Understanding The Marathon and How To Beat It!

Oh the Marathon! A distance that has broken many a men/women. 26.2 miles is such an intriguing distance. It’s a distance that can leave a runner completely smashed. You can train and train for it, be in the best shape of your life and yet, anything and everything can go wrong. One minute you feel like you are flying and literally within the next minute, you can feel like you have been hit by a Mack truck. It’s not just a race of toughness, strategy and proper training, it’s also one of science too. It’s the one distance (excluding ultras) that requires you to understand your body on a much more internal and physiological level. In no other race does pacing become so important. In a 5k, you can go out too fast and yet can hold on and survive to the finish, losing merely a few seconds. Go out fast in a marathon and burn through your energy stores too quickly and, it becomes a death march that no amount of mental toughness can overcome. The body just shuts down, no matter how tough you think you are.

So what is this mysterious race that now draws in 100s’ of thousands of people each year? Why is it becoming increasingly popular and how can you achieve your best marathon potential?

I will spare you all the facts and history of the marathon and cut more to the chase of how to prepare and train for one. However, if you are interested in such material, here is the link that goes into greater detail


For years, the marathon was thought of as a race that was determined just as much by chance, as much as by training. Nearly anyone racing a marathon, thought that “hitting the wall” was inevitable and that it was just a matter of who could push through it and persevere on to the finish.
Today however, coaches and runners are starting to realize that the marathon can be raced and, is being raced, in the same fashion as the shorter running distances. Why is this? It’s because runners are now starting to treat the marathon just as they would any other distance. In order to be best prepared for a certain pace, your body must become very comfortable with that pace.

For years, the LONG RUN was considered the absolute staple in preparing for a marathon. It wasn’t and still isn’t uncommon for a marathoner in training, to go out and run multiple 20-30 milers in preparation for their upcoming 26.2. The mindset is that in order to run the marathon distance, the runner must become very comfortable running “near”, “at” or “over” the marathon distance. That couldn’t be further from the truth though!

In order to cover the distance, the body is better prepared if, the body has put itself through similar distances of what it will be asked to do on race day, right? Well, not really!
Lets consider the numbers of the marathon and break it down by various skill levels of runners. The IDEAL cadence of a runner is said to be 180 steps per minute (90 per foot) and that majority of the elite runners of the world, fall into the 175-185 range.

So, lets say that we have 3 different runners of different marathon ability (based on finishing time) and that all of them have a running cadence of 180 foot strikes per minute. With those numbers, a 3 hour marathoner would take 32,400 steps per marathon, a 4 hour marathoner would take 43,200 steps per marathon, a 5 hour marathoner would take 54,000 steps per marathon.

Huge differences huh? So, lets break it down a bit further. Lets say that each runner averages 40 miles per week in training over the course of a 16 week marathon training cycle. Of those 3 runners, lets have a 10:00 per mile average pace for Runnner A, an average pace of 8:00 for Runner B and an average pace of 7:00 for Runner C. Doing the math, here is what we get.
Runner A = 72,000 steps per week (or 1,152,000 over 16 weeks)
Runner B = 57,600 steps per week (or 921,600)
Runner C = 50,400 steps per week (or 806,400)

The difference in steps between Runner A and Runner C being 347,600. That sure is a lot more pounding, torque and impact forces on the body, huh? That doesn’t even consider the differences in caloric expenditure for the energy required to lift the body off the ground that many times and propel it forward.

So how would a “slower” runner decrease the number of total steps and drop their overall race times? Get faster, duh!! Sounds simple enough, right? But how would this take place?
For simplistic purposes, lets not get into all the physiological changes and improvements that are made with certain types of training (Vo2max, aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, etc.) Lets solely discuss biomechanics!

Anyone who has ever ran much at all, knows that there is a “sweet spot” in regards to their perfect running gate and, it’s the spot where they are most efficient. It’s that spot where you are just “gliding”. Now, the problem with that is, though it may be the most biomechanically efficient spot, your under developed cardio, respiratory or musculoskeletal systems, will be the deciding factor as to how long you can maintain that level of effort and how long you can stay within that “sweet spot”.

So what does this have to do with the LONG RUN? Well, in regards to 99% of the traditional marathon training plans, it’s counterintuitive. If your goal is to run a 9 minute per mile pace for 26.2 miles, then what in the hell does a 20 miler at 10:30 pace do? One, it isn’t even covering the marathon distance (merely 76% of it) and TWO, it isn’t even close to the pace you are trying to sustain for a distance that is 24% longer. Why is all of this important?

