The beauty of the marathon is that, although it’s a massive challenge, almost anyone who puts in the preparation can complete it. We may not all be able to run the full 42.2km in a touch over two hours but with enough preparation completing a marathon is achievable.
That preparation requires a lot of commitment – at least a few hours per week. And to get that preparation right you need a plan.
I can tell you the exact date I started running – 6 January 2013. I started the Couch to 5km (C25K) program, running for 60 seconds and walking for 90 seconds during the first week. It took ten weeks before I could run continuously for 30 minutes.
What can we learn from C25K?
The C25K model is a great template for preparing for longer distances.
At the start of C25K you spend more time walking than running. That gives your body the opportunity to slowly build your training load so muscles aren’t overloaded resulting in injury.
That’s not to say you won’t feel some delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). But that will usually pass in about 48 hours so you can resume training. For me, post-run DOMS stopped being an issue as my body became accustomed to running. That took until about week three of the C25K program.
Lesson 1: C25K teaches us that the way to build distance is through incremental loading.
If you’re running 5km three times per week, suddenly jumping to a 10km run will potentially lead to excessive soreness or, even worse, injury. But increasing one run from 5km to 6km is less likely to hurt your body.
Each week in C25K, you run a little more than the week before. There are some jumps but they are managed so they build on your previous work.
Lesson 2: C25K also teaches you to not constantly increase your training load.
Although there’s a consistent progression in the C25K program, there are easier sessions mixed in with the increased load. For example, in some weeks, only one run increases the duration of the run intervals over the walk intervals with the other two scheduled sessions providing longer rest periods.
Applying this to a marathon program
The core of almost every marathon training program is the weekly long run. Its purpose is to build your aerobic capacity and, I think, to mentally and physically prepare you for being on your feet, constantly moving for an extended period of time.
The marathon is a 42.2km race. Building up to running 42.2km takes time. And that means having a plan.
The duration of that plan is dependent on your starting point. If you’re running 5km regularly, then it will take longer to build to a marathon than someone who is regularly running 10km or 20km at a time.
I suggest you work backwards from the date of the marathon you’re planning to run to determine the length of your weekly long run. Here’s what my 10 weeks prior to the marathon I’m preparing for at the moment look like.
|1 week before||15km – easy, taper week|
|2 weeks before||30-33km|
|3 weeks before||36km|
|4 weeks before||34km|
|5 weeks before||25-27km|
|6 weeks before||30km|
|7 weeks before||24km|
|8 weeks before||28km|
|9 weeks before||23-25km|
|10 weeks before||20km|
Every four weeks or so there’s a drop back to let my body rest and the taper ensures I’m well rested and any niggling injuries are fully healed.
You’ll also notice that the distance increases are about 10% at a time. And I also mix up a variety of courses and terrains including hills, road and trails
The focus of the weekly long run is not speed – it’s endurance. So don’t rush out like a bull at a gate. Start nice and easy and work into it. If you can talk while you’re running then you’re running at about the right intensity level.
What about other runs?
During each week I’ll do two or three more runs of different distances and intensity. I usually do my long run on a Saturday, rest on Sunday and do an easy run on Monday. I’ll then fit another two runs in before my Saturday effort.
I’ll do another run of between 10-15km during the week. The distance depends the difficulty of the run. For example, I’ll probably do a shorter run if there are some heavy hills. I also like to do one run where I push the speed up a little. That might be a 5km run where I push the last 3km harder.
From time to time I also like to do some intervals – I like doing 1km hard/1km easy intervals. And the odd time trial can be fun as well so I can track my speed over a longer period of time.
But a lot of the effort will depend on how I’ve recovered from my long run and how much rest I get. The last thing I want to do is run myself down or pick up an injury.