The Basics Of Smart Marathon Training

You can improve your running economy without battering your body.

LET’S GET THE BASIC WHAT AND WHY OF THIS PLAN right on the table so that you can keep them in mind as you read the how that follows. Here’s what you can expect to be doing on a weekly basis under this plan:

  • * Three runs a week, totaling no more than 35 miles, consisting of speed work or hill repeats, a tempo run, and a long endurance run.
  • * Core strengthening, strength training, running drills, and balance work done two to three times per week.
  • * Aggressive cross-training, recommended as cycling, at least twice per week.

Why this plan? Because too many of us get hurt too frequently doing the sport we love. That’s not acceptable, and it’s not the way things have to be. You may be reading this book because you believe that a change in your running program is a good idea, which also means you’ve already got an open mind about trying a new program. Or you may have come to this program because you’ve had too many injuries or a chronic injury that won’t go away.

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You’re not alone. Most runners sustain an injury at some point that keeps them sidelined. For many of them, the cause is not hard to find: too many miles spent running, with not enough recovery. The high-mileage example comes right from the top: Elite middle- and long-distance runners routinely top 100 miles run per week and often reach over 120 and 140 miles.

Just where did this mania for piling on mileage come from? Often it’s hard to identify the origin of a widespread trend, but in this case it’s not too difficult: coaching legend Arthur Lydiard.

A native New Zealander, Lydiard revolutionized the running world in the 1960s by introducing long, slow runs into his training program. He emphasized the benefits of building a huge endurance base. This provided great improvements in running economy, which is a measurement of how much oxygen the body requires to run at a given speed. High oxygen consumption is a sign of oncoming fatigue, so good running economy means that less oxygen is used to run fast. High-volume running brings improvements in this measurement.

Lydiard’s program required all of his runners—including sprinters and middle-distance runners—to log a minimum of 100 miles per week. His program included more than just this base-building phase, but the high-mileage requirement was always its defining component. From this philosophy was born the general consensus that to be a good runner, an athlete had to nearly always be running. Six days, seven days a week, often twice a day.

It would seem hard to contest Lydiard’s program because of the results it produced: three of his protégés medaled at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and one, Peter Snell, hit double gold in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Nevertheless, a few coaches, like famed coach Jack Daniels, began to question Lydiard’s program. They began to put more emphasis on the intensity of the training effort instead of just the mileage. “Adding more and more mileage to your weekly training does not produce equal percentages of improvement in competitive fitness,” Daniels argued. Long, slow running generally produced long, slow races, they argued. And although high mileage worked for some runners, Daniels argued that each body was different and that each runner had to discover and appreciate his or her limits (Daniels n.d., 2005).

So is it true or isn’t it that only high-mileage running can produce successful long-distance runners? Consider the Africans. Road-racing fans have watched the rise of African long-distance runners since the great Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the gold medal in the marathon in the 1960 and  1964 Olympics. Since then, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners seem to have been conducting a private duel in most of the world’s top races, from New York to Boston to the Olympics.

This has led many American runners to wonder what it is about the African approach to running that has garnered these runners such success. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that many of these runners live and train at high altitude, which forces their bodies to learn how to work harder with less oxygen. Plus, the African culture and daily lifestyle revolve much more around running than does American culture. But the fact that these runners follow high-volume training plans has led many observers to conclude that high running mileage is necessary to achieve any success.

Still, I suspect that there’s a part of the puzzle that’s been missing. Even though successful African marathoners might run high mileage, it doesn’t follow that every African runner can do high mileage. For every successful African runner we see winning or placing in the major races, there might very well be scores of runners back in Africa whose bodies are not able to tolerate the rigors of high-mileage training. But we rarely see in the popular press data about the injury rate of the rest of the African runners, so the myth grows that only high mileage can produce successful long-distance runners.

If you conclude from all this, however, that I believe that high mileage is always bad, you’d be wrong. For the many elite runners whose bodies can handle it, high-mileage training has yielded astounding fitness and success. Other coaches, Daniels included, agree that high mileage can be beneficial where appropriate.

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The problem is that for many of us, high mileage has brought stress fractures, patella tendinitis, iliotibial band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, and a host of other maladies, not to mention the frustration of not being able to do the thing we love at the level we’d like to do it. Or, depending on the injury, at all.

This dilemma isn’t limited to middle-of-the-pack runners; many elite runners who prosper with high-mileage training also fall prey to injury. Former world record holder Khalid Khannouchi swung like a pendulum between record-setting performances and disabling injuries, and the fastest American female marathoner to date, Deena Kastor, was sidelined after suffering a stress fracture in the Beijing Olympics. Even for many elite runners, high-mileage training is often not a sustainable lifestyle.

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