My best marathon training cycle

Right now, training and weight wise, I’m not where I want to be. I’m executing most of my scheduled weekly workouts, and made dietary improvements over even my best running days in Chicago. But I’m not creating the results I had during my better training cycle just a couple years ago.

Once again, I looked to the past for answers. Despite hiccups derailing my 2018 Chicago Marathon effort (which I finished with substantial difficulty), that summer had probably been my best marathon training cycle and (until the hiccups struck halfway through) I had run the race fairly well, feeling physically capable of finishing strong… if not for the whole being unable to breathe properly thing.

It was ultimately some stupid decision-making with nutrition that derailed me. I decided to use a thicker protein-based recovery drink for fuel, despite not having trained much with it. My stomach and epiglottis likely flipped me the bird because of its relative nutritional thickness.

Never mind the problems with using thicker nutrition as race fuel. I made the cardinal mistake of doing something in a race that I had not worked on in training. So, it was not the training that derailed the race. In fact, given my condition at mile 13, and even how good my bones and muscles felt in the later miles despite my plight… the training beforehand had been sound. So, what I did during the cycle is worth reviewing.

I took a look at that cycle and noticed several key factors. Sure, I built up to a pretty solid 40-50 weekly mile volume and was running without injury. I was able to hit goal paces in key workouts leading up to the race. But there were some other not as obvious factors that helped me enter that race prepared.

I entered that cycle on fresh but trained legs.

I had not only completed a full marathon training cycle immediately prior to that summer, but ended up not running that marathon (the Vancouver Marathon) due to DNF. Thus I remained somewhat fresh/trained, and was able to continue training from a high base. I took a cursory week off prior to starting official Chicago training in June, but prior to that I continued to run regularly for about a month following the DNF.

Though I did speedwork, I didn’t do speedwork every week.

Before the final 3 weeks of Chicago 2018 training, my speed/tempo workouts were only once every couple weeks. Despite being on the Chicago Fleet Feet Racing Team, I skipped every other Wednesday speed workout.

I don’t totally recall if that was incidental or by conscious choice. But by only doing long speed or tempo workouts every two weeks, it decreased the stress of my high training volume since all other running was easy.

In 18 weeks I only did 9 long runs longer than 10 miles.

In part due to circumstances I’ll go over later, I didn’t get a long run in every weekend. I didn’t do a long run every week until around the final peak phase. Much like the speed workouts, I would do a long run every 2-3 weeks at times.

Now I know from Budd Coates and others that this is often done intentionally as part of scheduled 10-14 day microcycles aka 10-14 day “weeks”, where long runs are done intermittently while the focus remains on routine midweek volume and multiple quality (speed/tempo) workouts. A healthy marathon training cycle can in fact skip long runs some weeks as long as there’s training focus placed elsewhere.

But at the time I wasn’t doing it intentionally. I would roughly plan on weekend long runs, and sometimes I did them while sometimes I could not. Even when I couldn’t run long on a weekend, I often still did some medium to long distance running that weekend.

I did stretch the distance out to peak 16+ mile runs towards the end, though in hindsight I can see how the breaks between long runs helped with recovery and fitness building before the next run.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, the first four weeks were very light in volume.

The first half of training was more of a stutter-start in volume before solidifying later. I’d have a week or two of solid run volume, then had to pare back for a week or two due to all sorts of reasons out of my control.

At this time, I was between careers. On a week to week basis I didn’t know how much I would be working or even when. Often my schedule was all over the place. That made it hard to build let alone stick to a routine. It wasn’t until mid/late summer that I landed in a desk job with a consistent 8 to 5 weekday schedule that allowed me to establish some routines such as recurrent weeknight workout times and post-work run commutes.

Some of those in-between gigs were also very physical or required a bunch of commuting. This wasn’t conducive to running high volume, plus that eliminated my useful run commutes. So during those times I stuck to shorter ad hoc maintenance runs, allowing the time and energy to devote to work.

I ramped up strength training during the final two months of training.

Despite leaving my previous full time job I still had some of those benefits through October, one of which included a subsidized health club membership at LA Fitness.

