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Posted: February 12, 2005

Athletics: Marathon Training & The Boston Qualifier (Part 2 of 3)

Boston 2002 - File Photo

By Jon Sinclair and Kent Oglesby

For many runners, the qualifying times necessary for entry into Boston represent a significant hurdle. Our purpose in these articles is to give you the training information you'll need to achieve a qualifying time. In Part 1, we covered some of the basic considerations for choosing a marathon, and we discussed the beginning phase of training, aerobic conditioning. We also emphasized the importance of developing a plan based on a timeline anchored by the marathon where you plan to qualify. Your training plan should represent an adequate length of time to allow for all phases of training including a tapering off effort in the last few weeks prior to the race. While we recognize that there are numerous articles touting a minimalist approach-"10 weeks to your best marathon" or "do a marathon on 30 miles per week"-we feel that anything less than 12 weeks with at least four or five weeks of 45-50 miles per week will likely be inadequate for most people attempting to qualify for Boston.

The Long Run

Once you've chosen your goal race, the next step is planning a progression of long runs on which to build your training. The final, significant, long run should appear on your plan three or four weeks before the marathon. Which weekend? Three weeks out from the marathon is a good choice, but you'll also want to consider work and lifestyle limitations. Don't plan it for a weekend that you know you'll be visiting your in-laws or having a root canal. Racing may also play an important part in your choice, so look at a race calendar to get a clear idea of racing opportunities in the last couple of months before the marathon.

Generally, the last long run should be 20-22 miles. That distance represents a length that most people can run and then recover from sufficiently, and not risk their marathon or wreck the last few weeks of training. There are individuals who feel the need to run further, and for some people the argument can be made for a longer run. However, it's our experience that their reasoning lies more in the psychological realm and not in the physical. If you can do a strong run over 22 miles, that's probably enough and won't present an overly large risk to your training momentum. If you do plan on a 23+ long run, we suggest that you plan it for no closer than four weeks before your marathon.

Once you've anchored the last long run, begin to work backward on the calendar by scheduling your weekend runs. We like to use an "every other week" approach, or a two-week training cycle. If you plan your workouts in minutes, make sure that you'll be able to cover an adequate distance in miles or kilometers in your long training run. It's easy to miscalculate the real distance when going only by minutes. We suggest that if you plan in minutes, you should make an exception with the long run and use distance instead.

Our two-week cycle looks something like this, with the numbers representing long run mileage (see table 1): 15, 16, 15, 17, 15, 18, 15, 20, 15, and 22. This example represents a 10-week progression to the final long run. The idea, of course, is to do a long long run every two weeks with a shorter, recovery long run on the off weekend. The shorter long run can be 16 or even 17 miles depending on the individual, and it can increase in length as the week's progress, the same as the longer weekend. It's important, however, that the recovery long run represents a downshift in length by at least a few miles, particularly in the final weeks of the progression when the long long run moves past 18 or 20 miles.

A two-week cycle also allows for the addition of intensity to the long run. On the "off" weeks (your shorter, or recovery long run), you may add some tempo or hill training. As the weeks go by and you get stronger, add some intensity to the long weekend and make the longer run more "qualitative." In the middle of your long runs, you can add 3-5 miles at tempo.

The progression of the long runs forms the bones on which the body of the training is based. The progression should be gradual with the purpose of reaching the last long run without significant leaps of effort. Add intensity to the longer runs only if you're meeting the goal of gradual progression.

2-Week Cycle Training Progression Samples
Week 1:  15 miles - "recovery" long runWeek 2:  16 miles - long long run
Week 3:  15 miles - "recovery" long runWeek 4:  17 miles - long long run 
Week 5:  15 miles - "recovery" long runWeek 6:  18 miles - long long run
Week 7:  15 miles - "recovery" long runWeek 8:  20 miles - long long run
Week 9:  15 miles - "recovery" long runWeek 10:  22 miles - long long run

Hill Work

Once you've established the base of aerobic conditioning with a progression of easy miles, you need to transition into resistance work in the form of hill running and sustained, longer tempo runs. These workouts are critical to marathon success. The long run will develop the necessary aerobic strength to complete the race; the hill work and tempo runs develop the ability to sustain the necessary pace for a Boston qualifying time. The marathon is unique in that it requires indirect methods to achieve results. A three-sided pyramid is a good way to visualize the training. On one side is the long run (aerobic work); the second side is resistance work in the form of tempo runs and hill training (middle effort, anaerobic threshold work); and the last side is large volumes of long repeats (essentially anaerobic work). All of the sides are necessary to form the peak: the marathon itself.

Essentially, there are two ways to approach hill training:
1. Run a continuous course, which features a number of hills of various length and difficulty.
2. Find one hill of adequate length and do repeats of that specific hill.

We use a course that is ideal for both approaches. Centennial Drive along Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, Colorado measures about 6+ miles one way, featuring hills that vary greatly in length and grade, the toughest being the "Dam" hill at the turn-around point of the run. It's about 4-5 minutes top to bottom, with a grade that increases to "nose bleed" limits at the top. Typically we run out and back on a 4-mile section of the course. We vary the run by either doing a sustained, tempo effort over the full distance, or emphasizing the uphill portions and cruising the downhill. Later in training for the marathon, we lengthen the distance to 10 or even 12 miles. In the other variation, we pick one hill on the course that takes 3-5 minutes to run, and do repeats from top to bottom, increasing the number from week to week.

