Category Archives: Marathon

Building hill workouts for your goal races

It’s nice when a goal race is on flat, normal terrain. A place like Chicago or New York City makes it easy, since all their races are on mostly flat ground.

Along with creating prime conditions for fast times (… well, weather permitting), training for the races is straightforward. Work on aerobic and neuromuscular fitness, work on tempo and speed, recover and feed yourself well, and you can crush it.

If a race has elevation shifts, things get a bit more complicated. We already see how weather and temperature impact races: If you train in clear and mild conditions, but then race in windy, hot/cold conditions, you’re not going to be trained to deal with the latter. Even when trained for warmer conditions, suitably hot races can negatively impact performance no matter what.

Likewise, if you train on flat ground, then try to run a race with hills (whether uphills or downhills or both), your performance and body will suffer as you likely have not trained at any length to handle hilly conditions. The longer the race, the greater the impact.

Runners who live in hilly locales face challenges with training speed, tempo or maximizing mileage because of the hills impacting speed. But this becomes an advantage when they run races featuring hills. Their bodies are well-trained to deal with the big elevation shifts. American runners in Seattle, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and mountainous regions like Colorado and Utah are better equipped to handle hills than runners in Chicago, Florida or New York City. (Plus, that never minds thinner air in higher altitude, also a key factor and a separate subject)

So, as a Chicago runner, I have to be mindful when I blow town for a race in a locale with hills. Vancouver is a clear example, with not only big elevation shifts early in the Vancouver Marathon course, but even the smaller elevation shifts later in the race are mountainous compared to the elevation changes in flatter Chicago.

One key reason these hills didn’t destroy me is that on multiple occasions I ran special workouts at nearby Cricket Hill. While Cricket Hill isn’t exactly a big hill (with only a 45 foot elevation climb), it does rise at a tough grade and when run on right, it can prepare you for running up and down hills.

So, how?

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Eating a good diet at destination marathons

With Vancouver I was fortunate that the coastal city had a wealth of sushi options. Sushi rolls were an almost perfect combination of carbohydrates (from the rice) and protein (from the fish, seaweed and soy sauce). Sure, they also had markets with lots of produce, which also helped.

But produce is easy to get in most locales. Rich healthy whole food carb and protein sources… not as much.

Running the Chicago Marathon in October makes this easy since it’s only a few miles down the street. I can cook and eat as typically desired right up to and after the race. To a lesser but still reasonable extent, the nearby Fox Valley Marathon and Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon are close enough that if I ran either of them I could eat normally up to race day.

So, what if I ran a marathon in a more remote locale, where there’s not a lot of stores and restaurants? Or even if it was a major market, what if pretty much every restaurant available served processed and otherwise unhealthy food that wasn’t going to help me stay ready to run?

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10 Things Worth Knowing About Running The Vancouver Marathon

VancouverMarathon

Outside of the Pacific Northwest, the Vancouver Marathon‘s not a huge deal, and a lot of people don’t know about it.

The marathon’s organizers are definitely are trying to grow out of that as evidenced by pushing hard to bring in 2018 Boston Marathon winner Yuki Kawauchi and other stars. As evidenced by the race selling out and setting an attendance record this year it appears the race’s popularity is indeed growing.

I’m among the few US outsiders outside of the PNW who made the trek to run the race. There were 17 of us from Chicago, all of probably surprised that the other 16 even knew about this race let alone were there. There were 4 runners from nearby Indiana. There were 3 runners from nearby Wisconsin, and two were a couple running together. The great state of New York only had 24 finishers.

It’s not a destination race yet. But as the secret gets out in the US about how challenging yet beautiful the race is, I think (to quote Jim Ross) business is about to pick up.

I’m going to throw out a few things to consider for people unfamiliar with but considering running the Vancouver Marathon.

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2019 Vancouver Marathon recap

59328125_10108992303573458_6159085142297018368_oI made it, guys. A long, brutal slog with a fast finish ended in 5:21:40, and the Vancouver Marathon Revenge Tour is complete.

Any amount of heat above 60 degrees makes running a challenge. Even at an otherwise mild 64 degrees, the temperature, extra humidity (it had been cloudy the previous week) and abundant sunshine made 42.3km (the Vancouver course is a hair longer than the required 42.195k distance) a brutal struggle.

