Smart Marathon Training: Get The Most For Least

One appeal of long-distance racing is that there is no way of faking fitness.

Any runner who attempts a long distance race without properly preparing courts disaster.

When I first presented the principles of this program at a talk I gave at a large marathon expo, I couldn’t help but notice the reaction of a woman sitting in the front row. When I announced that it’s possible to fully prepare for a marathon by running no more than 35 miles per week, she slowly shook her head from side to side, a frown on her face.

I wasn’t the least bit upset by this reaction. To the contrary, I was thrilled. I expected my presentation to spark some disagreement, and I was looking forward to a chance to defend my theories. The last thing I wanted was a quiet, compliant group. Without any disagreements, how could I be sure that they were even listening?

So when I saw that woman in the front, I smiled. It was clear that she considered 35 miles per week to be too small a base on which to run a marathon. Perhaps she thought that I was promising people something for nothing.

RELATED: The Basics Of Smart Marathon Training

Her mistake was in assuming that running was the only component of the program, that if I cut back on running, I would shrink the time spent training. In fact, all I was doing was making running one component of a training program—the most important component, to be sure, but just one of the parts.

I don’t believe in shortcuts. One appeal of long-distance racing is that there is no way of faking fitness. A runner may be lucky to get good weather or may have chosen a flat, fast course, but he or she still has to run for one or more hours. Any runner who attempts a long distance race without properly preparing courts disaster.

Worse still, this failure can’t be hidden. On race day, it becomes clear who did their homework and who didn’t. Hitting the wall is no myth; it’s a real physiological event that occurs when the body runs through its glycogen stores. Glycogen is the body’s preferred source of fuel—it burns cleanly and is readily available as blood sugar. The body stores about a two-hour supply of glycogen in the liver, more than enough for most of its needs.

Problems arise, however, when we ask our body to work harder than we’ve trained it to do, especially over long periods of time. When we eat through our available glycogen stores, we experience a sudden drop in energy. It’s as if our power cords were just cut or we suddenly were running through cement. The loss of energy can come on suddenly, like a car running out of gas.

That’s hitting the wall.

A runner who hits the wall suddenly slows from a run to a shuffle or even a walk. It’s a very public declaration that the runner didn’t prepare for the kind of race she or he was trying to run.

Hitting the wall isn’t inevitable, however. Long runs done in training trigger an adaptation response in the body, forcing it to rely increasingly on fat for fuel instead of just glycogen.

Fat is not the body’s preferred source of fuel because processing it requires some additional steps, but there is ample fat in even the leanest body to fuel many hours of high-intensity work. Whereas glycogen requires water in order to be stored, fat does not, so the body stores it very efficiently. Fat also is twice as calorie dense as glycogen, logging 9 calories per gram, as opposed to 4 calories per gram of glycogen, so a little can go a long way. So even though most people might think of fat and calories as something to be restricted in dieting, fat is in fact an important—and for runners, a crucial—measurement of fuel. That is, if the body can be taught to use it.

Related: Training Smart, Running Healthy

All of this was on my mind when I told the expo audience that I recommended running no more than 35 miles a week. I felt confident making that statement because I knew that it is possible to trigger the body’s fat-burning potential without running the body into the ground. The key is to include runs that achieve that end.

Similarly, it’s possible to do runs that target speed. Most experienced runners know this and incorporate these runs into their program. Where my approach differs from other programs, however, is that I have runners do only enough running to trigger those responses, but not one step more.

This article was adapted from the book Smart Marathon Training with the permission of VeloPress. Old-school marathon training plans ask runners to crank out 70 to 100 miles a week. It’s no wonder those who make it to the start line are running ragged. Smart Marathon Training maps out a healthier, more economical approach to training that emphasizes quality over quantity. This innovative program eliminates junk miles, paring down training to three essential runs per week and adding a dynamic strength and cross-training program to build overall fitness. Runners will train for their best performance in less time and avoid the injuries, overtraining, and burnout that come from running too much. Download a free sample and preview the book at velopress.com.

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About The Author:

Jeff Horowitz is a certified running and triathlon coach and a personal trainer who has run more than 150 marathons across six continents. Formerly an attorney, he quit law to pursue his passion for endurance sport and now works with DC Tri; The Nations Triathlon; the nonprofit summer camp ACHIEVE Kids Triathlon; and Team Hope, a charity fund-raising training group that benefits the Hope Connections Center, a cancer-patients service organization. Learn more about Jeff at smartmarathontraining.com.

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