How to Write a Marathon Training Plan
This article first appeared on ALLSET blog.
How to write a marathon training plan? What are the considerations? And what does the end product look like?
In this guide, we’ll share with you how you can write your own marathon training plan in four steps, the relevant sports science, and more importantly, ways you can put these research findings into practice.
This is partly because, as aptly pointed out by a research paper this year, “long-distance training methods have often been driven by experienced coaches and athletes rather than sports scientists.”
So on top of sharing common training principles, we’ll highlight some research that’ll serve as guidelines for your planning.
For those new to running, steps one to three of this guide will be especially relevant to you, and for those more experienced, do also check out step four.
Step 1: Adding Long and Easy Runs
We start off with the first step: adding long runs and easy runs into your training plan.
This is because your body has three energy systems. Two of which are anaerobic, which means it doesn’t require oxygen to produce energy. And one of them is aerobic, meaning it utilises oxygen to produce energy.
In the marathon, you rely mostly on the aerobic energy system for fuel, and the way to develop it is to focus on it during training.
Long runs and easy runs help you do just that, and to find out what your long run and easy run paces are, you can check out our previous video on three things all runners should know.
In that video, we talk about the ways you can determine your workout paces, be it for intervals, easy runs, or long runs. And there are options depending on your budget, needs, and environment.
Coming back to the topic, when it comes to adding these workouts to your training plan, start off with planning three to five easy runs each week. After that, make one of these easy runs longer than the rest.
And that, in general, is how you come up with the distance for your first long run.
And we use the words “in general” because the literature’s still not clear as to how much mileage you should be able to cover before attempting the marathon, how to determine the mileage for your first training week, etc.
This means that, for now, if you’re comfortable with running 3km multiple times each week, that’ll be your starting distance for your easy runs. If you’re more conditioned and 6km easy is not an issue for you at the start of your training block, then go ahead with starting with 6km.
If you’re unsure, it’s better to err on the side of caution, especially on your first week of running. This is because you don’t want to get injured and you can always increase the mileage for subsequent weeks as you go along.
Also, feel free to adjust the duration of each easy run by a km or two. This not only adds variety to your training but also makes it easier to fit into your schedule.
If you’re a seasoned runner, you can also add in more easy runs. This is in accordance with a review done this year that found that world-class runners do up to 11-14 sessions per week.
But regardless of whether you’re a beginner or seasoned runner, as you get closer to the marathon, increase your mileage for both your long run and easy runs.
We’ll talk about staggering this mileage increase, also known as periodisation, in step two of this guide. Because for now, the more immediate question is how much mileage you increase each week.
And the answer to that is that it varies. There’s no definite formula, even in research, because it really depends on your current week’s mileage, your training background, as well as how much you can handle.
For example, if you’re at the start of your training program, it might make sense to increase your mileage by 20% each week. Especially if you already have many years of running under your belt.
However, for someone relatively new to running, it might be better to increase the weekly mileage at a slower rate.
Likewise, increasing 20% of your mileage in the first weeks of your training, for example, is a much smaller jump as compared to later in the training plan when the numbers are larger. So it doesn’t make sense to fix onto a certain percentage or a number.
It’s also why if you have past training experience or a running coach, make sure you utilise them to come up with your training plan. They’ll be able to guide you in terms of how much load you can handle for this season as you progress.
In the scenario that you’re totally clueless, a useful tip is the hard cap of 30%. This is according to a study in 2014 which found that “Novice runners who progressed their running distance by more than 30% over a 2-week period seem to be more vulnerable to distance-related injuries than runners who increase their running distance by less than 10%.”
Apart from that, the other thing to take note of is how much weekly volume is required for marathon training.
And to that point, there are a few references. A paper in 2020 states that “For a fast marathon finish time, a high training volume of at least 40 km/wk seems important. However, it does not seem necessary to include an endurance run of more than 35 km.”
To put this in context, the other paper studying elite runners found that “Typical weekly running volume in the mid-preparation period is ~ 160–220 km for marathon runners.” And it’s common for them to cover more than 35km for their longest training run.
It goes to show how much your training can differ depending on your running abilities.
If you’re an average runner looking for a more useful reference, perhaps another meta-analysis done in 2020 will be of help. It found that an individual seeking to achieve a time of 4 hours would need to complete, on average, 44km or 4.5 hours of running per week to achieve this time. Their weekly training distance over the entire training block should peak at 63km and the longest training run associated with the 4hr timing was 23km.
It goes on to say that “the results of our analysis would suggest that individuals who achieve 4:00:00 in the marathon do not need to complete a run 32km in length during their training.”
Based on these, it’s safe to say you do not need to complete a marathon to train for the marathon unless you’re looking to compete at the elite level, where there are plenty of athletes who complete a 42km training run before the race itself.
Likewise, there are athletes who do two long runs each week. More about these in step four of this guide, where we also talk about the different ways you can do your long run.
If you’re a beginner, however, the takeaway here is that if you’re aiming just to complete your marathon comfortably, there’s no need to do a long run beyond 32km, and even one in the 20-plus km region might suffice.
That brings us to the end of step one. And right now, your training plan should minimally contain your first training week, which includes long runs and easy runs.
Step 2: Adding Periodisation and Tapering
Next up, we have step two, where we discuss the number of weeks the training plan should cover, what is periodisation, and ways you can do it. I’ll also talk about cutting down training volume just before race day, also known as tapering.
To start things off, you need to determine the duration of your training plan, and if we reference how professionals train, one training cycle for the marathon will take five to six months, with the period divided into general preparation and specific preparation. This is as stated in the review studying world-class runners published this year.
Across the five to six months, the focus gradually shifts, from achieving high total running volume to achieving more running volume, at or near race pace. Each athlete’s progression is either based on extending his or her accumulated session duration at a goal pace or establishing high-intensity volume and then slowly increasing pace.