I was not by any means racing for speed in this marathon. After the setbacks of the previous couple of marathons, I had two goals for this race….

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Finishing the Job

VancouverMarathonTomorrow morning I’ll wake up in Vancouver, probably eat a little something and have a shot of espresso, gear up and then head down to Queen Elizabeth Park to finish what I had hoped to do last year before everything caved in on itself.

Crossing the Vancouver Marathon start line shortly before 9am (the gun is at 8:30am but we go in waves and I’ll be among the middle wave) feeling ready to run will be a substantial improvement over last year’s sickly start and DNF.

Passing West 49th and Maple, where I had to drop out last year, will be a win in itself… let alone every other milestone I slowly (and, as the race progresses, more painfully) pass en route to circuiting Stanley Park and eventually crossing the uphill finish line on Pender near Coal Harbour.

I admit I came back this year in large part to close the book on unfinished business from last year. How exactly I do in this year’s race, other than finishing strong, is not at all a concern to me. It could take 5-6 hours for all I care (though I’d like to imagine I’m at least trained to run a bit better than that). Crossing the finish line is what matters.

Even if work and health hadn’t turned upside down at the worst possible time, I look back in hindsight and think it would not have gone well anyway. In fact, getting derailed might have saved me. The start of the race was a dreadfully warm 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I stumbled on my pre-race meal planning and execution, and probably ran around town a bit too much in the final two days before the race. I also was more aggressive in my overall race pace goal than I should have been.

Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out even if work was fine, I had slept okay on the trip, and I hadn’t gotten ill. Perhaps I’d have run out too hard, and that combined with the heat could have sunk me anymore.

So, never minding it’s in the past, I can’t preoccupy myself too much over what went wrong. Objectively I can see a variety of factors last year that would have worked against me given where I was at. It probably wasn’t meant to be either way.

This year, even without as much of the speed and tempo work as I would have liked, even losing the better part of two weeks late in training to illness… I feel a lot better prepared, even if I didn’t log any 50+ mile weeks or as many 20 milers as I’d like.

I focused more on developing aerobic endurance in longer regular runs, longer haul runs. I ran a lot stronger late in my long runs this time. And though I didn’t plan it, having to run some key later runs into the wind also helped develop extra neuromuscular fitness and hone my form.

There’s a lot I’ll still want to work on next time around, and I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. For now, the only bridge I plan to cross is the Burrard Bridge about 30km into tomorrow’s marathon.

Tomorrow, the goal is to finish the Revenge Tour, and the Vancouver Marathon. Talk again soon.

VanRevengeTour

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Headwinds are a training blessing in disguise

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve spent a busy April mostly off the grid. I am running the Vancouver Marathon in 8 days. Since muscle damage takes about 14 days to fully repair and quality training’s benefits take about 10 days to manifest in your running, I am done with high volume quality training or any tough workouts. Now it’s about maintaining conditioning and resting up for the marathon.

After getting sick a few weeks ago I had to abbreviate peak training, and I ran a final 17 mile peak run last weekend. The 20 miler I ran in mid-March would be my only one this training cycle, and the 40-45 mile weeks I had that month would be as high as my volume would get.

So, that final long run. Due to weather forecasts and other needs, I had to run it on a Friday right after work. Even though it was the best possible weather of any time I could run that weekend, I had to do most of the run into a stiff 25-30 mph headwind.

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2019 Lakefront 10 Miler recap, and the Vancouver 2019 training end-game

LF10-finishYesterday I ran my final 2019 Vancouver tune-up race, the CARA Lakefront 10 Miler. The 1:36:24 was my slowest finish in a 10 Miler to date, but I had fun (the LF10 is my favorite Chicago race) and the race turned out well in other ways.

As mentioned, I got sick with the flu at the end of last month. While I bounced back quickly for such an illness, I did lose over a week of normal training (plus, likely in part because it was starting to get me, I had reduced my volume a bit the previous week due to fatigue).

I ran a lot less than usual while recovering. Once recovered, I had to ease back into my prior volume over the following week. In fact, I only got back to normal volume right before this race. I hadn’t done any speed or tempo work in several weeks. I was definitely not trained to race the 10 Miler. I wasn’t even sure if I could hold anything beyond an easy pace for 10 uninterrupted miles.