Why hill work? Every elite runner has a story to tell of his or her own special workout that involves hills in one way or another. Kip Kieno, who won the Mexico City Olympics, describes the one-kilometer Agony Hill, which he ran a record 18 times before defeating American, Jim Ryan. Moses Tuni, the great marathoner, used a long continuous climb of 21 kilometers called Fluorspar Hill as a signature part of his training.

The strength gained from hill running is essential for all distance runners, but for marathoners it's a wonderful way to combine resistance training with moderate efforts applicable to marathoning.

If you live in a city like Houston, most anywhere in South Florida, or in another part of the country where hills are not readily available, improvise! Runners have told us that they run up and down parking garages, over long freeway overpasses (with a sidewalk) and up ramps at stadiums. A treadmill is an excellent way to run hills, provided it's a sturdy, commercial-grade machine. Longer hills are better than shorter ones, and we recommend hills that are 3-5 minutes in length and are of moderate angle, steep enough to be challenging at moderate pace, but not so steep that you're forced to change your basic running mechanics.

Specifically, hill work accomplishes important training goals for the marathoner. First, running up a hill strengthens the lower leg structure and all the connective tissue, which is essential to subsequent, sustainable speed and strength. In many ways hill work is "speed work in disguise." The angle and length of the hill challenges the anaerobic system without the pounding of tempo runs or track workouts. You must be careful, however, about running down hills until you've adequately developed your quads.

Since the long run is the foundation on which hill work and tempo runs are built, the secondary role of the hill workout requires that its length be in balance with the progressively longer long runs. Eventually, the hill workout should be at least a third of the total marathon distance or time. Early in your training, the hill workout should be no more than 5-7 miles, eventually building to 10 miles or more.

Tempo Runs

Begin adding tempo runs once you've established a solid base of several weeks of hill training. Tempo runs should systematically increase in distance and then pace. Start with 10/10/10 minutes (10 minutes tempo, 10 minutes easy, 10 minutes tempo) or some variation of harder/easy/harder/easy workouts. Keep in mind that since the marathon is 26.2 miles long, it will be necessary to lengthen the tempo run to 10 miles or more during the last third of your training schedule.

What exactly is a tempo or steady rate run? In simple terms, it's a pace somewhere around 80-85% of maximum heart rate, characterized by an effort that causes the breathing to be a little labored and audible, and conversation starts to become somewhat difficult. In physiological terms, it's the pace at which a runner is approaching anaerobic threshold, the point at which lactic acid begins to accumulate at an uncomfortable level. In fact, if the pace feels "hard" or uncomfortable, then you're running too fast to achieve the right training effect from the tempo run.

For the Boston qualifier, tempo pace is easy to identify. You must be able to eventually run 10-12 miles at a pace somewhat faster than marathon pace. If you goal is to run 3:15, or about a 7:30 pace, you'll have to eventually do a 10-mile tempo run in 70-72 minutes. If your qualifying time is 4:00 hours, you'll need to run 10 miles in at least 85-87 minutes. On race day your marathon race pace needs to feel relaxed and easy, at a completely aerobic level. Keep in mind that the marathon distance is over 2.5 times further than your tempo 10-miler. You won't magically run your goal race pace if you haven't trained at intermediate distance runs faster than that pace. Begin with shorter distances (2-3 miles) at your desired pace, and gradually increase the distance over several weeks, until the tempo runs have reached 10-12 miles.

Deveolpmental Racing

During the last eight weeks of your training, you should do some racing. Carefully plan your race schedule so as not to negatively impact your training schedule. You can safely run a 5K on a Saturday followed by a long run on Sunday. However, if you're racing 10K or longer, you may have to schedule your long run for the next weekend. You should attempt only one or two long races of 10 miles or more in the eight weeks prior to your goal marathon. Racing of any kind will feel like "speed work" in comparison to the pace of the eventual marathon, and can be very beneficial as quality training in the same way tempo running and hard hill work are. In fact, plan on deleting a hill or tempo workout from your schedule during the weeks that you're going to race.

A longer race affords you the opportunity to practice with fluids and gels. It's advisable to rehearse conditions that you'll encounter in the marathon prior to the actual race day. Rarely will a workout have the same conditions as those you'll encounter in the race. Learning to run in a large crowd, drinking from a paper cup, running a specific pace on a measured course are just a few of the race conditions that even experienced runners need to practice on a regular basis. Being adept at quickly taking in fluids at an aid station can make the difference between achieving your qualifying time and missing it by several minutes.

Training for a marathon takes so much time and focus that you need to think of racing as being developmental. Tapering too much for a half marathon or 10K may interfere with the focus on your goal: a Boston qualifier. The races you choose should enhance your training. Don't include races where the benefit is doubtful or interferes with your training momentum.

The final phase of training encompasses increasing intensity and a focus on the final few long runs. In Part III, we'll cover the final phase of training for the Boston qualifier, the taper to the starting line, and race day considerations.

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


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