Lets take a typical marathon plan where the runner does their long runs at 60-90 seconds per mile slower than their intended race pace. For every one hour of running, the differences between a 9:00 pace, 9:30 pace or a 10:30 pace, is (in caloric units) 744, 704 and 637. So, with the runner wanting to run a 4 hour marathon (approx 9:00 mile pace), that is a total difference of 428 calories between the 9:00-10:30 paces. What does that mean? Simply put, running those “LONG SLOW MILES”, does not teach the body to become efficient at all at race type pacing and in fact, a LSD run has a much different calorie burn ratio than that of a run that more closely mimics your race goal pace. Yes, you want to teach the body to burn fat more efficiently, which is what most people think they are doing with the LSD run. The problem with that is, most runners still eat before their long run and also take in calories during their long run, thus, never really teaching their body to make the transition of burning a higher ratio of fat to carbohydrate.

So should you totally eliminate the LONG RUN? Absolutely not! There are many a benefit to the long run, however, it’s the traditional method in which you would run the long run, that you should eliminate. An increased fitness level is more important and more of a deciding factor than is the higher volume or higher frequency of long runs. In a typical plan, the long runs are continually increased (usually on a weekly basis) before the body has adapted to them and before the body is capable of adequately handling them.
Let me explain in more detail of what I mean. Lets say you are training for your first marathon and are an intermediate runner (meaning you have ran many shorter distances but now want to tackle the marathon and run a faster time). For this example, you have a PR half marathon of 1:55 and would like to run a “sub 4:00 marathon”. How would you go about your LONG RUN scheduling and execution? Well, in traditional fashion, you would likely start out your first week of training at 10 or so miles and add 2 miles or so every week, until your reach your max of 20, 22, 24, etc. The problem with the typical style of increasing mileage is that, it doesn’t really allow enough time for the body to adapt in between the increase. You just go from 10 miles, to 12, to 14….for a marathoner who intends to run 10:00 pace for their long run, that is 20 minutes additional running tacked onto their weekly long run, with each uptick of 2 miles. To add insult to injury, the 10 miler on week one was likely much slower than goal race pace, yet the following week is 12 miles, then 14…before the body is really even callused or ready to handle the increase.

The more logical approach to this is, to let your body adapt to a stimulus, before adding another stimulus. The body, it doesn’t know anything about mileage. The body doesn’t know the difference between a mile, a yard, a kilometer, a foot, etc. What the body understands is frequency, duration and, intensity. It is similar to the “biological clock”. If not for an alarm, your body will wake up when it is ready to and when it feels that it has rested enough. Same goes with the running. The body needs to adapt to the 10 miler first, before jumping to 12, then to 14..etc, etc.

So what is the ideal time to allow for adaptation before introducing an increase? Though there are many studies that have been conducted, there is no exact amount of time, per se, however, it is said that 10-14 days is the average amount of time it takes for the body to absorb, adapt and respond to an introduced stimulus. With that said, lets take a 20 week marathon plan for example.
In a traditional plan, you might see the long run start at 10 miles in Week 1, building to 20 miles by week 12, then backing off for a week or two, before repeating the 18 and 20 mile runs again.

A more productive approach (in my experience, as well as all those I coach), a 20 week plan would look like this.
Week 1-3 (2 hours with % of MRP fluctuating)
Week 4 (1:45 hours at a slower steady pace..step back week)
Week 5-7 (2:15 hours with % of MRP fluctuating)
Week 8 (1:45 hours but a slower steady pace..step back week)
Week 9-11 (2:30 hours with % of MRP fluctuating)
Week 12 (1:45 hours but a slower steady pace..step back week)
Week 13-15 (2:45 hours with % of MRP fluctuating)
Week 16 (1:45 hours but a slower steady pace..step back week)
Week 17 (50% of goal race finishing time up to max of 2h and 30m, with 60% of duration ran at goal race pace)
Week 18 (A race up to 60% of marathon distance, ran at goal marathon pace or, a run of 70% of goal distance, with 50% at goal marathon pace.)
Week 19 (up to 55% of total distance, with 40% of total distance ran at goal marathon pace)
Week 20 (marathon race)

Using time vs. distance, this allows for all levels of runners to obtain the same quality of training, based on their own fitness levels. Lets take two different runners here, both the same age, relatively same weight and very similar resting and max heart rates. Now, the big difference is that Runner A is training for and capable of running a 3 hour marathon, whereas Runner B is training for and capable of a 5 hour marathon. Lets say that for their 20 mile Saturday long run, they both run at relatively the same percentages of VO2max, as well as roughly the same % of Max Heart Rate. Running at a LSD (Long Slow Distance) pace of roughly 1 minute per mile slower than their respective goal marathon pace, it takes Runner A 2 hours and 37 minutes to run 20 miles, while it takes Runner B, 4 hours and 10 minutes to run the same 20 miles. A difference of 1 hour and 33 minutes. So aside from the additional amount of time spent pounding the ground and taking thousands of more steps, Runner B also puts a greater strain on his cardio system and, will likely take greater time to recover from the 20 miles, therefore, never being as prepared as he should be for the following weeks workouts. Repeat this on a weekly basis and you can see why so many runners are beat up and are literally limping into the start of the race.

