Marathon Training Tips

Training Tips and Mistakes to Avoid


Robert Maschi, PT, DPT, CSCS
Rehabilitation Department
Hospital for Special Surgery

What kind of running experience/mileage should I have before training for a marathon?

You should be able to run at least 15-25 miles per week. If you have a consistent history of fitness training, even though it may be with another activity like cycling or aerobics, this will augment a lower running mileage. You should also have participated in a couple 10-k or 5-k races and enjoyed the experience of racing.
What are the most common mistakes runners make when training for the marathon?

  • Increasing mileage or intensity too quickly.
    Increase your training mileage/time by no more than 10-20 % weekly. For example, if youíre currently running 20 miles per week, increase your total weekly mileage by no more than 2-4 miles the next week. A periodic long run is part of race preparation, but you should reduce other training components or introduce a rest day. Gradually introduce speed or hill work. Change only one training component at a time. For example, if youíve decided to begin some hill work (intensity), donít increase your running mileage the same week.
  • Ignoring the warning signs of an injury and continuing to train with pain.
    This is a sure way to end up watching other people run the marathon.
  • Not resting.
    You should have at least one rest day each week. You should also have periodic light training weeks (every 4-6 weeks), particularly after a race or heavy week.
  • Neglecting a proper stretching and strengthening program.
    "I donít need to strengthen my legs because running does that". Not true. Due to the repetitive nature of running, muscle imbalances which cause injuries are very common. Tight or weak muscles should be addressed with a specific conditioning program to avoid "breakdown" from the chronic stress of marathon training.
  • Training in worn-out or improperly fitting running shoes.
    Train in a supportive, well-fitting pair of running shoes, with ample room in the toebox. Depending on your weight and running surface, you should replace your running shoes every 250-500 miles. The sole of your shoe is made with extremely durable rubber which may still look good even if the midsole is no longer providing cushioning or support. Remember that shoes wear out before they look worn out. If you set your shoes on a level surface and they tilt in or out, theyíve begun to break down and will no longer support you. Nagging foot, knee, back or hip pain may be another signal that you need new footwear.
  • Trying to make up for a lost week of running by doubling your mileage the next week.

  • Forgetting that cross-training with other aerobic workout activities can contribute to overall fitness and race preparation.
    You can do up to 20% of your mileage in activities like cycling, deep water running, swimming, stair climbing etc. to reduce wear and tear on your body.
  • Listening to too many people.
    Donít beat yourself into the ground by training with friends who have a different fitness level, longer history of running, longer stride or much faster pace.
What are the warning signs of overtraining?

Take your true resting pulse for one minute in the morning when you wake up. Get to know your typical pulse rate. One of the adaptations to physical conditioning is a progressively lower resting heart rate. However, if your resting pulse becomes higher after a period of intense conditioning, this expresses too much physical stress on the body.

See a doctor if any of the first three items describe you.

  • Pain which doesnít disappear within two days after your training run.
  • Pain which begins to come on earlier in your workout instead of later.
  • Pain which limits your workout.
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom

What are the basic elements of marathon training which should be included in my program?

There are many training programs available that are prepared by the organizers of various marathon races or running coaches. Remember that these are a framework for training and you should listen to your body and follow the directions of your physician/therapist/coach. Take into account your overall level of fitness and health, years of conditioning/running and skill/competitive level. Your training schedule should include:

  • Slow Distance: (60-70% HRmax) These are long easy training runs. This is the foundation of your training, particularly during the early months of preparation when you are building a base of aerobic fitness. Keep your intensity low and comfortable. Many runners train too hard for too many miles.

  • Tempo: (70-90% HRmax depending on fitness level) Tempo training is typically done at a brisk pace which is slightly slower or right at your 10 k race pace. This type of training will help you to increase your lactate threshold, which improves your ability to tolerate speed over time. During the last 2 months before the marathon, do one 30-50 minute tempo run each week, depending on your level.

  • Hills: (80-100% HRmax) Hill training is an important part of building the strength to finish strong when youíre fatigued, especially on a hilly course. Hill work should occur no more than once a week.

  • Speed: (80-100% HRmax) Speed training involves running at a speed that is much faster than your 10k race pace but for a shorter distance (200 meters to 1 mile). Speed work helps you to develop the ability to sustain speed over distance, improves your anaerobic energy systems, trains your neuromuscular system to fire efficiently and improves your mental ability to train at tough intensities. Speed intervals should never be done more than one time a week and only after youíve developed a good base of endurance and strength.

  • Rest/Recovery: This is one of the most important parts of your training schedule. Overtraining will deplete your muscles of glycogen, thus limiting your endurance. It takes over 24 hours to replete muscle glycogen. Allow for at least one complete rest day/week. A light training day or rest day should always follow a hard training day. This will keep you mentally and physically fresh and prevent overuse injuries.

  • Long Run: How long is a long run? Regardless of where you start, this is the one run that you gradually increase to move toward marathon distance. Increase your long run by 2-3 miles every 2-3 weeks. Initially your long run may be 8 miles and end up at 22 miles (or maximum 3 hours) about a month before the race.  Long run days should happen no more than 2-3 times per month.

  • Stretching: Intense training can increase muscle tension and reduce range of motion. Stretching will keep your muscles flexible to prevent injury, improve your performance and promote a fluid running motion. Stretching should be done every day, particularly after exercise, when high muscle temperature and good blood flow augment your bodyís response to flexibility training. Hold each stretch 15-30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times. You should feel muscle tension, but NOT pain. During your long runs, you may want to stop and stretch halfway through.
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