in what she had to say about the warm-up.
Elzey, “Always do a dynamic warm-up before you run. This is non-negotiable. You have to warm up your body the RIGHT way because it doesn’t work to just do an easy first mile to warm up. Research shows that performing a dynamic warm-up actually has a protective effect against muscle damage (Chen, 2018). Taking 5 minutes to do a routine of movements that include a little balance, a little strength, and a little flexibility is like having a vaccine that decreases your risk of injury during your marathon training runs.”
By the same token, cooling down is equally as important. The time you spend properly transitioning your body from movement to stagnant is not one to be taken lightly. This brings us to the post-run portion.
Rest and Recovery Will Significantly Help
Certainly, the time put into training is essential to success. However, many runners neglect the time that needs to be put into recuperating from the difficult strength session, the core workouts, time on the track, and long runs.
Whitney Heins – VDOT Certified Running Coach for The Mother Runners speaks on rest and recovery. “Honoring rest and recovery is a game-changer in marathon training. The goal of running is to spur adaptation with as little stress as possible. The way to do this is to recover in between hard efforts and be sure to run EASY on easy days. Running easy on easy days allows runners to spur biological adaptations like angiogenesis that make their bodies more efficient without adding stress. Running easy also allows runners to run hard on hard days, getting the most of their workouts.”
Fuel Up Properly
If you have ever trained for a marathon you know the temptation to inhale an entire cake when you step foot back in your house. In addition to the fuel you take in while running, you need to plan your pre and post-workout meals carefully.
Heins continues to stress how important fueling and refueling is to marathon training. “Proper nutrition is crucial to training for a marathon. Skimping on nutrition can hurt performance and lead to injury. Runners need to ensure they eat a few hundred carb-dominant calories before runs, practice fueling during workouts and long runs, and re-fuel within a half-hour of hard and long efforts with protein and carb dominant meals.”
Take A Balanced Training Approach
Perhaps one of the most difficult things for runners to find is balance. Daniel Goetz – Assistant Cross Country/Track & Field Coach, Duke University has some great things to add to this topic.
Goetz says, “For most beginners, the distance of the marathon is the most intimidating part. So, a good chunk of training should be dedicated to challenging the length of your runs. Most people make the mistake of running too hard to achieve the length of run they need. It is easy to feel like in order to achieve your goals, you should feel like you are pushing. You will feel surprised how far you can run if you relax on the pace.”
“In terms of specific training, you cannot go out every day and try to run further than the day before; this is a recipe for burnout. Your body works best when it is given a challenging stimulus then rest to allow the adaptations to take place. You can challenge the distance of your long run every 7-14 days. The other days of the week can be filled with much shorter easy running and workouts to help with turnover and efficiency. Easy runs should be kept at a pace that is at least 2 minutes slower than your 5k pace. If you can consistently progress the distance of your long run, you will develop the tools to give you the best chance to successfully complete a marathon.”
Many runners find themselves deep into marathon training, both physically and mentally exhausted. following the stellar advice of Goetz can help you to alleviate that.
Putting It All Together
While a quick skim of this article and the websites of each of these experts in their fields might have you feeling overwhelmed, don’t be. Simply keep these basic bullet points in mind as you explore new ways to improve your marathon training prep.
- Respect The Mileage
- Don’t Miss Strength Training
- Warm-Up and Cool Down Properly
- Nutrition Matters. A lot.
- Build Rest & Recovery Into Your Training
- A Balanced Approach Is Best
There you have it, folks. Your key to marathon success. Find ways to implement these experts’ advice into your training programs and you’ll likely see results at your next race.
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