What I would like to share with you today is the base marathon training cycle design that I use for competitive marathoners. This base model is where I start from and then I customization the training cycle as needed for each individual runner's strengths, weaknesses and personal situation.
When training for a marathon, I prefer a 9 day micro-cycle that includes 3 stress workouts and has 2 easy/recovery days after each. Some runners can handle a 7 day micro-cycle (3 stress days with 1-2 easy recovery days between them) just fine, and I do use those with many of my runners, but my base model is a 9 day cycle as I feel it promotes recovery and sustainability, it increases the mileage level we can maintain, and enhances our ability to get in other ancillary training (drill & core circuits, etc.) on a regular basis. 9 days certainly isn’t a mandate but is the base from which I start.
3 Phase Training Cycle
I utilize a 3 phase training cycle when training someone for a marathon. Those 3 phases are:
The Fundamental Phase is the first phase in our training cycle and lasts between 8 and 12 micro-cycles long. The calling card of the Fundamental Phase is the balanced approach to improving fitness levels. In this phase we utilize an even balance of each category of workout (speed, stamina and endurance). Most training micro-cycles in the Fundamental Phase will have 1 speed workout, 1 stamina workout and 1 endurance workout. Our focus during this phase is to slowly build up our fitness in each category.
Speed workouts are intensive in nature during this phase, meaning we work to increase the paces we can do our workouts at. We utilize all 3 types of speed workouts (fast repeats, VO2 max repeats and groove repeats - see workout blog) on a regular basis.
Stamina workouts are also intensive during this phase and we use a 2 to 1 ratio of lactate threshold (LT) workouts to aerobic threshold (AT) workouts. A good variety of each type of LT and AT workout are used during the cycle. This focus on intensive progression and lactate threshold work, coupled with our regular speed workouts helps us to build our aerobic power during the Fundamental Phase.
Endurance workouts in this phase are done using a 2 to 1 ratio for easy longs runs versus quality long runs. This means we get in 2 easy longs for every one steady state or fast finish long run. Our endurance workouts are extensive in nature during the Fundamental Phase, as we gradually lengthen the distance/duration of our runs shooting for a maximal level (see workout blog) by the end of the phase.
Racing: because of the balanced nature of our training during the Fundamental Phase, we can usually race very effectively at distances ranging from 5k to the Half Marathon in this phase, and I plan 2-3 times (or once every 3-6 micro-cycles) during the Fundamental Phase.Specific Phase
The specific phase is the second phase in our training cycle and it takes the balanced running fitness established in the fundamental phase and builds it to a peak for the marathon. The mixture of workouts in the Specific Phase increases the focus to the demands of the marathon distance, and as such leans more heavily towards stamina workouts and more lightly on speed workouts, and the quality component is increased in endurance workouts (i.e. more steady state and fast finished long runs utilized). The specific phase lasts 6-8 micro-cycles long.
Speed Workouts: These are reduced in frequency by roughly half. It is important to still include some speed workouts in our mix of workouts but we utilize this category less frequently as speed takes on a supportive roll in our marathon preparation and is not a specific requirement of the goal race. Speed workouts emphasis in this phase is on smoothness and rhythm and maintaining stride power and economy.
Stamina Workouts: These workouts are increased in frequency (by the amount speed workouts are decreased) as they are a major component of our goal race. Additionally the ratio of lactate threshold (LT) to aerobic threshold (AT) centered workouts flips from what it was in the Fundamental Phase to become 2 AT workouts per 1 LT workout. Stamina workouts in this phase become extensive in nature, working to increase the length (distance/duration) we can hold certain paces.
Endurance Workouts: These workouts continue to be prevalent in our training, with the mixture of long run types moving more toward the quality components (steady state and fast finish) once our easy paced long runs reach the lesser of 105% of marathon goal duration or 180 minutes.
Quality long runs are at least on a 1 to 1 ratio with easy paced long runs, if not greater.
Races (other than the goal race) are used sparingly or not at all during a Specific Phase, as the focus is on preparing for and maximizing the performance in the goal marathon. Races, such as a half marathon, are sometimes included but are not tapered for and used as extended AT tempo workouts.
Following a goal marathon race a regeneration break is taken as the third and last phase in our training cycle.
This Regeneration Phase serves as a down period in which the runner recharges their physical and mental batteries and recovers from the demands of the training cycle and goal race. In essence it is a prolonged recovery phase of the stress and recover base unit. The regeneration phase is made up of rest days, regeneration runs and easy runs only. This phase primarily includes easy/regeneration running of between 20-60 minutes per day.
The length of a Regeneration Phase will depend on the length of the training cycle, the demands of the goal race and general fatigue level or the athlete. In general the Regeneration Phase will last between 10 and 20 days. If training is done in a sustainable fashion, then this length will be plenty sufficient to achieve our regeneration objective.