06 November 2008

Marathon Training In The Real World

This is going to be a two-part series on marathon training. Part One will share some concepts which I believe impact all endurance sports, but especially, marathon training (stand alone and Ironman). Part Two will pick up the questions from last week, as well as, any from this week.


It has been a hectic week for me in Europe and I am now in Asia for a few days before returning to the US. Sorry that I missed the Friday deadline but I was busy growing grey hairs! No announcements this week, we will roll straight into Part One.


I had a look at average results for all marathons in the US in 2005 -- the results didn't surprise me, but they might surprise you. Average male finish time was about 4.5 hours, with the ladies just over 5.0 hours. That is for stand-alone marathons -- not running after 2.4 miles of swimming and 112 miles of running.

One of the interesting aspects about watching the US Election was that it reminded me that Americans are aspirational in their politics. What I mean is that some Americans will vote against their likely long-term financial interest to protect themselves for when they make-it-big. In America, people believe that everyone has a shot at making it big. In many other countries, people believe that the system is stacked against them (the only way to make it big in many places is to leave!) -- in those situations, soft socialialism (Cdn Style) can make sense. For all you Republicans out there, you have to see the irony about the Democrats co-opting the hope message.

In many ways, I see similar psychological attitudes towards endurance training. Athletes wanting to learn everything possible about elite and high-end run training -- many years before these techniques are appropriate for them.

Thinking about those average marathon finishers... they are racing at between 10-minutes and 11.5-minutes per mile. What are the factors that will impact their finish time?

Nutrition -- the single greatest performance enhancer for the bulk of the field is improved nutrition. This flows through in three main ways: improved body composition; increased energy; and increased training consistency (through reduced illness).

Nutrition is NOT the same as weight loss. A weight-loss focus with poor nutrition is a short-term strategy that will result in PERMANENT endurance performance impairment via impaired metabolic function. That said, the main benefit to the average runner's performance flows through reduced body weight.

Now, when you read the science, it will tell you that losing weight is an effective way to improve your VO2max (and I agree with that). However, is our average competitor (4.5 hours +/- 1 hour) really limited by VO2max? Is the average runner limited by their central capacity? I would say that average runner is peripherally limited. In other words, their capacity to put strain on their central aerobic system is what limits them.

Why is this the case? Put plainly, most runners lack the necessary mileage to make marathoning an aerobic endurance event. For most, it is a strength endurance event.

The media, and popular press, feed what our psychology desires, not what our lives need. So we need to recognize a cognitive bias that we share when it comes to performance in all fields. Consistently plugging away for years (saving, eating right, moderate training, getting out of bed...) these success factors are much more habitual than enjoyable. What is deeply satisfying is the life-situation that arises from an early-to-bed-early-to-rise approach to living.

Back to running! So if your main goal for athletics is consistent training with outstanding nutrition... how should you approach your training?

Long Term Consistent Mileage -- your optimal training approach is the strategy (today) that will MAXIMIZE your ten-year mileage. Unfortunately, humans are particularly poor at long term pay-offs. That's why only 1.6% of American Marathon finishers were able to get under 3-hours in 2005.

What is mileage? As my friend, and coach, Bobby McGee says... EVERYTHING is mileage! Hiking, walking, jogging, running and, as a triathlete, I would add swimming, biking, crosstraining. For the mileage limited (and nearly all of us fall into that category), we need to use every means possible to sneak in bonus training.

What are the items that most risk mileage? Here are mine:
  • Not training first thing in the morning
  • Getting off a routine sleep pattern
  • Excessive training stress (session duration or intensity) resulting in injury
  • Driving everywhere (a mile driven is one that you never get back into your log!)
  • Excessive training stress (weekly or monthly volume) resulting in deep fatigue
  • Lack of discipline with evening commitments (letting things run late, missing sleep)
Note I still haven't mentioned a single thing about training protocol. I haven't because it doesn't matter to that average finisher. As student, we must demonstrate an ability "to do" (for years) before we are constrained by "what we do".

Here's the basic week that I use to maintain my endurance options when I want to do a lot of work. The nice thing about running is that you get a large fitness return per minute invested.

  • Five days per week -- at least one hour of running

  • One day per week -- 2-4 hours of crosstraining, running, or mixed bike/hike

  • One day per week -- an hour of walking or crosstraining

6 days per week are easy/steady and one day per week will include some mod-hard/tempo. Long time readers will know how I define intensity but an easy way would be to use Mark Allen's article on max aerobic heart rate. Easy is 20 under, Steady is 10 under, Mod-hard is just under... Mark's heart rate. The system isn't perfect but it is simple/effective and won't distract us from sorting out our nutrition/mileage (daily, for the next decade).

Now, you'll see above that I listed 8-10 hours of exercise per week. That's far too much if you aren't used to it. So you will need to taper into the volume.

