Beginners Welcome

Thu, 8 Dec. 2011 - 5:32 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

There is a strategy in marathoning known as the “10-10-10”: Take the first ten miles of your race slower than you feel ready for, ramp into miles 10 through 20 aggressively, and push through the last 10K, fighting inevitable exhaustion for a strong finish that leaves nothing in your reserves. This race partitioning strategy relies upon taking the challenges on race day in fathomable chunks and is also rather a good thing to keep in mind in the months prior. The fact is that training for a marathon is a lot like the process of running it.


If you’re planning to run your first marathon, or are attempting to get back in the game after time away from long distance running, it may be beneficial to state the obvious: One of the best things you can do before beginning training is to make reasonable expectations for yourself. In essence, a realistic marathon time goal should be based upon how much you are willing and able to train for it, how experienced you are with the distance, and what your fitness level is going in.  Then, by slowly building your mileage up just as you increase the intensity of your pace over the course of the race itself, you can hope to arrive at the starting line fresh, focused, and thoroughly prepared for a stellar experience. This strategy’s effectiveness is contingent upon listening to your body and being realistic about where your present fitness level lies. Do not pick an arbitrary time goal first, and then try to accommodate it with training that may be beyond your means. This is a sure-fire path to injury, and possibly lasting discouragement.


Five Training Variables

When deciding on a training level, consider the five variables that shift in intensity from training tier to training tier:


  •  Number of runs per week. Five or six runs a week are very common training choices, though some runners perform exceptionally easy running in lieu of a day of all-out rest. This has more to do with staying loose than with any sort of training benefit. Beginners are ill-advised from running seven days a week because the temptation to make it a training day is often too great.
  •  Average weekly mileage. Regardless of what this number peaks at, it is important to have a solid mileage base for several months at the low end of your mileage requirements, because this is where your training begins.
  •  Starting and final long run duration. This run is the weekly staple of marathon training, and usually is built into a weekend day. It gradually increases in distance over the course of your training. 
  •  Length of the longest goal-pace run. This run is performed every third weekend in place of the weekend long run, and also gradually increases in distance as your training progresses.
  •  Frequency of speedwork or interval training. Drills to promote explosiveness, speed, and maximal oxygen consumption, while most often associated with shorter distance races, are very beneficial in marathoning as well. These repeats should be run no faster than 5K race pace and should not comprise more than 8% of your total weekly mileage. As an example, you might try once a week of 4 or 6 x 1000-meter runs with 4 minutes of easy running in between for recovery.


Among the questions requiring honest answers are: How many weekly miles have you averaged in the last six months? How many days per week can you manage to train, given other commitments? What is the current length of your long run? Being honest with yourself now will save you a lot of heartache later.


A basic marathon training level commitment might look something like this:

  •  5 runs per week
  •  40 miles per week
  •  Starting long run duration: 1:45
  •  Ending long run duration: 3:00
  •  Length of final goal-pace run: 15 miles
  • 1 interval session per week


Determining Goal Time

You can use a recent half-marathon race time to help determine your marathon goal time. The rule of thumb is to double the time it took you to run the half, and add 13 to 22 minutes (This range for added minutes works well for those with a basic training commitment. Elite athletes on the other end of the spectrum, who may well be running up to 100 miles per week, might add as little as 5 to 10 minutes.) The low end of the added minutes range is for a more challenging half-marathon course, or weather conditions, than you will face in your marathon. Use the high end of the range if your marathon will be more challenging in these areas, or if you were better trained at the time of the half-marathon than you expect to be now. 


While the ideal marathon training period is about 18 weeks, you really spend only half of this time running at the upper end of your weekly mileage. The process is gradual. The goal is to keep you injury-free and otherwise ready for whatever is on the training schedule on a given day. You should never feel overwhelmed by a scheduled workout. Developing your confidence is as crucial a training goal as any objective time goal. This mental and physical pacing of the training schedule over 18 weeks exactly mirrors the mental and physical pacing you’ll use in the marathon itself.


A Marathon in Three Acts

Once you’ve established a goal time, calculate your goal per mile pace. Running well in a marathon means staying patient and well within your ability in the early miles, then gradually pushing the pace until you are running at the edge of your potential in the latter stages of the race. Starting cautiously and conservatively, naturally unfold your steady-state pace and maintain it. Eventually summon your courage and mental determination to hold this pace through the finish.


One variation of the 10-10-10 strategy is the Six Mile Cutdown. It is an excellent way to achieve and hold your desired marathon pace by neither overshooting it too early or waiting too far into the race to get there. In the Six Mile Cutdown, you spend six (instead of 10) miles ramping up to your marathon pace, and remain there for the next 20 miles. The advantage to starting slowly and easing into your goal pace is no secret to marathoners the world over. Variations on this theme occur in coaching manuals, training schedules, and racing how-to books again and again. They tend to be similarly effective, but to be sure, whatever their differences, they all have one thing in common: some portion of the early race miles is run at a pace slower than the marathon goal pace.


In the Six Mile Cutdown, you run the first two miles each :30 slower than your goal per mile pace; miles 3 and 4 are each run :20 slower than goal pace; and miles 5 and 6 are slower than goal pace by :10 each. In the aggregate, this six-mile chunk is only two minutes slower than any other six-mile chunk of the race. And yet the benefits abound. This strategy:


  • eliminates a long pre-race warm-up.
  • conserves muscle glycogen.
  • prohibits the extremely common error of going out to fast and hitting the Wall early.
  • helps you to effortlessly find your aerobic steady-state rhythm.
  • psychologically reduces the race to a 20-mile challenge.
  • allows you to enjoy passing other runners the entire race.


Racing this way allows you to find your goal pace comfortably and with the least risk of injury. Marathon racing is served well by being physically and mentally relaxed, focused and in the present moment. The Six Mile Cutdown—or countless variations—brings you to this state smoothly and readily.


In another issue we’ll look specifically at training schedules and the various intensities associated with certain days of the running week. Properly ramping up your training until you are strong and fit and then backing off in the final two weeks to be sure you’re well rested means discovering the delicate balance between pushing oneself and knowing when to listen to your body’s demands for recovery.


(Mar. & Beyond, 2006, Vol. 10, No. 5, pp. 41-56; Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels, 1998, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, pp. 104-112, 266-278)

(RUNNING & FITNEWS®November/December/January  2006-2007 • Volume 25, Number 1)

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