Alas, I settled into a (slower than most of the people around me) pace, and managed to comfortably hold it for the entire distance without any real distress (even powering past people on inclines, including the LF10’s infamous Cricket Hill finish, by merely maintaining tempo). The pace slid between 9:00-10:00 but mostly hung in the 9:30-9:40 range… which incidentally was my originally hoped for marathon pace! I even sped up without trouble and took the LF10’s final lap around the Wilson Track at 1:59.

While sore and tired like I ran a race, I didn’t feel as sore or tired as usual. Following an afternoon meal and nap, I went back out and ran a couple more miles (with some speed reps) to finish the day at 17.8 miles (between runs to/from the race, the race itself, and the evening run).

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A Better Long Run: The 55-5 Long Run Method

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As with a lot of training approaches, runners have a very polarized approach to how they handle long runs.

Either they do a simple easy run over a long distance, or they add in some tempo with the long run (either trying to run the whole thing at a tougher moderate pace, or mixing in tempo segments with easy running), turning it into a grueling exercise.

Both polarized approaches have substantial drawbacks.

The long easy paced run may develop long aerobic endurance, but it also accustoms you to only handling your longest distances at an easy pace. Any attempt to race longer distances thus becomes a huge struggle, because you haven’t practiced running faster at max distance.

The mixed tempo run may address that issue, but creates another issue: It asks you to work especially hard at points on a run that is already fairly difficult due to its duration. This increases the burnout and injury risks, and at the least makes long runs such a miserable experience that many just forego any sort of intermediate tempo work on those runs. (It’s the biggest issue with the Daniels Marathon Plans. Those quality long runs are super-demanding. Few outside of elites and hardened distance running vets can consistently handle them.)


Regular readers can probably sense where I’m going with this point: There is a vast and mostly-unexplored middle ground to long runs that will allow you to work on and develop aerobic strength (aka the ability to maintain faster paces over longer distances), without demanding so much from you.

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Training volume is about more than mileage

One runner does a 12 mile run on the weekend. The only other run he does is a 6 mile run on Wednesday night.

One runner runs 3 miles every day, except for a rest day on Sunday.

One runner does a 5 mile run Tuesday and Thursday, then she does a longer 8 mile run on Saturday.

A sprinter practices 3200 meters of reps plus 2 miles of warmup and cooldown jogging on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday she does an easy 3 mile run. She takes the weekend off.

All of these runners run the exact same mileage every week (18 miles). Would you consider their training equal? Do you think they’ll all develop their running ability the same way?

More importantly, is it accurate to cast a firm judgment on the quality of their training largely based on the fact that they run 18 miles a week?

I would say not. And yet that’s the pedestal on which so many runners and coaches put weekly mileage.

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Endurance is best built through your regular runs, rather than your long run

Runners understandably focus on their long runs while training for races from the 5K to marathons and ultras. Your ability to run long determines how well you run your longest races, and long runs help build the aerobic capability that carries you through races of all distances.

However, the long run also receives too much focus. I’m not going to call the long run overrated, because long runs definitely are not overrated. They’re important. But long runs are one component of a successful training plan, and building your aerobic endurance and performance requires more than getting your long run in every week.

And no, I don’t mean doing your speedwork. In fact, improving your aerobic capability requires no speedwork at all (though speedwork can certainly help your running economy, and is valuable for maximizing your race day speed).

We fixate on the length of our long runs. We fixate on the speed at which we run our speedwork. But we don’t pay much attention to the length of our regular runs, and it turns out the latter is as important (if not more important) to developing our aerobic endurance.

To briefly summarize and blow over a ton of science:

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Winter long run struggles

I’ve faced an odyssey of problems with my long runs over the past month due to Chicago’s extreme turn of winter weather.

Getting long runs in hasn’t been the problem. In fact, I’ve been more consistent with my weekly long runs over the past several months than ever before. The issue is that weather and other concerns have made those long runs more difficult. Last weekend’s 2 hour run was a snow stomping slog through an obstacle course of unplowed snow, standing ice and other issues.