I took advantage of having this up until the very end, and especially at the very end. I was working out at the LA Fitness in Lincoln Park several times a week throughout August and September, usually on the weight machines and sometimes on the rowing machine, occasionally on the treadmill, or the facility’s indoor track (which was the original reason I joined that gym!).

But I think the extra strength training in particular really helped my running and endurance. Full body strength training often came and went from my run training, but when it was pointedly included I always saw long term improvement. Your core and upper body do a deceptively large amount of work when running, and over 26.22 miles the effort can absolutely add up. Having pre-existing added strength will reduce the energy needed to keep going in the later miles.

During the taper, I did most running at marathon goal pace, and strength trained most days.

This is old tapering advice from Jonathan Savage, who recommends that you downscale your volume big time but that most of your remaining running should be at marathon pace to practice and ingrain that pace.

I would do this on the gym treadmill (where setting and maintaining an exact pace is easy to do) for about 15-30 minutes… not terribly long since the goal was to recover for the race, but enough time to really work on ingraining that pace in my range of motion. By the time race day came, running at race pace felt very comfortable.

Also, since I was already at the gym and the weight machines were right there, I went ahead and lifted in a basic strength routine pretty much every day. The short taper runs helped kill two birds with one stone.

I completed two 20 mile runs.

Every training cycle I look to get at least one long run in at the fabled 20 mile distance, even if fitness wise I’m better off doing 14-18. I think sacrificing a few days afterward for easy training or rest is worth pushing myself into the marathon danger zone for a workout.

Ideally I’d like to do at least two, and this time around I actually was able to get in two 20 milers, each about two weeks apart, and the last one about 3 weeks out from Chicago 2018.

Both 20’s were around 4 hours in length on a Saturday morning (it probably helped that I had Sunday off to augment the following easy day before returning to work). In both cases (for reasons I’ll point out soon) I did a short easy run the day after and never took a day off.

Hitting the distance twice in training may or may not have been a key to the needed aerobic endurance for 26.22, but it definitely instilled the mental and physical confidence to stay strong into the middle miles, where it’s easy to let fatigue get you down.

I ended training with a 70 day run streak.

I didn’t plan on any sort of run streak, and I’m generally not a fan of doing them unless the streak in itself is a primary training goal of yours.

But I noticed after about 14 consecutive days of running in mid-training that I had a streak, and I decided to keep it going as long as I could. I made sure to do at least an easy run of 1-2 miles to keep it going, even if I needed an easy or rest day.

I think this daily habit also helped with my training, but preventing any sort of detraining or buildup of adhesions in my body’s fascia… which can usually result from too much rest. There was never an opportunity for too much rest here.

It also helped that I recognized (per above) that I hadn’t been racking up mileage in the early weeks, and in a way felt the need to ramp things up down the stretch. Plus, without the extra wear and tear of early weeks, combined with having peaked in volume just months before, my body was better equipped to take on everyday running.

I don’t know that all of these decisions or results were good ones. I do know that this was probably my best marathon training cycle in terms of how physically ready I was for the race and how well I handled it (until the unfortunate unforeseen setback).

I think all of these items help indicate potential principles to lean on for future marathon training. I don’t know that I have them all nailed down, and will need to continue working on myself to really hammer home any true lessons.

I do know however that I probably benefit from:

  • Working out as frequently as possible, even at a minimum on some days
  • Strength training seriously on a regular basis in addition to my running
  • Doing my longest long runs on a Saturday or any day where I have a day off from work on the following day, whether I work out easy that next day or take it off
  • Stretching my longest run to the fabled 20 mile distance not just once but twice
  • Not worrying as much about volume in the early weeks of training, but making sure it’s there and consistent in the later weeks
  • Not worrying about getting speed and tempo work in every single week, every single workout, before the final weeks
  • Entering training cycles from a consistent but mostly rested base
  • Doing most of my taper phase running on a treadmill at marathon goal pace

I also (already) know for sure I benefit from regular, close to everyday easy aerobic running at the substantial 45-90 minute range.

I will probably keep all this in mind during the rest of Vancouver 2020 training. Some of this was already part of my current plan. But now I can tweak the plan accordingly based on the remaining information.

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