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A 16-week training programme for your first marathon

A 16-week training programme for your first marathon

With grateful thanks to the late Dave Spence.

Long runs: The key to all my marathon programmes is the long run on weekends. You can skip an occasional workout or juggle the schedule depending on other commitments, but do not cheat on the long runs. Notice that although the weekly long runs get progressively longer, every third week is a “stepback” week, where we reduce mileage to allow you to gather strength for the next push upward. Rest is an important component of any training program.

Run slow: I know this is tough for you. You want to go out on those long runs and BLAST! Don’t Normally I recommend that runners do their long runs 60 sec per km or more slower than their marathon pace. This is very important. The physiological benefits kick in around 90-120 minutes, no matter how fast you run. You’ll burn a few calories and trigger glycogen regenesis, teaching your muscles to conserve fuel. Running too fast defeats this purpose and may unnecessarily tear down your muscles, compromising not only your midweek workouts, but the following week’s long run. Save your fast running for the marathon itself. There are plenty of days during the rest of the week, when you can run fast. So simply do your long runs at a comfortable pace, one that allows you to converse with your training partners, at least during the beginning of the run. Which brings up my next point.

3/1 Training: Toward the end of the run, if you’re still feeling fresh, you may want to pick up the pace and finish somewhat faster. This will convert your long run into what I call a 3/1 Run. That means you run the first three quarters of your long run (say the first 18 km of a 24 km) at an easy pace, then do the final one-quarter (6 km of a 24 km) at a somewhat faster pace – though still not race pace. This 3/1 strategy is advised for only the most experience runners and I don’t recommend you do it more than once out of every three weekends. In other words: first weekend, easy run; second weekend, 3/1 Run; third weekend, step back to a shorter distance. My philosophy is that it’s better to run too slow during long runs, than too fast.

Hill training:  Hill training in this programme is scheduled for every third Tuesday. I alternate hill training with tempo runs and interval training mainly to provide you with some variety in your training. If you want to juggle the workouts for your convenience, feel free to do so. Hill repeats can be an important part of your training, because running hills will strengthen your quadriceps muscles. Also, there is less impact running up a hill than running fast on the flat. If your planned marathon is on a hilly course, you might want to run more than the half dozen hill workouts I’ve included. Best choice would be to substitute hill repeats for some, if not all, of the interval workouts. And/or do your tempo runs over a hilly course – if one is available to you.

The speed benefits of hill training are similar to those for interval training on the track. Select a hill about 400m long, but don’t worry about the pitch or the exact distance. Run up hard, as hard as you might during the 400 track repeat. Then turn and jog back down, repeating the uphill sprints until finished. If you plan to run a marathon with more downhill than uphill running, do some of your hill repeats down as well as up. This will condition your muscles to absorb the shock of downhill running. But don’t overdo it, otherwise you’ll increase your risk of injury.

Interval training:  In training for a marathon, long repeats (800, 1600 or even longer) generally work better than short repeats (200, 400) I’ve prescribed 800 repeats for this programme, done every third week on Tuesdays. Run an 800 at faster-than-marathon pace, rest by jogging and/or walking 400, then start again. I suggest that you run your 800 repeats using the same numbers as your marathon time. In other words, if you run a 3-hour marathon, you do the 800s in 3 minutes. A 3:10 marathoner does 3:10 repeats: 3:20 marathoner, 3:20 repeats, etc.

Tempo runs: A tempo run is a continuous run with a build-up in the middle to near 10-K race pace. Note I said “near” 10-K race pace. I define the peak pace for tempo runs at the pace you might run if racing flat-out for about an hour. That’s fairly fast, particularly if the tempo run is 45 minutes long, but you’re only going to be near peak pace of 3-6 minutes in the middle of the run. In the programme, tempo runs are scheduled for Tuesdays or Thursdays. Here’s how to do this work out. A tempo run of 30 to 40 minutes would begin with 10-15 minutes easy running, build to 10-20 minutes near the middle, and then finish with 5-10 minutes easy running.

The pace build up should be gradual, not sudden, with peak speed coming about two-thirds into the workout and only for those few minutes mentioned above. You can do tempo runs almost anywhere: on the road or on a track. Tempo runs should not be punishing. You should finish refreshed, which will happen if you don’t push the pace too hard or too long. It helps also to pick a scenic course for your tempo runs. You can do your tempo run with another runner, but usually it works better to run solo. There’s less danger of going too slow or (more the problem) too fast if you choose his pace, not yours.

Race pace: Most of the Saturday runs are done at Race Pace. What do I mean by “Race Pace?” Let me explain. Race Pace is the pace you plan to run in the race you’re training for. If you’re training for a 3:00 hour marathon, your average pace per kilometre is about 4 min 15 sec. So you would run that same pace when asked to run Race Pace in this programme (sometimes stated simply as “Pace”).

Races: In most of my training programmes, I do not prescribe races. I don’t want runners feeling that they are obligated to race on a specific weekend, and at a specific distance, because that’s what the schedule says. But a certain amount of racing is good, because it forces you to run at peak speed and provides feedback related to your fitness level. If you know your 10-K time, for instance, you can use one popular formula and multiply that time in minutes by 4:66 and get an estimate of your marathon potential. If you run other distances, you can use various predication charts to do the same.

Easy runs: Training on Mondays and Wednesdays should be done mostly at a comparatively easy pace. These are days of semi-rest, nevertheless, as the weekend mileage builds the weekday mileage also builds. Add up the numbers, and you’ll see that you run only slightly more kilometres during the week as you do during long runs on the weekends. The programme is built on the concept that you do more toward the end than at the start.

Rest: Rest is an important component of this or any training program. Scientists will tell you that it is during the rest period (the 24 to 72 hours between hard bouts of exercise) that the muscles actually regenerate and get stronger. Coaches also will tell you that you can’t run hard unless you are well rested. And it’s the hard running that allows you to improve. If you’re constantly fatigued, you will fail to reach your potential. This is why I designate Friday as a day of rest. It allows you to gather forces for hard running on Saturdays and Sundays. If you need to take more rest days – because of a cold or a late night at the office or a sick child – do so. And if you’re tired from the weekend, take Monday off as well – or cut the length of your Wednesday run. The secret to success in any training program is consistency, so long as you are consistent with your training during the full 18 weeks of the program, you can afford – and may benefit from – extra rest.

Morning runs: You may add runs of between 30-45 min in the morning from Monday to Friday if you are used to or have the time and ability to train twice a day. The pace is to be a very easy slow run.

Here is your training schedule. The below chart tells you what to do for each day for the 18 weeks leading to the marathon.
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