This past weekend’s 2 hour run battled a stiff 30 mph crosswind that not only made maintaining a straight path difficult but also sent broken tree branches and other debris flying across the lakefront.

I haven’t focused as much on stretching out or improving training pace/cadency because just managing to stay upright and run in itself was already a huge challenge in the conditions.

It was almost a blessing in disguise that I had to run the F3 Half during the early portion of my training cycle. Racing 13 miles right off the bat meant that stretching out wasn’t a concern. And forced downtime the following week (due to extreme cold and -50°F windchills) allowed for some needed recovery after the race took quite a bit out of me. And it assured that by my early base phase I was already able to run 2 hours at a harder pace.

So effectively the first half of Vancouver training has been largely a base phase built around mixing challenging volume with recovery. The hope is that this builds strength with my endurance, while also adding extra recovery between key workouts.

Sure, it’s a bummer that the key workouts have been more about fighting through tough conditions than about speed or showing out pace, or that the quality has to be a tradeoff for a lesser quantity of mileage.

But, even if winter and the harsh conditions stick around longer than we’d want, hopefully this allows for volume building and longer base workouts, and the payoff is a good long run in Vancouver this May.

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The FIRST Marathon Training Approach: Who’s it good for?

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I want to talk a bit about the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training‘s unique training program, known mostly as FIRST.

This is not a review of Run Less, Run Faster… the book that Runners’ World eventually put out about the method, though if this approach works for you then I recommend you check out the book. This is more of a review of the method itself.

The Basics of FIRST, in a Nutshell

  • Over 16 weeks you only run 3 days a week, with 1 day between the workouts plus 2 days off from running after the longest one.
  • All of the workouts are quality workouts. There is a speedwork session, a tempo run, and a long run. None of the workouts are a simple distance run. Every running workout has a specific challenge, and is intended to be difficult.
  • You are expected to cross train aggressively two additional days each week, most typically the day after the first two workouts.
  • Speedwork sessions are track style reps ranging from 400m to 1600m. These sessions are fairly light for speedwork: You’re never asked to do more than 12 reps, and that’s for the 400m repeats. These workouts shouldn’t last more than 45 minutes.
  • Midweek tempo runs range from 3-8 miles, and are done around 10K-15K pace.
    The paces for the long run are rather fast compared to other methods, run about 30-45 seconds faster than your 10K pace. This is approximately close to most methods’ marathon pace, so you are effectively doing your long runs as marathon-pace workouts.
  • The long run starts at 10 miles, peaks at 20 miles, and the average long run is around 16 miles, which incidentally is around the max long run of some methods. Because of the hard pace demanded, they’re designed not to last more than 2.5 hours.

Who Does the FIRST Approach NOT work for?

People who don’t do speedwork. FIRST is not for a speedwork beginner. All of the workouts demand some degree of tempo running, so you need to be comfortable with hard, pace-centered running.

Winter runners. Icy conditions do not lend themselves to hitting goal tempos, and FIRST demands you do every run at a tempo. You need traction with the ground to run fast, and slippery winter conditions don’t allow it. FIRST is best done during a conventional warmer season.

People who do best with lots of easy running. Every single workout is a higher intensity workout. If you prefer to run easy in workouts, do another plan. Don’t come near this one.

People who don’t want to cross train. One of the hidden keys to FIRST’s success is the low intensity cross training sessions you’re supposed to do between run workouts. This is where aerobic fitness is low-key developed. If you just do the run workouts, that aerobic fitness likely doesn’t develop fully (though, if you handle the entire plan, your anaerobic fitness should be vastly improved). And FIRST is adamant that you’re not to do any running on the non-run days. You’re basically doing another plan if you do.

People who want to log heavy miles. Because you only run three days a week in FIRST, and two of those workouts are somewhat shorter than typical marathon training runs, your total mileage is capped fairly low. If you feel you train best with a high mileage volume, you’ve got to do another plan.

Runners whose race pace is fairly close to their everyday running pace. If you’re more of a casual runner, FIRST is already a pretty tough fit for you. But if your race pace is fairly close to your regular running pace, you’re not going to get much more value from this plan than any other random running plan… most of which will do more for you than FIRST. You probably need more frequent, everyday running than anything else.

