Colleen Yuskaitis, owner of independent fitness training company Thrive on Challenge, offers some valuable insight just in time for the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon & Relay this weekend. Even if your own sneakers won't be hammering the pavement on Sunday, her article helps you how to choose a full marathon that's right for you, and how to prepare to go the distance.
You've decided to run a marathon ... congratulations!
Take the time now to do some research on which race you want to finish. Some things to consider are the time of year, the location of the event, cost of the entry fee and travel, as well as the number of participants. Marathon season in the USA peaks in October, with a steady decline in the number of races in the winter, spring and early summer. Keep in mind that if you're planning to race in autumn, most of your training will be done during the summer months---but be prepared for a chilly race day. Whether you find a small local race or you want to be one of the 45,000 runners expected to finish the ING New York Marathon, you will experience the dedication, effort and elation shared by everyone who finishes the 26.2 mile race.
Once you've picked your race, it's time to start looking at training plans. With the number of finishers increasing each year, there are a multitude of free plans online designed for the novice all the way to expert. Have a look at three to four of them to see how they would work into your weekly schedule and whether or not they seem feasible. A good training plan should have a base, a build, and a peak and taper phase worked into it. Each phase will consist of long runs, cross-training and rest.
The base phase is the first part of your training plan. Whether you just finished another plan or a race, this is the time to get some easy miles under your belt. Take your time on the runs. These should be slower than your expected race pace for the marathon. Anticipate running three or four days out of the week, with your long run on the weekend. The other days of the week you will be cross-training (swimming, cycling, hill-walking or skating are great options) or resting. Be aware of how your body feels, how sore or tired you are the day after your long run, and don't be afraid to take a day off if you are sick or not feeling well. During the base phase, your long run will increase from around four miles to six or eight miles. You should be comfortable doing a long run of this distance every week.
The build phase is when you start adding more mileage and speed to your training plan. Different from the base phase, your long runs should be done every ten days to two weeks. These runs will go from 10 to 17 miles, and should not increase by more than two miles or 10 percent of the previous long run. By increasing gradually and taking more time to rest, your body will have enough time to recover and you will reduce your risk of injury.
Once a week you should replace one of your easy runs with a “tempo” (also called a “lactate threshold” or “steady-state”) run. The lactate threshold is the point at which your body will sharply increase its production of lactate---the stuff that makes your legs feel tired and heavy. A tempo run is designed to gradually increase the body's ability to put off producing lactate at faster speeds. In research by Exercise Physiologists Robergs and Roberts, training programs that combine high volume, maximal steady-state and interval workouts most improve the lactate threshold. The key to a tempo run is to sustain a speed and effort that is around 65-70% of your maximum speed. If you are breathing hard or cannot hold a light conversation, you should slow down. Conversely, if you can sing loudly or yell during a tempo run, you should pick up your speed.
The final phase of marathon training is the peak and taper phase. To taper means to cut back on your training. This way you are fresh and strong for your race day. The taper phase should be between one and a half to three weeks long. This can be one of the toughest parts of your training plan because you will have a lot of energy reserves and may feel the need to run more or faster than you should during the peak and taper phase. You should gradually be decreasing your long run from 17 or 20 miles down to 11 or 12 miles the week before your race day.
Once you reach the starting line, believe it or not, all of the hard work has already been done for this event. Allow yourself plenty of time to warm up and find your pace corral. Let your friends and family who've come to watch you know which miles will be best to watch you from and be sure to thank them for being there for you. Enjoy the moment, thank the volunteers, and congratulate yourself on your first marathon.