This plan is designed for someone running one of their first marathons. While I believe running a marathon is an attainable goal for any healthy person, it is not an easy endeavor and should not be approached lightly. Before beginning this training plan, the runner should have been running at least 25 miles/week for at least 2-3 months prior to beginning the plan. I also recommend that the runner be able to run 8 miles without stopping and for them to run a half marathon sometime in the prior few years just to give an idea of the kind of commitment that will be required for the distance. A few months at 25 miles/week should provide you with enough of an aerobic base to be able to get through the intense build-up required to prepare for the 26.2 mile race. I wouldn’t recommend beginning a marathon training plan with any less of a base than this.
The plan has you running 1 speed day per week and 5 total run days/week for most of the build-up. It also quickly gets you up to a 12 mile long run and then takes a more gradual approach to increasing the long run distance throughout the remainder of the plan. It maxes out at a 20 mile long run on 52 miles/week. The idea is to go into your long run on tired legs (by running the prior 2 days as well). By starting the long day with relatively tired legs, you don’t need to run the full marathon distance to simulate some of the feel of it. All this is done to try to reduce injury risk during the build-up because the reality is that injuries are very common for runners when increasing mileage and intensity. Anything you can do to reduce the risk of injury will greatly improve your experience.
Next I want to go through the structure and theory behind the plan. For the first 3 weeks, the prescribed speed work is strides. Strides are short speed-ups, around 10 seconds, at 90% intensity. These aren’t intended to be overly taxing, simply to work on your turnover and get your body used to running quickly. Running fast also generally improves your form so at least a small amount of speedwork each week will be very good for your overall efficiency. Running with good form also reduces your risk of injury so the benefits of a little bit of speed work each week are compounding.
The first few weeks also take you from 4 days/week to 5 days per week. 5 running days per week will continue to be the norm throughout the rest of the training plan. There are prescribed “Rest or Cross Train” days every week. If your body is feeling really tired, or just really beat up, I’d recommend taking these days completely off or at minimum very easy. The healing process is how you get stronger, rest is important! If your body is feeling great and you feel like you can do more however on these days, feel free to do some lifting, cycling, swimming, or really any other type of synergistic activity. Just don’t over-do it, injuries suck! Also, if there is a time constraint, or you are just having a bad day, it is alright to split any of the “Easy Miles” between the prescribed day and one of your rest/cross train days.
Easy miles are supposed to be what the name implies, nice and easy. It should feel like you can run this pace forever. I do believe it is possible to run too slowly on these easy days however. If you are taking it too slow, your form can break down which can increase injury risk. In terms of pacing I would probably look to be doing your easy miles somewhere in the MP+1 to MP+2.5 range. If you are running trails or in an especially hilly area this might not apply. MP is the marathon pace you are targeting, so if you are going to target an 8:00/mile marathon pace, look to run your easy days somewhere around 9:00/mile to 10:30/mile. If you find this pace range to be challenging, maybe reconsider your marathon goal pace. A common sentiment in the running world is that you should train easy to be able to race hard. Running training is about putting in the consistent work. Any particular workout isn’t going to make or break a race. Improvement will come from the work you put in day to day, month to month, and year to year.
Long pace is intended to be a little bit more challenging than easy pace and get you ready for your goal pace. I would recommend something in the range of MP+.5 to MP+.75. Your long days should feel like you are doing some work and your legs should be starting to feel heavy towards the end. Long days are probably the most important component to marathon training, especially towards the end of the build-up since they are what really trains your body to handle the stress of running for such a long time.
Once you hit week 4, the plan begins to incorporate intervals on Wednesdays. I’ve always liked how the Hanson’s plans do interval work so I like to target similar pacing into plans I design. Intervals should be run at your current 5k pace. If you haven’t run a 5k recently, try to estimate where you think you are. You don’t have to destroy yourself with these intervals so if you err, err on the slower side. The intervals are designed to get you running at a pace which is quite a bit faster than your marathon pace for a relatively short period to build your strength, turnover, and efficiency. This plan incorporates intervals from weeks 4-9.
During week 5 you will see the first recovery week of the plan. Recovery weeks are basically easier weeks built into the plan designed to give you a chance to heal any ongoing injuries you might have, give your legs a chance to recover, and give your mental health a boost. Marathon training is exhausting, recovery weeks are intended to give you a little break while maintaining the fitness you have been working so hard for. There will be a couple more recovery weeks later in the plan as well. Weeks 6-9 all have 12 mile long runs. During this period, the mileage build comes from adding easy miles through the rest of the week to improve aerobic fitness.
Week 10 is a second recovery week which is designed to transition the runner into the second half of the build-up in the plan. The second half of the build-up is hallmarked by an increase in long run length and a transition from standard intervals to cruise intervals. As long runs get longer, you will continue to run these long runs on tired legs getting you closer and closer to simulating the feel of the actual marathon. Piling these miles into your long runs will provide your body with the toughness that will be required and get you used to running for the kind of durations that will be required of you on race day.
Cruise intervals are longer duration intervals run at a slower pace than the intervals that you run earlier in the plan. I like to run cruise intervals somewhere between 10k and half marathon pace. They will provide your legs with speed work that will be longer in duration than what the earlier phase of the plan prescribed. We want to improve the specificity of your workouts as you get closer to race day. Cruise intervals will provide a workout that is closer to what you will experience on race day than shorter faster intervals would.
Alternating speed days of cruise intervals and extending tempo runs continue through the second half of the buildup. You also will find 1 more recovery week during this period on week 14. In addition, the long runs continue to extend up to a maximum of 20 miles. Peak mileage occurs during week 17, you will run 52 miles this week and should be getting excited for your taper.
The taper begins 10 days before the big day. The final tough workout is a 10 mile tempo day (8 at tempo+ warmup and cooldown) which is scheduled for 10 days before the race. After that things get progressively easier until race day. The idea is that you want to go into race day feeling fresh and with your legs maximally full of energy. The first several miles of the race should feel extremely easy and as a complete joy because you have managed to sequester so much energy and your legs should feel like ultralight springs allowing you to bound through the miles. Good luck racers! I hope you have a great experience which leaves you trying to decide which race to do next!
PS: After you finish the race, make sure to take at least a couple of weeks off running to give your body, mind, and soul a break and chance to heal. Marathon training really is very taxing and everyone needs a break.