Injury or burnout prone runners. Because every FIRST workout demands a high level of intensity, and you’re assured of three challenging workouts every week, it’s very likely someone not equipped to handle the training load will get hurt or burn out.

Runners who lack cross training options. You need to be able to cross train to do FIRST effectively, and this requires you have access to a bike, a pool, a gym, etc. If you don’t, you may as well pick a plan that only asks you to run.

Who Does FIRST work for?

Experienced runners who do best with intense sessions. Similar to people who swear by Pfitzinger, highly trained runners who thrive in hardcore run workouts will probably get more out of FIRST. They may not be fond of the lack of running on off days, but perhaps the hard cross training makes up for it. Speaking of which….

Triathletes. Because FIRST demands cross training, triathletes who like to train in other aerobic disciplines (cycling, swimming) will enjoy the ample opportunity to work on their other sports… or at the least use those other sports as a recovery/development break from marathon training.

Hardcore runners who don’t have a ton of time. Someone who has a busy life but likes to train hard will like having a schedule of only three workouts per week. FIRST is more easily fit into a busy schedule.

Older experienced race runners. Athletes who like training hard but find age catching up with them could find FIRST ideal. Older athletes tend to do best by cutting back on volume and getting the most bang for their buck on less frequent workouts while perhaps cross training on the side. FIRST does not mess around with junk runs, and older athletes may get growth from the less frequent but more focused run schedule plus the cross training sessions.

Experienced runners who struggle with hitting goal times. To be honest, many experienced runners who struggle to nail a goal time could find substantial growth from FIRST’s focused, tempo oriented workouts. If your every workout demands a particular tempo, then you have no choice but to learn to hit tempo. You will find out early if a goal time is unrealistic, and can build subsequent workouts around a more feasible goal time. But the most important part is that a runner will get better at running at a goal pace.


No verdict. FIRST can be a quality training method for some runners, while it’s a bad idea for others.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the method, but the necessity of quality cross training makes it a no-go for me. I’m currently not part of a gym, and don’t own a bike. My cross training is limited to walking, mild strength training, and other physical errands. Also, it’s currently winter in Chicago, so if I was going to do it at all it would need to be during the peak summer season.

Also, for older and injury prone runners, Don Fink’s IronFit marathon method may be a better fit for this sort of training. While it similarly asks for three quality workouts per week, the pace demands aren’t as strict, and IronFit provides the flexibility for you to run on non-quality days if you prefer over cross training.

Still, Furman tested this method on various randos years back and those runners found immense marathon success with it… even without the cross training.

If you think FIRST can work for you, check out their book on the method, Run Less, Run Faster.

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Too much gas, too soon

I finally figured out what caused the hiccups at the Chicago Marathon.

It turns out that a full stomach can put pressure on the diaphragm, and the competing pressures on said diaphragm during a long moderately intense run like the marathon can finally cause the relevant muscles and organs to effectively cramp, spasm and whatever else organs do once they finally run out of gas.

It turns out I fueled *too* well during the early portion of the race. I had taken in over 16 oz of protein and carbohydrate within the first hour. Combined with with the natural slowing of digestion as you get into a longer run of any substantial intensity, I had suddenly maxed out the tank before reaching the halfway point. The pressure on my diaphragm finally caused it to give up around miles 12-14, and there wasn’t much I could do from there.

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Preventing that next time around is fairly easy: Just make sure not to take in so much fuel.

Of course, that presents another, more common marathon problem: If I don’t take in enough overall, I bonk during the final 10K. And of course your stomach’s digestion slows either way as you proceed. So rationing harder only means fuel taken in later doesn’t get digested in time to be used. It was a key reason I was working hard to fuel in the early stages of Chicago.

I don’t have a firm answer yet, beyond going unpleasantly slow and letting fat-burn catch up enough to fuel the entire race. Ultrarunners succesffully find a middle ground, and I imagine the answer lies somewhere within how they fuel for their much-longer races.

This is a research project that will fit into the rest of my training.

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So you want to run the Dopey Challenge?

As part of Walt Disney World’s Marathon Weekend (yes, for those who didn’t know, Disney World hosts an annual marathon!), they hold a series of preliminary races: A 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday, and the full marathon on Sunday.

