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Posted: January 13, 2005

Athletics: Marathon Training & The Boston Qualifier (Part 1 of 3)

Boston 2002 - File Photo

By Jon Sinclair and Kent Oglesby

From beginners to elite runners, the lure of the marathon is as strong as the day after Frank Shorter won the Gold medal in the 1972 Olympics in Berlin. During the running boom of the '70's, through the golden years of American road racing in the '80's, U.S. marathoners like Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Kim Jones, and Alberto Salazar added momentum to the marathon's popularity. Today, the challenge of running a marathon continues to intrigue a nation that is otherwise largely disconnected from the sport of running.

What Makes The Marathon Unique?
Recent emphasis on the marathon as a fundraising event for various charities has revitalized its popularity by introducing it to many participants who've not evolved through the various stages of distance running that should preface the marathon. While many novice runners are training to just finish a marathon, qualifying for Boston still represents for many the pinnacle of recreational marathoning. We coach many runners whose ultimate goal is to achieve this standard. With a quality marathon as a goal, the physical and mental focus is qualitatively and quantitatively different than for shorter races. Before beginning a training program, it's important to consider the developmental aspects of such a program. Any runner, whether in his/her 20's or 60's, should approach a quality marathon with an extended program of training, which might be years in the making rather than weeks or months. If the athlete has completed only 5K and 10K races, an appropriate first step would be to develop a training cycle that would prepare a runner for a race longer than 10K: for example, a 10-miler or a half-marathon. Once a runner has experience with longer races, it might be appropriate to then turn his/her focus to the marathon.

However, training for the marathon, and indeed running the race itself, varies substantially from shorter races, even one as long as 20 miles. The marathon is special. The distance and time to complete the race has unique physiological consequences. Glycogen depletion, adequate hydration, and temperature considerations are among the many elements the runner must deal with and control. Additionally, the training methods for the marathon are in some sense indirect. The coach and athlete need to come to a number of factors in designing a program that addresses the physical issues, which arise only during a race of this length.

Consequently, in this series of articles we'll develop an approach to marathon training that would be appropriate for any runner who, at whatever age, is trying to get a seat on the Boston Bus headed for Hopkinton on Patriots Day.

Defining Your Goals And Choosing The Ideal Race
The first step before designing any training program is defining the goal you're seeking to reach. It's important that you choose the specific marathon that will give you the best shot at achieving your goal. If your goal is a personal best performance, you should choose a course that supports fast times. Amazingly, it's quite common for even experienced athletes to chase personal bests on courses that are hilly, or where weather or logistical factors will grossly inhibit their attempt. Unfortunately, their choices often have more to do with a vacation or a convenient place to stay, which means they risk months of hard work and effort trying to run a personal best on a course that might be five, ten , or even 20 minutes slower than a fast course.

Choose a marathon that's flat or has a gradual down hill. A few rolling hills can be helpful, but large climbs or descents can be a disaster if you're not adequately prepared for them. Large races can be confusing and difficult to manage logistically, but even small events can be a problem if they aren't managed well. Look for a race that's at least 3 or 4 years old, which has received good reviews from mid-pack runners, and has a field size you're comfortable with. Large races can be very fun, but they may not be the best place for a mid-pack runner to chase a personal best.

If you can't find information on a race's weather history, you should ask. Contact the race officials and find out. They'll know, and if they're keeping those facts a secret, there's likely a good reason. Everyone has a different preference, but 50ºF is generally considered optimum. Temperature preferences can certainly vary among individuals, but don't ignore historical average temperatures if they appear to be outside your comfort zone. Find out what the temperature will be at the start and at your expected finish time. Try to also find out the historical record of the speed and direction of the prevailing winds, if possible.

Ask about aid on the course, its frequency and type. An aid station every 3 miles is a minimum requirement, even if the weather isn't expected to be warm. Every marathon should offer water and a replacement drink at each aid station. Knowing the brand of the replacement drink will give you a chance to practice with that specific drink during your workouts. Palatability and how the drink will affect your stomach should be something you know before you line up on race day.