However, not everyone trains like the professionals, and the common duration coaches and athletes dedicate for marathon training is 16 weeks.
This is partly because not everyone has the mental readiness to last through five to six months of training for a marathon. And if you’re not experienced enough, you might feel burnt out by the fifth month of training, and dread the marathon when it arrives.
Hence, a way to go about things is to start with a 16-week period, before lengthening your training period to five to six months for future races if you want to get more serious about marathon training.
Use this tip to determine how long your training plan should be, and once you’ve decided, the next thing to focus on is periodisation.
This starts with adding deload weeks where the training load is reduced for the body to recover as well as absorb the benefits of training. And as you get more advanced in designing your marathon training plan, your periodisation will also include changes in training focus too. For example, we previously mentioned elite athletes’ progression of either extending the athlete’s accumulated session duration at a goal pace or establishing high-intensity volume and then slowly increasing pace.
More about how to do these in step four where we talk about training intensity.
For now, I just want to clarify that deload weeks, also known as down weeks and cut-back weeks, are commonly carried out by coaches and runners throughout the world.
However, there’s no clear science as to the best way to go about them. And hence, it’s again one of those things that are based on coaches’ and athletes’ judgements.
If there’s any literature update on this topic, I’ll probably post another video here, but if you want the most up-to-date exercise science, do check out our education platform ALLWIN.
We now move on to the last thing in this step, tapering, which simply means the reduction of the total training load prior to important competition(s).
As pointed out in the review of world-class athletes’ training published this year, this is a short-term balancing act, because you want to decrease the cumulative effects of fatigue while maintaining fitness.
To be more specific, it goes on to say that “The general scientific guidelines for effective tapering in endurance sports include a 2- to 3-week period with 40–60% reduction in training volume adopting a progressive nonlinear format, while training intensity and frequency are maintained.”
Of note, another recent study, done in 2021, backed this up.
It found that “disciplined tapers were associated with comparable performance benefits.” The research also highlighted how most recreational runners adopt less disciplined tapers and suggest that shifting to a more disciplined taper strategy could improve performance relative to the benefits of a less disciplined taper.”
In simple terms, the takeaway here is not to increase training intensity or volume during your tapering, no matter how tempting it might be, across the two or three weeks.
At the end of step two, you should have a training plan consisting of at least 16 weeks of long runs and easy runs, your target weekly distances, with periodisation and tapering factored in.
Step 3: Adding a Strength and Conditioning Plan
The next step is adding a strength and conditioning plan.
This is partly because, as stated in a review this year, “the evidence robustly shows that lower limb resistance exercise is effective for improving running economy and performance, with a combination of strength and plyometric training being recommended.”
At the same time, strength training is often encouraged for injury prevention, although the same review concluded that “lower limb resistance exercise may help reduce running-related injury risk, but further evidence is needed.”
This is partly because there’s been research whereby strength training has helped with injury prevention, and also those where they do not.
We discussed all this as well as how to write your own strength and conditioning plan in a previous article, so check that out if you’re interested.
Otherwise, that’s all for step three for now.
After you’ve checked out our strength training video, your plan should include at least 16 weeks of long runs, easy runs, and strength exercises, with deloading and tapering, factored in.
For most beginners, this should be good enough to help you not only complete your marathon comfortably but also understand your plan in a straightforward manner.
Step 4: Customising Workouts Beyond Long and Easy Runs
With that we come to step four, customising faster workouts.
This is because, for those looking for their personal best, or those who find it too boring just doing long runs and easy runs, it becomes essential to add in other types of workouts.
To start off, I’m going to reference the intensity zones defined in a recent review of world-class runners.
This is developed after considering different ways to categorise intensity levels, including the rate of perceived exertion that goes from a scale of 1-10, grouping your heart rate into five or six zones, etc.
A thing of note is that although the researchers ultimately split the workout intensity into a three-zone and seven-zone model, you’ll realise the difference in categorising intensity zones does not matter as much as their findings. This is because zoning is an interpretation of the actual intensity, and once you know the training rationale, you’ll know which intensity to run at, regardless of which zoning model you use.
In this guide, I’m using their zoning model so as to reference their findings.
The first of which is that most of the running distance, specifically ≥ 80%, is done at low intensity throughout the training year. Most of this is in zone one, and the rest is in zone two.
To be exact, a higher proportion of zone two, which is closer to the marathon pace, is done during the specific preparation period.
The remaining 5-15% of the running distance is split between zones three, four and sometimes five, depending on how far away the marathon is. To quote the review, “most training in zones four to five are done in the early-to-mid preparation period before they are replaced with zone-3 and the upper end of zone-2 training as the marathon approaches.”
Training in zone five and six is usually avoided by most marathoners.
And lastly, less than 1% of the annual running volume, is spent doing sprint training, which is in zone seven.
On the whole, in simpler terms, what the review found was that elite runners did their faster workouts during the earlier parts of their training, for example in the second and third months of a six-month plan, and then there is more race pace running as the marathon gets nearer.
Taking all these into consideration, you might want to start off by looking at the training plan you already have from steps one to three of this guide.
From there, switch out 5-15% of the running distance to faster workouts. When it’s four months out from the marathon, this can be your VO2 max intervals and hill repetitions, and as you get closer to the marathon, this can be your threshold intervals and threshold runs.
Once again, what your exact sets really depend on your judgement, because there isn’t a “most effective formula” yet, and the advice is that you start off with what you’re comfortable with.
That’s all for now.
If you have any questions, feel free to ALLSET.
Otherwise, till next time, take care.
If you’ll like to try out a free one-to-one personal training trial session, please feel free to find out more on ALLSET.