Imagine someone trying to run all four races on the exact same weekend. Well, not only do people do it, but Disney’s race organizers actually award people medals for doing it. They call it the Dopey Challenge (I presume the eponymous dwarf’s name is used to reflect how smart of an idea they think it is), and they award large medals to anyone who successfully completes the Challenge.

You may ask: Who in their right mind has any business doing this? Presuming you think you could do it… how could someone train for this as something more than a masochistic exercise? Is there a best way to train for it? Is it possible to race the Challenge, rather than just trying to survive it?

Hal Higdon is the only person of any kind to actually put forth a training plan for the Dopey Challenge. And his traditional-style plan is fairly basic, asking for a series of progressively longer runs every fortnight to prepare for the races. Pretty much all the prescribed running is easy, the focus being on developing the aerobic endurance for the Challenge through sheer volume, at the expense of any sort of performance.

As he would attest, there’s a lot more to the Dopey Challenge than meets the eye:

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Learning race pace with an accessible mixed-tempo long run

In light of my previous thoughts on tempo running… here’s an idea for a long run workout. Basically, it’s like a long, stretched out low key speed workout.

  • Warm up with easy running for about 1 mile.
  • Run 10 minutes at your desired marathon /half/15K/whatever tempo, or (if conditions won’t allow it) at a similar relative intensity
  • Then run easy for 5 minutes.
  • After that, again, run 10 minutes at tempo.
  • Then, again, run easy for 5 minutes.
  • Repeat until finished.

It’s pretty simple in structure, even if in practice it’s not so easy.

  • This is basically an interval workout built into a long run.
  • You can practice race pace or intensity within the challenge of a long run, without having to hold that pace for the entire run or build the entire workout around it.
  • Later tempo reps in the workout help simulate the fatigue of later miles in an injury-safer controlled setting.
  • You challenge yourself for a few minutes at a time, then catch your breath and recover with easier running.
  • And throughout all of this, you’re also getting the important aerobic development of a long run.
  • This workout is a fine middle ground for intermediate runners training for a 10K or longer race, who want to improve their race times or hit a goal time.
  • It may be more productive and efficient than doing a hard midweek speedwork session, and then a separate long slow run on the weekend.
  • Even if you fail in some way at running your desired pace… you still get all the benefits of a speedwork session AND a long run, without unduly taxing yourself.

In fact, if you don’t have a ton of training time during the week, doing this on the weekend as your only non-easy workout might work best for you. It can be your one key workout, while you can mix in whatever easy running you can do through the rest of the week. It takes a lot of pressure off of training, while ensuring you still do quality training that can prepare you for race day.

Another great aspect about this approach is, for most mid-pack marathoners, the tempo segments usually line up perfectly with the amount of time it takes to run between water/aid stations. You can carry hydration or other fuel, and practice fueling/drinking every time you hit a rest interval.

Sure, the easy run intervals are much longer than it would take you to get through an aid station. But this is not a full practice for a race, and you don’t want to subject your body to a full race during a workout anyway.

The easy running not only pads this into a true long run, but gives you ample time for your body to recover for the next bout of tempo.

If you want to seriously practice race fueling during this workout, you can take a swig of water/fuel right at the end of an easy segment, and make sure to hit a full dose once the tempo segment ends.

Or, if you plan to keep running hard while drinking/fueling at aid stations, it may be best to fuel in the middle of a tempo segment, to practice doing so at full speed.

 

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IronFit’s Marathons After 40: Who’s it good for?

IronFit40I want to talk a bit about IronFit’s Marathons After 40, more so about Don and Mel Fink’s application of Don’s trademark triathlon-focused IronFit training approach to older runners.

This is not necessarily a review of the book, which to be honest is well written, organized and easy to follow. If this approach works for you the book is absolutely worth a read.

I want to talk about the IronFit method of training, which doesn’t get the attention of other more popular methodologies (for example, Jonathan Savage’s exhaustive review of marathon training plans does not mention it)> Plus, it’s one of the only training approaches geared towards older runners.

I will also focus mostly on the marathon plans, though the book provides similarly comprehensive training plans for shorter races.

Standard disclaimer: IronFit’s a registered trademark of Don and Mel Fink. This is only a general, fair-use overview of the plan, which itself is described in greater detail in the book.

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