What Marathon Training Should Feel Like
Learning from the best about how our bodies react to different stages of training and how to use that feedback.
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In February 2020, when Jared Ward shared a week of his training for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, I presented some ideas on how we mortals could best use such training examples as models. We can’t, and shouldn’t, do the same workouts. We can, however, scale the training of elites like Ward to our volume and paces, paying attention to ratios of fast training to easy training and work-to-rest intervals.
Perhaps more importantly, we can also look at patterns and principles, seeing what these runners — who do this for a living and have all the time and resources they need to make sure they’re at their best — consider to be important, and how they feel and react to different situations.
Last September, Ward again shared his training with us, this time detailing two full weeks of what had been an accelerated, 7-week buildup to the London Marathon on Oct. 4. And while the structure of his training looked quite similar, the differences were revealing and instructive.
Stuff That Stays
Five weeks out from his goal race again, Ward was doing the same, even a bit more, mileage: His last two weeks in the fall totaled 105 and 106 miles, compared to 100 in February. Ward tells us he ramped up faster than normal, but he started at 60–80 miles/week — something to keep in mind when you’re scaling his training to what’s appropriate for you. You might go from 35 to 50 in a few weeks, but you probably can’t get away with zero to 50.
He was still doing his regular strength training, both heavy lifting and core/resistance band work. This is also something for us mortals to keep in mind when we’re feeling sore and tired from heavy training: This work keeps us healthy, and is essential, not extra, even when we’re pushing hard elsewhere.
Ward workouts looked quite similar in the fall as well, including mile repeats and even longer intervals like 3×2 miles and 2×3 miles + 2. And he was cranking out long runs that ratcheted up the pace to finish with 4–5 miles at marathon speed.
Stuff That’s Different
What is noticeably different in the fall was Ward’s recovery-run paces. In the spring of 2020, 5 weeks out from the marathon was pretty late in his race-specific training, and he was feeling the gains in strength and speed. He reported the majority of his “easy” days in the 5:40 range, even dipping down to 5:20 on days that he was “floating.”
Before London, he was only a few weeks into marathon training, still building that reserve of strength — and his recovery times showed it. He didn’t tell us his pace for many of these days, but when he did, he was running 20–30 or more seconds slower per mile on the same runs. Even for Ward, this was instructive. “Recovery days become a good gauge for me,” he says. “I don’t try to hit a time, but by running by feel and seeing my time I can gauge fitness.”
Ward’s attitude is a nice example of training by feel while maintaining a plan and structure. He makes sure to hit his goals on workout days, but lets his body dictate his speed when he’s recovering. And that not only ensures he gets the recovery he needs to hit it hard again, but helps him judge his marathon fitness. “I have come to believe that marathon fitness is about making my body resilient to fatigue, so how I recover is a better indicator of fitness than how fast I run,” Ward says.
How It Feels
Related to these slower recoveries is what Ward reports on how he’s feeling during these runs. Last spring, Ward said of a recovery day during his key marathon-training week: “I was pleasantly surprised with how good I felt following the workout yesterday … I was floating. I love this feeling. One of my favorite feelings is just floating at a good pace on recovery days late in a season when fitness is high.”
This is how we’re supposed to feel at this point in marathon training: working hard, yet fully recovering. If our recovery runs don’t feel good — comfortable, even floating — we’re probably overdoing it, either in volume or pace or both. But that feeling is earned.
Come fall, Ward started his commentary by noting, “I’ve been constantly tired since aggressively increasing training volume.” And at one point during the two weeks he says, “I left wondering how I was going to wake up for tomorrow’s workout…”
We love the times when we’re floating, when hard work is paying off, but to get there we usually have to go through periods of deep fatigue. This is how marathon training should feel too, usually during the early weeks when the load has increased but our bodies haven’t yet adapted. Fifteen weeks out from his New York City PR, Scott Fauble called it feeling “Still a Little Blah” and noted drifting off on the couch at 9:00 p.m.
I remember Bill Rodgers once saying in a pre-Boston interview back in his heyday, “I’m in marathon training, I wake up more tired than when I went to bed.” That was a comfort to me when I felt that way in my early marathon build-ups.
Ward’s diary didn’t leave him in the depths of fatigue though. “I think I’m finally adjusting,” he says, and notes his delight when runs start to come together. “This is a good sign,” he notes, when one of those run-by-feel recovery 13-milers is only a couple minutes off what he runs when he’s really fit. And, after pulling off marathon pace for the last 4 of a 22-miler, he says, “I really surprised myself, and left this run feeling like maybe I could be ready.”
At the October 4 London Marathon, Ward placed 17th in 2:12:38. While the effort was solid, afterwards, Ward commented that he was going to train longer next time. His experience suggests that, while it is normal to be feeling trashed in the middle of marathon training, his continued deep fatigue five weeks out from the race, with just hints of that feeling of floating fitness, probably was revealing a too-aggressive build-up.
I haven't felt like that since my first marathon.
I'm going to train a little longer next time.
— Jared Ward (@jwardy21) October 4, 2020
You may note that Ward’s performance at the Trials was also disappointing, finishing 27th in 2:15:55, despite feeling so fit and strong five weeks out. But from what he’s revealed, that performance appears to be due to a foot bruise, not related to his race fitness.
As we return to racing, it’s nice to be reminded of these feelings marathon training brings, both the darkness of fatigue and the emerging light as we gain new strength. When we feel what he feels, we can take comfort in knowing that even the best feel this way, and also pay attention and adjust when our bodies and minds start to tell us we’re not where we should be in that stage of training.