In 2003 and early 2004, in the months leading up to the Athens Olympic games, Kenya's Paul Tergat was obsessed with winning an Olympic marathon title. Tergat was one of the best runners in history and held the world marathon record, but his two Olympic medals were silver, and a marathon gold would have secured his legacy among the best ever. After all, at that point no Kenyan had ever won an Olympic marathon title, despite the country's dominance in non-championship races like the Boston Marathon. (Hard to believe, isn't it?)
Among other things, Tergat was a legendarily hard worker, and to prepare for the race he decided to out-train his competition. Through the spring and summer of 2004, he often trained three times a day, at times running as much as 190 miles per week (some news reports said 200). Most pro marathoners log between 120 and 140 miles per week, and, outside of Kenya, few marathoners run more than twice per day.
Somehow, the work did not pay off. In Athens, Tergat struggled home four minutes behind winner Stefano Baldini in tenth place. Of the nine men who beat Tergat, only three were legitimately world class, and only Baldini had ever finished ahead of him in a marathon before. The result wasn't exactly an upset—Olympic marathons are famous in their unpredictability—but neither did it entirely make sense. Tergat was the best runner in the race, and he had trained the hardest.
It isn't terribly original to draw a distinction between training hard and training smart, but in real life, finding that balance is a struggle for everyone, even the very best.
Overtraining is evidently what undid marathoner Ryan Hall last year. After announcing an attempt on the U.S. record at the Chicago Marathon in October, Hall overcooked himself and withdrew before the race even started. By the time the dust had settled, Hall had dumped his coach, moved from his training camp in California, and redrawn his schedule to include less mileage and only six days of running a week, a somewhat heretical move for a pro marathoner.
On his blog last week, Hall wrote that he had become obsessed with big mileage at the expense of performance:
Now, when I look at a week I don’t see the necessity for mileage, I see the necessity for hard, quality workouts followed by adequate recovery and even making sure to over-recovering (if there is such a thing)...The art of running is learning when to push and when to rest, but in general I have found that when in doubt it is best to error on the side of rest.
Typos aside, Hall appears to be his own best asset. At April's Boston Marathon, he finished fourth in 2:04:56, a time that is almost a minute faster than the American record. (Because the Boston course is a net downhill and therefore record ineligible, Hall won't get offical credit for the time.)
Should Paul Tergat have trained more like Ryan Hall, then? It is hard to say. From the little we know about the habits of elite marathon runners, it appears that hard training and high mileage, in the long term, do pay off. National class runners run a lot, and elites (probably) run even more. Anecdotally, the evidence seems stronger still: the runners who run more also run faster. But the questions persist: What are the limits? How much is enough?
The best guesses are unhelpfully vague. It is doubtful that anyone will run a world-class marathon on fewer than 80 miles per week or more than 180. Practically, that leaves an enormous sweet spot, lots of room both for Ryan Hall's art of running and Paul Tergat's three runs a day.
Tergat, though, eventually got a little vindication: A year after the Olympics, in November 2005, he won the New York City Marathon in a one of the greatest sprint finishes in the history of the sport.