Marathon running is a great sport and one of the biggest and fastest growing participation sports in the country. From young to old and from beginner to elites, more and more people are challenging themselves over the marathon distance. As a coach who has helped hundreds of people prepare for this challenge, I thought I’d write a blog about the 3 most common mistakes I see runners make in their marathon training, in the hopes that you may be able to avoid them in your training.
The 3 biggest mistakes I see many marathoners make in their training are:
1 – Building Up Too Fast
2 – Long Run Too Big % Of Weekly Mileage
3 – Attempting Herculean Workouts
Building Up To Fast
This isn’t a problem with only marathoners but many shorter distance runners as well. They see where they want to go (their goal) and they try and get there too quickly. As a society we aren't very patient, we want what we want and we want it now, and unfortunately this often carries over into our training. We get excited and determined and sometimes overzealous and launch into training too quickly and forget to take a slow and incremental build-up so that it is sustainable over a whole training cycle. We need to approach our training cycle like our races and make sure we don’t go out too aggressive or we will crash and burn before we get to the end. This is where having a proven and successful training plan can help to make sure your build-up is systematic and not too aggressive. Be sure to keep your mileage increases small and gradual and build up over time. Allow your body time to adjust and adapt to each increase before you increase again. Marathon training is a marathon not a sprint – pace yourself.
Long Run To Big % Of Weekly Mileage
Another common mistake I see many runners make, especially lower mileage marathoners, is that they let their weekly long run become too high a percentage of their weekly mileage. To calculate the percentage of your mileage that is done in your long run simply divide your long run distance by your total weekly mileage. So if your long run is 15 miles, and your total weekly mileage is 60, than your long run is 25% (15/60) of your weekly mileage. As this percentage increases so does your susceptibility to overuse injuries, illness or burn-out. This is because we are placing a greater strain on our body in just 1 run rather than spreading it out more evenly over multiple runs. This increase in stress and risk seems to go up significantly when our long run that is greater than 33% of our weekly mileage. Most marathon training programs ramp up the runner to long run of 20 miles (or more) in an effort to prepare them to run 26.2 miles on race day. But if you are following a lower mileage training program, where your maximum weekly mileage is 40 miles a week, then that long run can be up to 50% of your weekly mileage. That is a huge stress on the body and carries a higher injury and burn-out risk.
What I usually do with runner’s I coach who are running marathon on lower mileage, and so who’s long runs will grow above that 33% of weekly mileage level, is to build up their long run slowly over time and include weeks (usually every other week) where we pull back on the long run distance, to give the body a break so they aren't above that 33% every week. So as we build to a 20 mile long run, our weekly long run may look like the following: 12, 10, 14, 12, 16, 13, 18, 14, 20, building up every other week rather than every week.
This is one reason why I believe frequency is a key to success in running, because by running more often we are able to spread our mileage out more and it’s easier to build up to higher levels and this takes some of the strain and injury risk away from our long runs.
Attempting Herculean Workouts
This mistake is closely related to last one and is one I see just as many elite runners making as I do beginners. These runners fall into a mind-set that the marathon is an extreme race and so they must do extreme workouts to prepare for it. But more often than not I find these workouts leave them injured or over-trained more often than they help prepare them for the race. Sometimes I see runners who do frequent long tempo runs of greater than 50% of the marathon distance at marathon goal pace, or extreme long runs with extra challenges added in, or long runs with sections late in the workout at much quicker than goal race pace. When done in the normal course of a training load, often these workouts can be almost as hard as a race is when tapered. The end result is often a tired and worn down runner, not one healthy and energetic on the start line.
While 1 or 2 more challenging workouts such as this can be helpful to raise confidence, they need to be use very carefully and sparingly in training. I prefer to look at training and preparation as a whole and not put too much focus on any one workout. But rather systematically work on all the elements need 1 or 2 at a time and in a more measured and controlled fashion, so that over the course of a training cycle we put together the whole package. If we systematically approach our training and carefully put all the pieces in place, we’ll find we can be well prepared without the risks that come from too many herculean efforts in training. Make sure your best performance of the training cycle comes in the goal race, not in a workout 3 weeks before the race.
Do all you can to increase your changes of success and stay away from these 3 common mistakes. Pace yourself well in training and follow a systematic and well designed program, one that is patient and builds up slowly, keeps your long runs in good proportion to your mileage level, and avoid unnecessary risk from extreme workouts.
Coach Mark Hadley