4 Training Mistakes Most Marathoners Make
Get these four training pillars right to keep your marathon plans from falling down.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Training for a marathon takes people to the edge of their ability. It’s a balancing act to fit everything in and get the right intensity to succeed, without overdoing it.
The Hanson philosophy, which I have adapted to my own coaching style, really consist of four major pillars. I call them pillars, because without one of these principles, the rest can no longer hold the weight of the sum of the training. When one begins to break down, the whole system begins to break down. All too often, runners lose track of one or more of these pillars in the process of training for a mararthon. Here are the mistakes that lead to weak pillars and collapsed training.
Mistake #1: Obsessing over the long run
The first pillar of marathon training is a manageable long run. The long run is incredibly important. People tend, however, to overemphasize the length or duration of their long runs. If you are new to the marathon community and tell a marathon vet you are running a marathon, chances are they’ll ask you something to the effect, “How many 20 milers are you doing?” This hyperfocus assumes the other 6 days in a week are unimportant. The truth is, the long run should fit the schedule and the person.
Ideally, the long run should be about 25–30% of the total weekly mileage and not over three to 3.5 hours in length. This means if you’re training 50 miles a week, the long run shouldn’t exceed 15 miles.
Let me say again, the long run is important for marathon training, for obvious reasons. You do still have to cover 26.2 miles. But you also have to be able to train the other days of the week. By keeping the long run managable, we allow ourselves to hit different areas of training and not just the endurance that the long run develops. Long runs are one piece of the puzzle, and nobody likes trying to put together a puzzle with missing pieces. The main reason to limit the long run is so that we can maintain a balance in training, which is where the other three pillars come in.
Mistake #2: Training at inappropriate intensities
The second pillar is running at appropriate intensities. Often, runners think that if fast is good, faster is better. As a coach, I see it across the spectrum of paces. It will start with doing easy runs faster than needed. Then it will push into doing workouts faster than necessary.
When I say too fast, I am not referring to naturally settling into a pace that’s a few seconds per mile faster than prescribed because it is a nice day and you feel good. Rather, this is intentionally forcing the issue, running 15, 20, 30 seconds or more per mile faster than what is called for.
Going faster—way faster—than what is on your schedule creates a number of problems. Mostly it’s a gateway to injury as it puts another stress into an already stressed body. For most people training for a marathon, they are jumping way up in their normal training already. Adding the stress of exceeding necessary paces only adds to that stress, and for a lot of people, it’s what pushes them over the edge. When that happens, they start missing workouts, cutting out easy days, and generally become less consistent. This cycle puts a runner’s fitness in a constant catch-up mode, which usually puts them in a constant injury and recovery cycle.
Mistake #3: Inconsistent training
The third pillar is to train consistently and avoid yo-yo training. As just discussed, yo-yoing is often the result of inappropriate pacing. When we are constantly racing our watch, need more off days, we have to adjust workouts, and end up taking more time off to recover from injury. If you keep your long run in balance and your paces appropriate to the day, however, then being consistent is the natural outcome. Something I often mention to our athletes: With training, it’s not a single workout that gets the job done, rather, it is a lot of pretty average days strung together that is the secret.
Mistake #4: Unbalanced training
The fourth pillar is balance, the culmination of the first three. If you keep the long run manageable you allow for more balance in training. More balance in training allows you to do workouts at a variety of speeds, so you’re going fast and hard some days, and recovering on others—there is less of a need to push the pace on every single run. If you can keep your paces appropriate to what you are doing for that particular day, then you can start to string together several days, then weeks, and finally months of well balanced training.
The result of that is fewer missed days, the ability to add more training days per week, and then more miles per day. The outcome? You can now handle—even thrive—running more daily and weekly volume.
There will always be folks who are successful on the other side of the training coin. They will be the ones who can qualify for Boston on 30 miles per week. Other people need to train above and beyond what I recommend in order to run the exact same marathon time. There are always two ends of the spectrum, but the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. I have learned that if I can coach a person to buy into the first three pillars, the fourth comes naturally. Then they start becoming extremely successful in comparison to what they originally thought possible.
Let me put it this way: To be successful in a 5k, running 20 miles per week is perfectly acceptable. To run 8 times longer than that in the marathon, you’ll probably have to double that. To do that and maintain a balanced variety of runs requires the other three pillars—pillars that sustain your training.
I won’t sugar coat it, training for a marathon is hard. My goal isn’t to just get you to cross the finish line, but to do so and maximize your personal effort. Whether that’s 5 hours or qualifying for the Olympic Trials, 26.2 miles is a great equalizer of humility and deserves the utmost respect. However, the feeling of accomplishment, the camaraderie, and community is unmatched anywhere (in my completely biased opinion). You’ll be glad you embarked on the marathon journey.
Luke Humphrey is a professional distance runner who has qualified three times for the U.S. Olympic Trials, head coach of Hansons Coaching Services, and the author of Hansons First Marathon: Step Up to 26.2 the Hansons Way.