Hacking the Marathon
The process of training 12 to 18 weeks for a single day’s race can be daunting, and the marathon is a fickle beast: the general theme is a big buildup with hard training, a taper and then, essentially, a coin f lip to decide your race-day fate. The marathoner’s dilemma is to find training strategies that stack the odds in their favour. Here are my tricks of the trade to really nail it on marathon day.
If I had to pick the physiological (or more accurately, psychological) halfway point of the marathon, it would be 32k (20 miles) – which is a lot more than half the distance. If at any time in that first 32k you think you’ve gone out too fast, you probably have. It’s in this first “half ” of the race that I try to clear my mind, enter a pseudo-meditative state and let the kilometres click by. The less thinking you can do in the marathon, the better. But this is easier said than done. After hitting the metaphorical wall in my first two marathons, I decided my training needed to shift in such a way as to maximize hard efforts on tired legs. To do this, I started doing interval sets deep into my weekly long runs, and adding in three to four days of running longer and/or farther than the marathon distance in my buildup. Some workouts that accomplish this would be:
» 5K @ marathon pace (or slightly faster) directly following 35K at an easy pace
» Going for an hour’s hike immediately before your typical long run
It sounds simple enough: run fast to get faster. Yet some people shy away from short interval training in a marathon buildup. At least once a week, I like to add in a session of 400 m to 1,200 m repeats. These typically have shorter rest (30 seconds to 2 minutes) and are run between 10k and marathon race pace, to improve lactate clearance and efficiency. These workouts carry the added mental bonus of making marathon pace feel easy. Some sample sessions:
» 16 x 800 m @ 10K race pace with
200 m jog rest
» 10 x 1,200 m @ half-marathon pace with 1 minute of easy running between reps
» Easier variation: 12 x 4 minutes at race pace or faster, with 2 minutes’ easy recovery
Two or three times in a marathon build (not more, since these workouts can take a toll, mentally and physically), I add in “fitness tests.” These are the big sessions that I use to gauge my training. At the end of my highestmileage running week (usually two or three weeks before the marathon), I will do a half-marathon at marathon pace or faster. If you can get through a half-marathon at marathon pace on tired legs, it’s going to be a physical stimulus and mental boost right before you sharpen for the race. Another example from my buildup before the Canadian 50k record:
» 40 x 400 m @ marathon race pace
(or faster) with 200 m easy jog between repeats
» Easier variation: 60 minutes of
1 minute hard (half-marathon pace or faster) with 1 mintute easy jog rest After the final key session of the training cycle, I prefer a relatively short taper period (seven to 10 days) when I maintain or increase the intensity of workouts but cut back on training volume.
Chris Balestrini is an MD-PhD student and all-Canadian cross-country runner from Western University. He currently holds the Canadian 50K record (2:48), as well as personal bests of 29:22 (10K), 2:17 (marathon), and several FKTs (fastest known times) on mountains across Canada.