So if not the traditional long run approach, then what else?

First off, I am not here to say that long runs aren’t important because I do believe they are. But, I believe its the duration of the run that is most important, not the exact number of miles. In regards to miles, the only thing they improve, is possibly your psyche by reaffirming that you can in fact run a certain distance without dying (albeit slow!!)

In the past, it was thought that the traditional LSD was the best way to build those precious mitochondria (the power plant of the muscle) but, new research is showing that it’s the shorter, more intense workouts that build mitochondria at higher rates.

For any distance but, particularly the marathon, you should focus on 4 types of runs, based on where they fall into your training cycle and how they specifically relate to what it is you are trying to achieve. Each type of run works a different system and dials in on certain thresholds.

RECOVERY/REGENERATION – This type of running is meant solely to help speed up the recovery process from a previous days hard workout. This can also be light xtraining (aqua jogging or cycling being two of the better options). The intent with this type of workout is nothing more than getting the systems flowing and also to allow time for the blood pH levels to return to normal, before going out and hitting another hard workout. There should be no concern with mileage for this type of running. In terms of “what pace”, the pace is basically that of a true warmup/cooldown pace. About 60-70 percent of max heart rate.

Functional – This is the running that is down at “slower” than than your goal race pace and is around your aerobic threshold pace. This is that “sweet spot” pace that you can seemingly run forever without causing much stress to the body. In regards to “what pace”, this is that pace that is in the 50-70 seconds slower than 5k pace or the pace that corresponds to goal marathon pace to about 30 seconds per mile slower than goal marathon pace. Right around 80% or so of max heart rate.

Sub Pace – This running is the running you’ll do that works on extending your endurance relative to your specific race event. Since we are talking about the marathon here, the distances will obviously be shorter than race distance but, at substantially faster speeds, all the while falling back into marathon pace as a “recovery”. Any “speed work” or “tempo” work will fall into this category. For a marathoner, the paces most commonly associated with these workouts are 5k pace, 10k pace and if higher volume, more between the 10k-half marathon pace range. These paces will produce the highest percentages of max heart rate. Ranges of 85-100% here, depending on intensity, duration or combination of both.
Example workout;
5 minutes @ MRP + 10 seconds per mile
4 minutes @ half MRP
3 minutes @ 10k pace
1 minute @ 5k pace
10 minutes @ MRP

Entire set is continuous, with no breaks between any of the pace changes. Beginners would start with 1 set and build to 2, while advanced would start with 2 sets and build to 4.

Race Specific – This is the running that will be most closely related to your goal race pace. For marathoners, this pace will be in the range of 15 seconds +/- of your goal marathon pace. For instance, a 3:30 marathoner who is aiming to run 8:00 per mile pace, would be in the range of 7:45-8:15. This running is reserved mostly for long marathon tempo runs, a % of your long run (up to 75% of the long run) and also as a “recovery” pace in between your “sub pace”.

The importances of training at these various paces, are many. Regularly changing paces for different workouts, improves efficiency at your various race paces, improved biomechanics, Vo2, aerobic threshold, improved ability to process fat over glycogen and to teach the body to preserve glycogen for longer durations of training.

So, with all the above mentioned advice, the BIGGEST thing to take away from it all is, PATIENCE!! The marathon is a true patience race, both during the race itself and during the buildup in training. It may take 2, 6 or 15 marathons before you get it exactly right but, your chances of having the best possible marathon will be increased if you put yourself in the best possible situation to have a great marathon.

A good friend and training partner of mine, Kris Lawrence http://kris-lawrence.com/ has ran 9 marathons from 2009-2013. During that time, she has consistently PR’d. Over multiple courses, across various terrain of the country, she has not regressed once. WHY you ask? Knowing Kris well, my opinion is that 1.) She focuses on 1-2 marathons a year, building all of her preparatory training around those two races, using everything else as training. 2.) She takes a considerable amount of downtime to recover and regroup after each of those key races, then, builds back gradually, NOT where she left off at.

To tackle the marathon, you have to be dedicated and committed, not just to the running aspect of it but, to all other complimentary aspects as well. There is no doubt that the marathon is tough, especially when trying to race it. With that said, set yourself up for a great race by starting on the first day of your training program. Go into each workout with the mentality that you would the race. Make each workout count for its intended purpose and know that EACH workout should have a purpose and not just be another slog of miles to pad the log book.

To help make marathon training more enjoyable, join a group, recruit other fellow runner friends to join you on those tough runs. Work on your weaknesses and also channel your strengths.

Remember, “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle”.

So, as we are finishing out this year, head into 2014 with the best plan to get you that new PR and your most enjoyable marathon yet. If you need a plan or would like to try something new, contact The Endurance Project @ dwenduranceproject@gmail.com


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