Monday, February 14, 2011

Marathon Training and the Long Run

If you're reading this blog, you no doubt know that we're approaching marathon season. The Mardi Gras Marathon and Half was last weekend (Molly Pritz, rockstar that she is, rocked the half in 1:11:05 to take second overall female! And to make me look unbiased, Kim Smith ran the fastest half by a woman on US soil, winning in 1:07:36), and the training for most people who are running a spring marathon is now underway.

Really though, what inspired me to write this post is some of the recent discussion on marathon training that I've been reading. Not all that long ago, Runner's World wrote an article on the Hansons "Less is More" marathon training program. Now, I'm sure a lot of you don't take advice from the magazine often called "Jogger's World" seriously, and anyone with half a brain understands this isn't the plan that Keith and Kevin use for their elite athletes. Same concept as with the Ryan Hall Half-Marathon program. I think we all know that Ryan Hall is running more than 40 miles per week. Similarly, while the Hansons plan tops out at 48 miles per week, the real Hansons runners are doing over double that. What I think it does have in common with Hansons training is that both plans are set up to have you run on tired legs, to simulate the fatigue you experience during a marathon. And 16 miles, the length of the long run in the "Less is More" plan, is approximately the length of the Simulator, the Hansons 26.2 km workout done at marathon pace, though that's probably more coincidence than anything. Anyway, seeing as I'm not on the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, nor have I tried the "Less is More" plan, I'll let the rest of that plan go for now (though it will inevitably come up for my next point), and link to Luke Humphrey, a Hansons runner who does an excellent job explaining the logic behind the plan using a 16 mile long run, and the problems associated with the 20 mile long run.

The second thing that inspired me to write this post (and that actually ties into the first article) is a topic on that talks about the percentage of your weekly mileage that a long run should account for. LetsRun has a bunch of crap on their message boards, but there is also some good stuff if you're willing to weed through the junk. One of the better posters is Malmo (former 3000-meter steeplechase American record holder, 1:01 half-marathoner, and 2:12 marathoner George Malley). In that topic, Malmo states the following.
"The long run is the icing on the cake. You shouldn't be making icing if you haven't yet made the cake. Long runs should be proportional to your overall mileage and and to the specific event that you are training for. No one, especially and [sic] beginner, has any reason to be loading 25% of their weekly mileage into one single workout."
In that topic, he also states that the disproportionate long runs described in many schedules (Pfitzinger is the example he uses) isn't geared towards those who are able to put in the miles.
"Pfitzinger never trained like he proposes in his books...what he writes is for those people who are not going to properly train for a marathon, so his schedules are more or less a patch. Since they aren't going to put in the event specific mileage, he has them put in thses [sic] disproportionate long runs becasue [sic] 'they have to do something.'"
While Malmo doesn't mince words, I believe he has a point, and that's not just because he's a 2:12 marathoner. Long runs are important, to be sure, but they're useless without a foundation. When you're running 50 miles per week, I think it's important to really think about whether it's really worth it to have 40% of that mileage done in a single 20 mile long run, rather than spreading it throughout the week and getting in some long tempo and marathon paced workouts, as well as easy recovery miles (which, along with helping you to recover, will also help to boost your aerobic capacity and ability to run fatigued). Plus, people running lower miles are generally running slower (usually, though of course there are exceptions to the rule). 20 miles at 10:00 mile pace is 3:20. Holy crap?! That's a long time to be on your feet. I wasn't even running that long for my marathon, and it took me a while to recover from that. Running for that amount of time will cause a lot of muscle breakdown, and will take away from too many other workout sessions. You want to get used to being on your feet for a long time, but you don't want to take yourself out for multiple days, especially when you have other important workouts. There's something to be said for the cumulative fatigue and the "You're not running the first 16 miles of the marathon, but the last 16 miles of the marathon" theory that the RW Hansons program discusses (since you are rested going into the marathon, but fatigued going into the long run). Luke also details all of this very well on his blog (link is above), so I won't go into it any further. Just read what he has to say.

I can also say from my own experience that long runs alone don't do it, and are not the most important part of marathon training. Almost all of my marathon training mileage was above 90 miles per week (and this training cycle had come after a year where I averaged over 80 miles per week throughout the course of the year, even with about 6 weeks of downtime factored in), and I had an 18, 20, and 22 mile long run in there, yet I still hit the wall hard at mile 17. I blame it mostly on lack of event specific training (I had done a lot of VO2 max work, banking on my 5K speed and raw endurance from the mileage to get me through, and had neglected to do enough marathon paced and long tempo stuff). One thing I do think I did right was not doing a long run every week. My coach had me going long once every three weeks, while the other weeks were filled with VO2 max and lactate threshold workouts. My bad for asking for so much VO2 max stuff. That was dumb on my part and showed my personal lack of experience with the marathon. It's a learning process, and I now have a much better appreciation for the distance and the training involved. Though I did knock out a pretty good 5 mile race a few weeks before the marathon, and that performance alone should have been proof to me that I was in trouble for 26.2. A few people (Frank Shorter, I think?) are able to run great at a bunch of varying distances, but most of us mortals will be less suited for shorter events during proper marathon training.

So what of people who aren't able to put in the "proper" training for the marathon, whether because of genetic limitations, lack of motivation, or unwillingness or inability to sacrifice in other aspects of their life? First of all, let me be the first to say that there is nothing wrong with this. We all have different priorities, and it would be stupid to say that my approach to running is better than yours, or vice versa. And if the marathon is on your bucket list, it's not my place to tell you not to do it. Without you, my registration fee would be higher. ;) Seriously though, I would encourage you to look at other distances too. I talked about this once before, and even though I'm sure you think I'm all anti-marathon by now, I'm not. I'm just pro-other distances too. In my opinion, one of the hardest races and one which, in four years of running, I never really figured out is the 3000m steeplechase. And one of the most inspiring races I've ever seen was a 5000, the distance I concentrated all of my focus on for 8 years. And the half is currently my favorite distance to race, a challenging race that emphasizes lactate threshold, but where a strong VO2 max and good endurance is still necessary. I'm going to end this post with one more LetsRun quote, this one from a poster who goes by wilfredo (I have no idea who that is, but I like his quote).

"A fast mile is still cooler than a slow marathon."
I figure no one's going to like what I have to say here, and I'm going to lose half my readers, but I hope it at least gets people to think about what they're doing rather than just following some random training plan that doesn't make any sense.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Becki,

    I enjoyed your post and the information on the Hanson Training methods. I even checked out that link that included one of the Hanson runner's perspective on long runs. Very interesting. I think I've made mistakes by running too long of distances before marathons.

    I'd like to do another one or two. I always wanted to run Boston officially. I need to figure out a way to deal with my left knee arthritis though. I'm stubborn like that.


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