Point-to-point marathons often offer the fastest courses. Potentially, there can be a net downhill, or there may be a following wind. However, point-to-point courses are also a logistical problem for the average runner. The Boston Marathon is a good example. You begin your "marathon day" with a long bus ride leading to a significant wait at a crowded starting line. Obviously much of your logistical planning for an event like this must involve precisely timing every aspect of your morning schedule (showering, eating, using the toilet) to ensure that you'll be comfortable at the start. Effective preparation will deliver you to the starting line feeling fresh, prepared and ready to run, not beat up, overwhelmed, and lost. Starting line conditions are an important consideration when choosing a race.

Once you've chosen your marathon, you'll have the date, race day, from which you work backwards. Buy a calendar with spaces large enough to write on and circle that date; put a big "X" through it, even paste gold stars around it if you choose. Count back the number of weeks and with any luck, you'll have 16 weeks or more to work with. Sure, you can train for a marathon in less time; there are many "canned" programs entitled "10 Weeks to Your Best Marathon", but don't believe the hype. Successful marathon training is largely about aerobic strength, and that's not going to come in a quick flash of training; it's built slowly over weeks of consistent work. More time is better than less. Squeezing your training, taking short cuts, or leaving out a few long runs is much less likely to lead to your best performance.

Aerobic Training
The first stage or "cycle" of training, Aerobic Conditioning, has been likened to the foundation of a building in its importance to developing fitness. No house could survive for long with a weak foundation, and so it is with distance runners and aerobic training. The word aerobic means "in the presence of oxygen." A simple definition of aerobic running might be: "Training at a level of intensity at which an athlete can maintain an adequate supply of oxygen to the body's musculature to fuel necessary contractions." As the oxygen supply becomes inadequate, for whatever reason, the body's anaerobic (without oxygen) system is gradually brought online to make up the deficit. The anaerobic system is only a temporary backup in creating fuel for contraction muscle cells. The byproducts of the anaerobic system make funning at that effort increasingly uncomfortable; thus, this type of running can be sustained at high intensity for only short periods of time.

Because the anaerobic portion of marathon racing is very small (optimally, 1% or less), aerobic training is the focus for every successful marathoner. Successful distance training seeks to first maximize an athlete's ability to utilize oxygen, and then in the final phases of training to teach the athlete's body to work efficiently when faced with specific racing stress. The first important step is developing the aerobic system to its functional limits, if possible.

The beginning of an aerobic cycle focuses on building mileage. How many miles are enough? For even a beginning marathoner 50 miles per week is, in our opinion, a minimum level. No matter how many miles your running at the beginning of an aerobic conditioning cycle, adding 10% a week to your current total is usually a safe rate of progression. A faster progression might be appropriate for an experienced runner, but the effort must always be slow and relaxed- running an easy pace to accommodate the stress on the body as the mileage increases.

A common training mistake is running easy miles too fast. The pace should be very "conversational" and relaxed. For heart monitor owners, that's about 60-75% of your maximum heart rate. For most of us, that effort is 115-145 beats per minute, but individual numbers can vary dramatically. The percentage or number of beats per minute isn't as important as feeling comfortable. If it fells like your pressing the pace or pushing you're running too hard.

Long runs are key in developing an aerobic base; they deliver the largest "aerobic return" and are the focus of an aerobic training week. Running continuously for 90 minutes or more will deliver benefits that are unavailable from shorter runs.

Here's a general example of an aerobic training schedule:

Monday: 30-40 minutes easy (short day to recover from the long Sunday run
Tuesday: 60 minutes over hills (easy effort on the hills)
Wednesday: 45 minutes easy
Thursday: 90 minutes over hills (easy effort on the hills)
Friday: 45 minutes easy
Saturday: 30-40 minutes easy (short day in preparation for the next day's long run.
Sunday: 2+ hours on a soft surface road or trail at a very easy effort.

