Most training plans, whether or not they map it out, follow at least three general phases.
- There is a base training phase, where you establish the volume and habits you will generally follow throughout the training cycle.
- There is a fundamental phase, where you develop speed and aerobic endurance.
- And then there is the final sharpening phase, where you work more specifically on preparing for your goal race as well as taper to heal up in the days/weeks before that race.
(Some split that 2nd phase into separate development phases, one where the 1st part is speedwork-centered, and the 2nd is built around tempo and endurance with that tempo.)
Most people follow a pre-written training plan, which usually starts with a minimal weekly mileage that gradually builds throughout the plan. The base training may establish an initial pattern of speed/tempo workouts, but the volume typically is low and increases during the life of the training plan.
I do think we get it backwards.
Part of it is runners both novice and expert want to try and incorporate everything at once in their training. It would make sense to first maximize one factor, and then scale that mastered item back a bit while subsequently maximizing another, and then another.
The first, and most important factor, is training volume. All the speedwork and strength work in the world is going to fail your ability to stay injury/burnout-free if you haven’t first developed the endurance to fundamentally handle a high volume of training. As always, diet and rest matter a lot, but provided that then aerobic endurance and volume are the keys.
The one key to all my successful training cycles has been this: I maxed out my training volume early in the training cycle, with a minimum level of speedwork and strength training… before incorporating more intense speed/strength workouts.
Over the training cycle, my volume would peak and then recede again until race day. But the key was to find that training maximum early, and establish that baseline before trying to test other facets in my development.
We build our fitness, skill and ability through the formation and maintenance of habits. We’re not really building a habit for handling high aerobic capacity if we only reach that capacity a single time a few weeks before the race… before reducing that workload to taper for the race. Your body isn’t necessarily going to see benefit from the peak volume since it’s a fairly new stimulus once you get there.
It’s similar to the benefit from high intensity interval training, which can produce immediate but short term and inconsistent benefits… while the long term benefits take months to manifest.
When you elevate your training volume, it takes time at that volume to derive the full benefit of that higher volume. If you first get there three weeks out from your race, your body wouldn’t manifest the benefit until weeks after your race.
But that also requires weeks of practice at that volume, which you won’t apply: The race comes at the end of the training cycle, and thus you typically stop or vastly reduce training following the race.
It’s worth noting that a workout’s benefit from an individual workout only manifests after 10-14 days, and that benefit over baseline is marginal.
The cumulative benefit of overall training takes weeks to manifest, and must include effective daily recovery (sound diet, sufficient sleep, a minimization of daily stress outside of training) as well as other recovery measures (taper periods, days off, days/weeks of easier than usual workouts), to manifest either way.
All of this, combined with the importance of volume to aerobic performance, indicates it would be better to peak your training volume early in training. Get there in week 4-6, pull that volume back, and then add more to the speedwork from there (while in turn scaling back regular and long runs as however needed).
The one coach/writer whose marathon plans embrace this is Jack Daniels. Most of his base plans assume you already have an established peak volume, which you hit and then recede from throughout an 18 week training cycle while running anywhere between 80-100% of that peak volume.
Daniels also advocates 4 and 5 week cycle plans, where instead of prescribing a specific training cycle length you simply repeat the 4-5 week cycle until your race arrives. The plans hammer a steady diet of quality workouts before removing them in favor of all easy-pace running in the cycle’s final week, giving the body an anaerobic/strength training break while focusing solely on aerobic volume.
I’m not a disciple of Daniels’ plans (even though I find substantial value in his pace and intensity charts with workout planning). They do favor elite, interscholastic and other competitive runners. An everyday runner would have a hard time pounding out two complex 12+ mile workouts per week, or meticulously detailing repetition and interval workouts, or the sequencing of a multi-pace quality workout. Most of his plans are best suited for runners who can log 70+ miles per week including speedwork.
Another, to a lesser and more general extent, is Matt Fitzgerald. Matt’s books generally approach running from a bigger picture, and even some books where he outlines training structures tend to follow a more traditional approach with mileage peaking late. But Fitzgerald advises in this recent article to focus on building mileage first before adding speedwork.
If you’ve never run more than 35 miles in a week, aim for 50. If your max is 50, go for 75. Take your time and slow down as much as necessary to keep your body feeling good.
When you’ve reached your goal, then reduce your mileage a bit and add some tempo runs and speed work to your schedule for a short time. Then race. You’ll go faster than ever.
I cited these examples not as an appeal to authority but just to point out that this isn’t an unheard of, unexplored idea in the running community. Other top running minds have seen the value in establishing volume before building speed-focused quality workouts.
Even Sasha Pachev sets volume as his primary criterion in how well he and other runners develop: His calculators ask for running volume, and the more you plan to run the better his metrics estimate you will do in races.
Phase One, your base building phase, shouldn’t just be about establishing the routine schedule, even though that’s certainly important.
Base training should be your opportunity to establish your maximum running volume. After phase one, it may be a good idea to avoid trying to add more volume than the max you ran during base training.
It may even be worth it to make phase one longer, if the main goal is to add substantial training volume. Most plans spend a max of 4-6 weeks in base training before moving to other fundamental stages.
The more mileage you plan on running than normal, the longer your base building phase should be as you spend weeks gradually building to that mileage. In fact, you may even be better off avoiding more than minimal speedwork until you’ve reached your desired training volume and tapered off from that.
If base training needs to be 14 weeks long, so be it. If you only have time for 3-4 weeks of speedwork, then so be it. If your priority is adding volume then that should be your prime goal. If you’re not looking to add much volume, then it’s okay to focus more on speedwork and strength training.
Your body typically can only handle a substantial effort to develop one facet of your development at a time. You can train incrementally in everything and make incremental improvements at everything, and in many cases that may be fine.
But if you’re looking to substantially develop one facet of your running, then it’s going to require weeks of exclusive focus at the expense of anything more than minimal work on everything else. Your body cannot multitask development and recovery. Doing too much work at everything typically only leads to burnout and injuries.
For most runners, especially at the marathon distance, their prime need for development is their overall training volume. They need to build the strength, stamina and aerobic capacity to consistently handle the pounding that 26.2188 miles will require.
So your base training should probably focus on building and maxing that volume. Minimize work on the other facets like speedwork and strength until you demonstrate the ability to safely run the desired volume.