Smart Marathon Training: Training Smart, Running Healthy

There is a feeling among runners that if a little bit is good, a lot more must be a lot better.

My marathoning days were hardly over. How then could I explain my durability? The relevant literature didn’t seem to have answers. I had no problem finding studies about the physiological changes that occur during a single training cycle: how the body adapts to additional mileage by increasing its blood volume, its energy-producing mitochondria, and its ability to make better use of abundant fat stores for fuel. But I couldn’t find anything that would explain why my body was holding up so well over so many years.

Then I had a realization. Most runners who got injured didn’t hurt themselves in a race; they hurt themselves in training. Ask any injured runner about the origin of his or her problem, and the reply usually goes something like this: “Well, it was about a month before my race when I began to feel a twinge in my (hamstring, calf, knee, hip, foot), and it only got worse by race day.”

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How often I raced wasn’t the real issue, then. The secret to my ability to stay healthy had to do with what was happening between my races.

I began to think more about what I was doing. Or, as the case turned out, not doing. I wasn’t beating myself up while training. I got myself in marathon shape, and then I did only what I needed to do to stay there and to be as fit as possible and no more than that. This might sound like a sensible, even obvious approach, but for most runners it’s neither reasonable nor obvious. We’re a stubborn breed by nature; we wouldn’t be able to run for hours if we weren’t.

Long-distance running is based at least partly on an ability to endure discomfort. Because of that, it tends to attract people who, like me, are stubborn. Before too long, we begin to define ourselves by how much pain we can take and how grueling our workouts are. “Pain is nothing,” the popular mantra goes. “It’s just weakness leaving the body.”

Perhaps. Or maybe it’s really the sign of a muscle or ligament about to tear.

The gravitational pull of doing bigger and longer workouts is hard to resist, however. There is a feeling among runners that if a little bit is good, a lot more must be a lot better. Once, years ago, I read about elite runners who typically run more than 100 miles a week. I thought, they must know what they’re doing, so when I decided to use my next marathon to qualify for the Boston Marathon and a possible personal record, I tried running high mileage, too. I ran twice a day, as I’d read all the elite runners do, and I got my mileage up to 80 and then 90 miles per week.

I felt proud of what I was achieving—I was training like an elite runner, wasn’t I? But I knew that this wasn’t the best of my running. I was dragging my body through two workouts a day, and I was slow, tired, and unmotivated. Still, I kept up with my plan, sure that I was doing the right thing. I just had to get through this, I thought, and then it will all feel better.

What I didn’t consider was that elite runners get hurt all the time. I was probably lucky that in trying to copy them, I didn’t hurt myself, too.

When race day came, I felt confident that I would do well. And I did. I didn’t set a new PR, but I did qualify for Boston. I was pleased, but I had to admit that I hadn’t really done any better than when I had trained on half that total mileage.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with a problem I was having as a coach for a charity running team. Most of my runners hit their targets, whether it was finishing their first marathon or achieving a personal best. But invariably some of my athletes got injured. Not very many, statistically speaking—just one or two a season—but that was enough to concern me.

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