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Re-Thinking the Marathon Running Schedule: A Pace Based Approach

04 March

Avenue of the Giants 1/2 marathon 2010
Creative Commons License photo credit: ex_magician
Where Will Your Run Take You?

Not all marathon running schedules are created equal, and your training might be suffering because of it. This isn’t the case for everyone, but it’s especially true if you run slower than 9-minute miles during your marathon training cycle.

Why 9-minute miles, you ask? It’s pretty simple math.

  • Running longer than two-and-a-half hours puts serious physical stress on the body.
  • An 18-mile run is the minimum length of the average¬†marathon plan’s “longest” run; most go further.
  • 18 miles at 9 minute/mile pace takes 2 hours and 42 minutes; putting you in the Red Zone (see below).

Simply put, most marathon plans are what I call “long-run dependent.” The training cycles are built around increasing the long run each weekend, falling back every few weeks to recover. The goal is to build up the athletes endurance fitness to handle 26.2 miles on race day.

Targeting miles as the key metric is the easy way out; and worse yet it’s biased in favor of the faster runner. Over the course of an 18-miler, our 9-minute friends are getting a much different workout than their speedy counterparts. Let’s dig a little bit deeper by looking at Wandering Wally and Speedy Stan.

The Mileage Muddle
Wandering Wally and his buddy, Speedy Stan, are both training for a fall marathon. Wally’s threshold pace is 9:15/mile, putting his marathon goal pace at 9:53 according to Daniel’s vDOT calculations. Speedy Stan’s threshold pace is 6:15/mile, and he hopes to run 6:35/minute miles on race day.

In the 8th week of their plan, they both have an 17-mile run on the schedule. The run takes Stan just under two-hours to complete. He’s already out of the shower, recovery drink in hand as Wally stumbles in nearly an hour later. Same distance, same effort level, but an hour difference.

The Recovery Red Zone
While Wally survives this run to continue on another week, his body is experiencing significantly different levels of training stress than Stan’s. The plan, written for folks like Stan, assumes that the work of training, or training stress, will be manageable. But using the Run Training Stress Score (rTSS) as created by Stephen MacGregor, Wally is “scoring” a great deal more rTSS.

According to the math, Wally scored 90 more points than Stan. To put that into perspective, 100 points is equivalent to an hour at threshold pace. This means that on top of Stan’s rTSS, Wally practically ran the equivalent of an all out 10k!

The cumulative effect of this additional stress will eventually wear Wally down. Following a mileage-based plan, he’s more likely to sustain over-use injuries, and mental or physical burnout. As the training weeks get longer, he’ll be putting in multiple hours more running than Stan.
 

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A Stress-Based Solution
So what’s Wally to do? He needs to get ready for the marathon but it’s (literally) sucking the life out of his body, his spirit, and…his life. But there’s hope; time is actually on Wally’s side.

Remember that 2.5-hour guideline, the virtual line in the sand between manageable and destructive training stress? Well, when Wally and Stan both run focusing on TIME and not DISTANCE, the run training stress scores are almost exactly the same. Here’s the data on a 2.5 hour run at the same paces as above.

Stan scores 256 rTSS points, while Wally nets 250 points; practically the same. Even the relative intensities (in parentheses) are close. The kicker of course, is in miles covered.

While they are now both working equally as “hard,” Stan almost covers 23 miles, while Wally is just cracking 15 miles…not close to the 18 mile minimum and a far cry from the 21 miler runs that most marathon training plans will demand of him. So what’s he to do?

Manipulating Intensity
Well, if we measure by training stress, then Wally’s solution is actually pretty simple: run harder. He needs to run harder to score more training stress than he would during an average long run.

Comparing his 2.5-hour jaunt to the 17-miler he ran earlier, we can see the difference is approximately 31 TSS points (280.7 minus 249.9). So in order to earn the training stress equivalent of a 17 miler at goal pace, Wally has to score 30 more rTSS points in the same 2.5-hour timeframe.

We achieve this by manipulating Wally’s long run to include intervals at half marathon pace (or harder). This isn’t easy, but Wally understands that working harder for 2.5-hours is way better than just running another 1 hour. It fits better on his weekends and he enjoys the variety of the longer runs.

Conclusion
I am not saying that folks like Wally don’t need to do long runs. I am saying that these longer runs within the context of a regular marathon training plan are (A) not the best use of an athlete’s time and (B) potentially incredibly harmful.

If I can get Wally to “earn” the same training stress as an 18 mile long run (that would take him just under 3 hours at goal marathon pace) in 2.5 hours by running harder, then he will be physiologically ready for that longer run without the associated extra 30 minutes of pounding the pavement. Plus he gets more time in his day…it’s a win-win.

The next time you think about putting in a long run, be sure to ask yourself: am I making the most of my time? Will this put me into the dreaded “red zone?” Can I add some intervals and save my legs, my day…and my season?

Additional Thoughts
Just wanted to put these in here to add some context…

Is 2.5 Hours of Consistent Running That Bad?
Remember that while your brain counts the miles, your body doesn’t know any better. You think “17 miles” but your body says “that was three hours, ouch!” Once you pass that 2.5 hour mark of running, unless you are run/walking, you are now pushing beyond the standard level of training stress that your body can absorb and continue training effectively.

Critical Assumption
The example covered in this article assumes that both runners are running at the same relative intensity. This is not always the case. And if Wally were a run/walker for example, then heading out for more than 2.5 hours isn’t as detrimental as straight running.

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