With the abundance of marathon training advice available today, figuring out how best to prepare can seem as daunting as the race itself. There are training plans for every ability level, books dedicated exclusively to the subject of marathon nutrition, and accessories for problems you probably didn’t know existed. For someone with limited time to dedicate to the inherently absurd pursuit of racing 26.2 miles, the question may arise: How much of this stuff do I really need to worry about?
Of course, the answer depends on your goals. Anyone looking to qualify for the Olympic Trials will be fine-tuning their training down to the last detail. But for your average marathon-bound runner, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.
To help cut through some of the clutter and distill those aspects of marathon training that matter most, we consulted Mario Fraioli, a former collegiate All-American and head coach of the digital coaching service Ekiden. (He also writes a weekly newsletter called the Morning Shakeout.) Fraioli has coached several elite-level athletes, but we picked his brain about what the rest us should be most focused on.
There’s No Magic Marathon Diet
One reason long runs are indispensable to marathon training is that they give you a chance to practice taking in food and drink in a race scenario. When it comes to nutrition-related aspects of marathon prep, figuring out what will work for you in a race is more crucial than worrying about things like “carbo-loading” or trying to find a perfect marathoner’s diet.
Of course, a healthy diet will bolster your chances of racing well, and you’ll need to eat more as you burn more calories, but what constitutes a healthy diet for the average runner doesn’t dramatically differ from a healthy diet in general.
Ingesting gels during the late stages of a race, on other hand, poses a unique challenge that you should prepare for.
“In marathoning, fueling is the X-factor for a lot of people,” Fraioli says, noting that it’s essential to figure out beforehand how your body responds to taking on food after two hours of running. Then there’s the mechanics of it—things like learning to squeeze a plastic cup so you can drink its contents midstride without sending most of it straight up your nose.
“Drinking on the run is something a lot of people, even top pros, struggle with, because they don’t practice it,” Fraioli says.
You Don’t Have to Hit the Track
For most advanced runners, marathon training includes a combination of long runs at or near race pace, as well as short, fast interval workouts. If you can’t fit both into your schedule, it’s best to prioritize the former.
In recent years, fitness media has heralded the benefits of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, often with the purpose of explaining how the short, fast repetitions can also benefit those preparing for long races. There’s no question that HIIT is a great way to build fitness quickly, but this shouldn’t obscure the fact that, ultimately, long runs are the closest simulation of what you’ll face in a marathon.
The bottom line is that while you can still achieve a very good result in the marathon without incorporating short intervals into your training, missing your long runs will lead to race-day disaster. (Case in point: 60-year-old 2:45 marathoner David Walters hardly runs any short stuff anymore, but, well, he’s still pretty good.)
“Even for most competitive marathoners who are not elite, they are running somewhere between two hours and 30 minutes and three hours and 30 minutes. That’s a lot of time on your feet,” Fraioli says. “Just from that standpoint, the long run carries a greater importance—so you’re comfortable being out on your feet and running that long.”
Focus on Your Own Training Plan, Not the Pros’
Fraioli has recently noticed a lot of very good amateurs trying to emulate the workouts of world-class runners. This is not a wise approach.
“Some runners look at all these wild workouts—40K at 95 percent marathon pace—and they’ll think, ‘Well, if this is what the top people in the world are doing, I’m going to tailor that to my own training,’” he says. “They don’t always realize that for these athletes, it’s their full-time job, and they’ve built up being able to handle that level of stress over the course of many years.”
Instead of trying to figure out what Galen Rupp is doing, the most valuable training log you can consult is your own. Fraioli has documented his training since his high school running days and says it’s like a personal reference text that provides healthy perspective on his entire running career. Such journals are a both great way to see how far you’ve come and an essential resource when it comes to planning your next training cycle.
Save the Racing Flats for When You Qualify for Boston
Yes, we’ve published articles about the benefit of racing in flats, and there have certainly been exciting innovations on this front, but for the majority of marathoners, the procurement of lightweight racing shoes is literally one of the last things they should be concerned about.
“I think racing flats falls into that last 5 percent,” says Fraioli. “Most people should look to optimize the other 95 percent of training elements first.”
If you’re new to marathoning, it’s advisable to complete a few races in the same running shoe you’re used for training, rather than opting for a lightweight model right off the bat. (For advice on picking the perfect shoe, look here.) Down the line, racing flats can increase running efficiency and help shave a few seconds off your finishing time, but they also offer less in the way of cushioning and support. Think of them as a reward to give yourself after your first breakthrough marathon performance.
Your Training Plan Is a Guide, Not an Instruction Manual
There’s no question that training for a marathon requires discipline, but discipline shouldn’t be confused with dogmatic adherence to a prescribed training plan. When putting together a workout schedule for a future race, it’s impossible to know how you’re going to feel on a particular day, eight weeks into your training. Furthermore, you probably can’t anticipate external factors that can cut into your time, whether that’s a workplace fiasco or sudden snowstorm.
Like elsewhere in life, flexibility is key. Once you accept the fact that you may be able to run only four days in a given week, you can focus on making sure to include those workouts that are most important—for example, the weekly long run mentioned above.
“I think there are too many people trying to cram 100 miles into what for them should be a 50-mile week, rather than thinking about what they should be prioritizing,” says Fraioli.
“You don’t want to chase [mileage] numbers for numbers’ sake. You want to prioritize the training elements that will yield the biggest returns for you, based on how much time you have available.”