It doesn’t matter if you are planning to run your very first marathon or if you are a competitive athlete aiming for a top three finish, following a well structured marathon training plan is essential to your success.
The cornerstones of any marathon training schedule are:
- slowly building up intensity;
- follow the easy/hard training technique;
- improve your nutrition; and
- build in a taper period.
Slowly Build Up Intensity
Your marathon training schedule should last from 18 to 26 weeks (6 months) depending on your ability and fitness level. One of the biggest mistakes amongst marathon runners is over-training (too much too soon). While more experienced runners tend to over-train in the weeks leading up to the race, novices tend to try and progress too quickly. Following a structured marathon training plan helps you avoid marathon injury.
Marathon training obviously includes lots of running time. It is important that you do not push your body too hard in the beginning, especially if you are a new runner. Limit your running to 3 or 4 days per week, with enough resting time in between. It’s essential that your body rests and recovers fully. Once you have developed a base, gradually increase the running time and distance. A 10 to 15% increase weekly is ideal for marathon training. It is mileage rather than speed that counts when running marathons. There is no point in over-exerting yourself and giving up midway.
Easy/Hard Training Technique
You should alternate your training between easy days and hard days; “hard days” being the days where you will really pushing yourself, while the “easy days” allow your body to recovery (active recovery). While pounding the streets helps develop your cardiovascular endurance, it is the rest and recovery between sessions that allows your body to grow stronger. Don’t make the mistake of over-training early on in your program.
Marathon training is tough on your body. You must ensure it has an adequate source of fuel during your training. You should eat a marathon diet that contains sufficient carbohydrates, protein and good fats. You should also pay close attention to your hydration, particularly in the week before the race itself. You need to supply your body with fuel it craves before, during and after the race and long training sessions.
A good balance of fresh, complex carbohydrates (50-60% of the calories) along with some protein (20-25% of the calories) and a little fat (10-20% of the calories) will leave you satisfied for an extended period after eating. Too much food, too much sugar and starch, or too much fat in a meal will lead to fat accumulation.
Different runners react differently to the taper (see below). Some end up feeling energetic and others feel slow. Physiologically, a taper enables you to build up carbohydrate reserves past normal levels. To build up carbohydrates and muscle protein to their fullest, make sure you diet includes a ‘carbohydrate load’ the last five days and consume ample protein.
Include a Taper Period
Your goal is to arrive at the start line on race day feeling refreshed. The best way to do this is to include a 14 day low-activity or “taper period” as the final two weeks of your training plan. A taper is a decline in workload. To explain, it means to let your body recover. Make sure your last long training run is at least two weeks before the race to allow your body time to recover sufficiently.
Trying to cram in too much training the weeks leading up to the race can be disastrous. In fact it can be the difference between finishing and not.
It’s important to remember that nothing you can do in the final two weeks of your training can have a positive impact on your marathon performance, but there is lots you can do that will ruin your race day. During the last two weeks of marathon training, less is more.