Here's how:
  1. Until you can run for 10 minutes (any speed) and keep your heart rate under Mark's max aerobic, just walk. You should be able to walk fast and get your heart rate within 20 beats of your max aerobic zone -- and that is enough. Aim for 20 minutes of aerobic walking per day. Prove that you can do that daily, for a month, before progressing.
  2. Once your walking habit is well-established then try this workout. Walk ten minutes; (3x) 5 minutes easy running (with short steps) alternating with 1 minute brisk walking; walk ten minutes. At first, do this workout 1-2x per week. When you can manage it 4x per week, for 4 weeks, then consider adding a long hike on the weekend.
  3. Remember that your goal is high-quality nutrition and mileage by any means necessary. Speed is meaningless, while you will see rapid progress with this approach, it will be years before you learn your full potential.
Enjoy the journey, it is a lot of fun.


PS -- In the early 90s, I was unable to complete a 5K run. In 2004, I ran a 2:46 marathon at the end of an Ironman Triathlon. You'll never know if you don't try and the rewards are much greater than athletic performance alone.

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At 7:23 AM, Blogger Jenny Davidson said...

Interesting and helpful post - I see the general drift very clearly, but could you clarify (perhaps just by pasting in a link to something you've written elsewhere?) what you mean by distinguishing between marathon as aerobic versus strength endurance event?

At 9:40 PM, Blogger Chris said...

"Is the average runner limited by their central capacity? I would say that average runner is peripherally limited. In other words, their capacity to put strain on their central aerobic system is what limits them". Gordo a great point, it is those peripheral adaptations such as increased mitochondria and capillary to muscle fibre ratio build via years of aerobic training that will lead to long term improvements. Optimum Vo2max can be achieved in such a small time. Also I must say efficiency is an important parameter in marathon training. Derek Clayton is an example.His training regime was exhaustive, he was quoted as running 160 miles per week and the times he produced were phenomenal. He became the first athlete to break the 2Hr 10 barrier, as well as the first athlete to break 2Hr 09. Thus, achieving his remarkable place in history. There was doubt on his 2:08:33 performance, the usual 'grumblings' regarding a short course followed his astonishing performance in Antwerp in 1969. To compound matters even further was that this record was to stand for more than 12 years [ till 1981 ]. His Vo2max was reported as being 69ml of o2/kg/min.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Alan Couzens said...

Hey G,

Great 'old school' G post. Love it.

As someone who has let my own biases somewhat distort how I interpret your training recommendations, I would add something that you have reminded me on more than one occasion.

That mileage is always a good thing providing it's intensity exceeds the individuals lower training threshold. For the 4.5hr marathoner that you mention, easy training (of all sorts) likely fits the bill, as you point out.

However, for the 'mileage obsessed' MOPer-FOPer, there come a point where one needs to consider if they are shedding crucial steady-state training in favor of time in the saddle/time on the feet, i.e., in JD terms are they really 'training' or just 'touring'. Or in G-terms, are you getting more 'fit' or just more 'tired'.



At 11:22 AM, Blogger Josh said...

Hi Gordo,

I've be a lurker on your blog for a couple years now... but here's a marathon article aimed at the slow dudes so I feel my question is appropriate.

I'm planning to run my first marathon in April. I've run a few 1:40 half-marathons and done 1:45 at the 70.3 distance. I'm a tall guy, Torbjorn Sindballe size and keeping cool has been a struggle at my half-marathon races. I haven't given myself a chance at a cool weather half-marathon before so I'm optimistic at giving myself a chance at the marathon in cool weather and hoping to go 3:20.

I'm working with a training volume of 8-12 hours per week and expect that it will creep up a bit but not a whole lot. I'm sure you're aware of the Furmann Institute's marathon training plan that suggests one tries to key in on 3 runs each week, one of intervals, one at ~10 km pace and one long run maxing out at 20 miles. I'd admit this isn't the plan to maximize 10 year mileage. I also agree I'm not pushing the aerobic endurance mark here, I tested at VO2 of 67.4 recently and my goal of 3:20 doesn't correlate.

I know the questions are related to training protocol and you don't want to prescribe pace times... so consider them questions of 'run specificity' and not protocol.

So the questions:
As my fitness is good, should I scrap the intervals in favor of another tempo run faster than my planned pace?

With the idea of maximizing mileage if I am adding a fourth run each week (on one of my swimming only days) is it a shorter distance at my long run pace or another tempo pace on the run? Basically, is my one long run each week the only one where I am below my planned marathon pace?

I'm planning two 70.3 races next season, does the specificity change then? Do I want to keep the same weekly ratio of 'faster and shorter' to 'longer and slower' when training for all kinds of running?

Thank you!

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Gordo Byrn said...


Slow it right down, build up to five runs per week and scrap all that tempo and tempo+ work. You'll get more aerobic development and a better marathon result. With your VO2 you have HUGE gains to come from "just running" for a few years.

Let your tempo happen naturally from relaxed uphill running.

Look into HADD's approach for some more info. Although, it isn't really required as you'll improve pretty quickly if you stay healthy and increase your run frequency.

Hope this helps,


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