What surfaces should I train on?

Marathon races are mostly run on roads, or tarmac, but does this mean that you should do the majority of your training on this surface?  The answer, in my view, is absolutely not!

Tarmac and concrete are unnaturally hard surfaces, leading to higher reaction forces acting up through your feet, to your ankles, knees, hips and back on every foot strike, leading to greater injury risk.

Running on grass

Training on a more forgiving surface such as grass, sand, trail or country footpath will reduce the impact and therefore the likelihood of falling victim to a running overuse injury. The uneven nature of off-road terrain also places higher demands on your muscles, particularly related to the need to maintain balance, and running on such surfaces requires and develops greater core strength.  It might be argued that running on uneven ground is more likely to lead to injuries, but as long as you gradually accustom yourself to the terrain, perhaps by walking or slow jogging, then the increased strength and balance gained should outweigh any risk.

Jogging on the beach

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do some training on the road, and in practice you will probably have to negotiate some tarmac to get to the cross-country trails, or in the winter months you may have to train after dark, which generally means you have no choice.  And in the weeks leading up to your target race, it is important to do some road work to get used to the rhythm that you are looking for on the day.  But overall, I strongly believe that, where possible, you should be running on grass, trails or sand for the bulk of your training.

trail running

Train for minutes, not miles

stopwatch running                     10 km

It can be more practical and psychologically beneficial to focus on the duration rather than the distance covered during a training session .

Two runners arrive at a training session.  Athlete A can run seven minute mile pace quite comfortably at this stage, whilst Athlete B currently trains at about ten minute mile pace.  The coach sends them out for a six mile run and suggests they each run at about 80% effort.  They set off and Athlete A duly arrives back at the base having worked moderately hard for a little over forty minutes, whilst Athlete B returns after working at the same intensity for an hour.  Have they had the same workout?  Not really.

Instead, if the coach had asked them to each to run for, say, fifty minutes at 80% effort, then we could expect a similar training effect and recovery time.  Of course, if athlete B wants to complete a marathon, then they will eventually have to cover over 26 miles, but they can work towards this gradually, perhaps taking in 5k, 10k, 10 mile and half-marathon races before going for the big one.  And at any stage they can say, you know what, I don’t think that the marathon is for me at the moment and I think I’ll stick with races up to, say, 10 miles for now.

Psychologically, I believe that running for a set time is usually easier to handle.  It doesn’t matter how strong you feel on a particular day, as there is no reason why the workout should be any easier or tougher providing you just aim to put in a given level of effort for a specific time.  When you feel dreadful, you might not cover as much ground as you would otherwise, but if you have taken on board the principle of running for a set time, then that won’t matter to you.  And when you say to yourself  ‘When is this going to end?’ you simply reply to yourself ‘in exactly 32 minutes and 25 seconds’.  If your mental arithmatic isn’t that great, wait until your stopwatch comes up to a round number such as 5:00, 10:00 or 15:00 minutes before asking this question.

Running for at time and fat burning

There can be little doubt that running is one of the best ways of losing weight and getting rid of body fat, even in comparison to other excellent aerobic activities such as cycling and swimming.  But training your body to burn fat is also important for performance, especially in very long events such as marathons and ultra-marathons.  This is Dorando Pietri wallbecause our natural fat stores provide us with a more efficient and longer lasting energy source.  So if you can train your body to be a more effective fat burner, you should be able to maintain your energy levels for longer on the big day and hopefully avoid hitting the dreaded marathon ‘wall’ (right).

So how can we become better fat burners?

Diet clearly has a part to play in fat burning,  and I will be looking into this in later posts, but the way you train is probably the most important factor.  The good news is that fat burning capacity is best developed by running slowly and well within your capacity.    The less good news is that you need do this for prolonged periods of time to really benefit, though if you enjoy being out running then that is not actually a bad thing at all!  This is more likely to be the case if you can run with a training partner or in  a group, with the obvious social benefits making the whole thing fly by. And natural pace control is available, since an inability to talk comfortably means you are going too fast.

Social run

How do I plan a route for a time?

Treadmill runningIts easy to run for a fixed time on a treadmill, or doing laps around the local park, but most of us prefer to do our steady runs around a single long circuit, preferably in pleasant countryside.  A bit of trial and error is required here, but you’ll soon get a feel for how long it usually takes for you to get around a particular circuit.  I always take my wrist stopwatch on my runs,  but make sure you avoid the temptation to treat each run as a time trial.  You can always run around the block a couple of times if you arrive home early, or walk the last bit if the route takes longer than you had planned.  Try not to be too OCD about it, but its important that you gradually increase the amount of time you spend running, so try to ensure that you stick fairly close to your plan on each training session.

 

How long to train for the marathon?

How long’s a piece of string, you might ask? We are all individuals, and what suits one person won’t be right for the next. But certain principles apply to everyone.

Before you begin your specific marathon training plan, you must have a reasonable level of cardiovascular fitness.

This would typically mean that you regularly run for at least thirty minutes for three or four days a week. And an active lifestyle, including other aerobic activities such as swimming, cycling and walking is always a good starting point.

Cyclist and walker

Targeting a race

So you’re ready to commit to that first marathon? When should you target a marathon race in order to give yourself enough time to prepare?

Calendar 2019/2020

Again, it depends on you and your background fitness. If you aren’t very active at all and are building up from a low fitness level, then you need to look to the longer term, perhaps 12 months, and it would be wise to set some intermediate targets to complete shorter duration races, most typically over 5k, 10k, 10 miles and half-marathon. If you really are starting from a low level of activity, it is also strongly advised to get a medical check-up before launching into a serious marathon training schedule (or indeed any distance running program).

 

Once you have achieved a basic level of runningWoman jogging fitness, which I suggest could be achieved by building up to running three or four times a week for a weekly total of at least two hours or 120 minutes, then your marathon training plan can begin in earnest. See my article on Building up to steady running for suggestions on how to get to this point.

A quick search of “12 week marathon training schedule”, “2 month marathon training plan” or even “train for the marathon in 6 weeks” will come up with plenty of results. Maybe these have worked for some, but I personally would be looking at a training period of at least 6 months, even if you are reasonably experienced at racing over distances such as ten miles and half-marathon. It is important to consider how long you would need to prepare if all went well, and then add a few weeks to allow for any injuries or illness.  Runners everywhere will relate to the fear of losing fitness if they miss too much training, and this attitude can lead to poor decision making. Slight niggles are often ignored because the event is looming and the athlete feels that they are still some way from peak fitness.

Adopt the pace of nature

However, if the timescale is less ambitious, then the athlete can feel confident of recovering any fitness losses from a break in training in the early stages, and an injury in the latter stages can be rested in the knowledge that they have a strong training background. That said, you want to have some immediacy to maintain the motivation, and all things considered, a 26 week marathon training schedule is perhaps a good compromise.

If you want a more thorough guide to marathon preparation, then the Hanson’s method is perhaps a good one to go for.

 

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