The above schedule would yield anywhere from 50-80 miles per week- depending on the athlete and the speed of the "easy effort" each day. For most people the concept of alternating easy and hard days seems to work best, but 2 or even 3 rest days between longer runs may be necessary. In this type of training, the term "hard day" refers strictly to the length of the run and not the speed or intensity! Additional miles or time could be added anywhere in the schedule but emphasis on the easy/hard concept is important. Resting before and after longer runs is essential. Your body must have time to regroup and adapt to the previous stress before it's put under pressure again.

You have a 30 minute "window" of opportunity after a long run to reload fuel and water at an increased level. During that 30 minutes your body will "super compensate" and reload at an even greater rate than it might normally. So take advantage of that time by replenishing what you've used up. A cup of yogurt, a banana, a sports bar, or even a candy bar, can help you start that reloading process and contribute in a significant way to maintaining your training momentum.

We always recommend training on soft surfaces whenever possible. Some people find off-road training difficult and even dangerous due to uneven surfaces, but many runners can find trails and dirt roads that offer both reasonable running surfaces, and a more pleasant environment for training than city streets or bike paths. Soft surfaces enhance recovery, lower impact injury risk and enable you to train longer distances with less fatigue. If you live in a big city that lacks a park system, or cant otherwise find safe, soft trails for running, at least make an attempt to run on asphalt streets rather than concrete sidewalks; concrete should always be your last resort, especially for you long runs.

Fluids And Gels
Because of the marathon's length, you should begin using fluid replacements and gels in the early stages of your training program. Since all Boston qualifying times are 3:10 or longer, and since glycogen depletion occurs around 2 hours at race pace and dehydration occurs even earlier, you need to have a fluid and energy replacement plan that has been put to an experimental test long before the actual race.

Water, of course, is the first and most important necessity for fluid replacement. Most runners don't get enough fluids even under optimum race conditions, so adequate hydration before and during the race is essential. However, practice that leads to accomplishing that goal must begin long before the competition. Beginning early in your training, experiment with different routines of hydrating before and during your long runs. That may even include practicing drinking from a cup while running! Using a sports drink during long runs is a very valuable tool in maintaining fuel and water, not only for that specific run but in aiding recovery for the next training session, since you'll not deplete your "on board" supply, and your muscle tissue will recover quicker. There's ample evidence that by maintaining an adequate blood sugar level, you avoid a stressed out immune system, which occurs commonly after hard runs and may increase your chance of catching a stray virus.

Marathons all offer replacement drinks. The particular product choice is largely a result of sponsorship. Go to the race website to find out which drink they're using, and begin experimenting with it during and after your runs. A few "replacement" drinks used by marathons are low in calories and won't contribute the necessary carbohydrates needed later in the race. If such is the case with the race you've chosen, you may have to rely more heavily on gels and water.

Replacement drinks and gels should be isotonic. In simplest terms, that means the solution is easily digested without the body having to contribute additional water. The result of drinking a replacement fluid that's too concentrated (usually over 7%) is further dehydration rather than the requisite effect. Gels will usually require at least 6 oz of plain water to make them isotonic. In any case, practice in your training and know what works for you, develop a good plan for the race, and then be prepared for any contingency.

You'll need to decide early on what shoe you're going to wear for training and racing. You don't want to be experimenting in the last week before your race. In the marathon, the distance and time amplify the mechanics of running. This is equally true for the training leading up to the race. During 1 minute of running, each foot will touch the ground 80 + times. In a 3-hour marathon or long run, that number approach nearly 30,000 foot strikes. If you have a mechanical problem, it will almost surely be amplified by increasing distances.

You may find that you can train and race in the same shoe. Go to a running shoe store where you feel you can get expert advice about your particular needs. Find what works and then get 2 or 3 pairs that you can trade out for the duration of your training. Consider as well that you might use a lighter shoe for tempo runs, track workouts and for the marathon itself. For example, if your racing shoe is 2-3 ozs lighter, the result is lifting as much as 5000 fewer pounds during the course of the race. Of course, if your 6'3", 190 lbs and have serious foot problems, a lighter shoe is probably not a good idea. Every shoe manufacturer makes a wide range of "A-level" shoes that meet a variety of needs. Find out what works for you.

Mechanics aren't limited to foot strike. What you do with the rest of your body is equally important. Essentially, marathon running is about efficiency. Excessive vertical oscillation, inefficient arm movement, and or other form problems will rob you of valuable energy that could be better utilized over the course of the race. Most form problems cannot be totally changed, but they can be smoothed out to a degree that will contribute to greater efficiency. A coach can certainly help point out such inefficiencies, and will be able to offer ways to ameliorate such problems. It's worth noting, however, that people with serious mechanical deficiencies that are the result of some sort of anatomical abnormality may need to contact a sports medicine physician, podiatrist, chiropractor or physical trainer for treatment. If the physical problem is so severe that devices such as orthotics don't offer much relief, it would be wise for the runner to stick to distances shorter than 26.2 miles, as training for long distances can exacerbate such problems.

An Example: Boston Bob
Bob is 42, has been running for 5 years, and is in good health. He's done 2 marathons, and most recently ran a 3:30 on a tough course. After running his first marathon 2 years ago, his goal has been to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which means he'll need to improve his time by 10 minutes. Bob has come to us in early May because he's confused by all of the advice he's been reading, and wants a program that will keep him healthy and get him to Boston.

Since his last marathon (4 months ago in January) Bob has been running 30-40 miles per week at an easy effort, with the longest run being an occasional 10 miler. His past training logs tell us that he's run as much as 45-50 miles per week, and 20 miles a couple of times before his personal best marathon. Bob has been consistent, but his program has lacked focus and direction; he has done some tempo training, but little else other than the straight mileage and a few races. He also works 40+ hours a week in a professional job, is married to a supportive non-runner, and has 2 kids in their early teens. Bob has some control over his schedule and feels he can do more training than he's currently doing. He likes doing his long runs on Sunday morning with friends.

Now that we have a general sense of who Bob is, what he's done with his running, and where he wants to improve, we need to choose a good marathon for an attempt at the qualifying time. He has chosen the "Big Trees Marathon" (fictitious, just like Bob). It's a good choice: mostly flat, only a 3 hour drive from Bob's house, fairly small but big enough to ensure adequate support (1000 starters the previous year), and has received rave reviews from past participants. Big Trees is small enough that Bob (who's relatively inexperienced at marathoning) won't get lost in the crowd or swallowed up by a huge starting line. We also know that the race will be serving a well-known brand of replacement fluid on the course, a type Bob's never used before. The course is a loop, which won't require point-to-point logistics for Bob to worry about. The weather has been consistent in the past; temps should be in the low 50's if Bob finishes in his goal time. The date of Big Trees is middle October, so counting back on our planning calendar we learn that we'll have 4 months of training from the beginning of June. That's an adequate amount of time if we want to start building his mileage right away.

Our first training goal will be to add mileage at a relaxed progression to build toward a target goal of 55-60 miles per week. We'll start with a 10% increase each week, and work toward his getting up to 18 miles on Sunday mornings. We want to achieve the initial mileage target and long run goal by mid to late June. This is a reasonable goal in the 8 week time frame. If everything goes well, Bob should have completed 2 or 3 weeks at his target mileage before July. We'll need to emphasize to Bob that he should slow down and just focus on easy running. That will make the progression safer and the higher miles should be obtainable. We'll use a schedule emphasizing Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday for his harder days, targeting 8, 12, and 18 miles for those runs. If he's consistent with his training, and can adequately recover from his longer runs by doing 4-5 miles on his easy days, these mileage targets should be achievable. We'll also plan a day off every other Monday to give him a training break, even though he professes to want to run every day.

Since Bob has never done "higher" mileage weeks, we encourage him to keep his running on soft surfaces and mostly level ground as he raises the totals. We'll also continue to emphasize the need to go slow, and that the goal is only increased miles and not speed. Just as important, we'll continually remind him to check his footwear and make sure his shoes aren't broken down or excessively worn.

For the next 6-8 weeks, we'll watch carefully to make sure Bob is feeling in control of the workload, and keeping to the plan of easy mileage. The key for us is to monitor his long runs and associated recovery. If Bob can hit our "targets" and stay on top of the training load, we'll have no trouble adding the faster running that's coming in July.

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