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The Case for a Shorter Marathon Buildup

The uncertainty of racing makes it hard to plan 4–6 months out. Take heart, 8–10 weeks might be a better marathon buildup.

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If you’re looking for candidates for the type of runners who’ve been most severely impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, marathoners are probably top of the list. After all, it’s fairly easy to do a virtual 5K or 10K — or give the mile or the 800 a go on a track or measured road.

But a virtual marathon? With no aid stations and no other runners to keep you focused during those long, later miles? That’s a different beast, entirely.

Which means that once COVID-19 restrictions on road racing start to ease, there’s going to be a big clamor for marathons.

But, when a marathon finally becomes possible, that will raise another question: how far in advance do you need to start training for it?

If you look at books on marathon running, you will find a great many 14- to 18-week training programs, with some lasting as long as 26 weeks. 

When I was writing a training book with Alberto Salazar back in 2003, for example, we laid out a 14-week program. Luke Humphrey in his 2012 Hansons Marathon Method based on his experience with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, describes an 18-week program. The latest edition of Jack Daniels’ Daniels Running Formula also has an 18-week program, although there are variants of it that begin as far as 26 weeks in advance — six full months.

If you’re hoping against hope that you might get to run a marathon sometime early next spring, that’s rather depressing, because it means you might need to launch into marathon training so far in advance that you won’t even know if the race will be a “go.”

If you’re reasonably fit and experienced, and are doing a good job of maintaining that fitness, however, the reality is that you may not need that much lead time. 

“I have never been one to have ‘definite’ marathon build-up plans for the athletes I work with,” says international coach Peter Thompson, now residing in Eugene, Oregon. “Each is a different mix for the individual [based on] where they are in their running career, health, current fitness, etc.”

Case Studies for Short Buildup Success

A group of runners in a road race.
Once coronavirus restrictions on road racing start to ease, there’s likely to be a marathon boom. Photo: Miguel A. Amutio / Unsplash

I myself first got thinking about this three years ago, when a woman I was coaching was targeting the Olympic Trials. 

I’d coached her for several years and knew she tended to peak quickly, so I didn’t really turn her loose until 12 weeks before the race. Even then, I nearly regretted it, because a month before the race, I found myself thinking “crap, she’s ready.” The rest of the training cycle became an exercise in keeping her peaked without overworking her. (We succeeded, and she ran a 2:39:06, easily beating her goal of 2:40.)

At the time, I thought it was just her. 

But later, working with her teammate, who also went to the 2020 Trials, I noticed the same thing.

In her case, we’d noticed that long marathon build-ups tended to over-tire her. We’d made them shorter and shorter, but going into the Trials we decided to focus on track distances for most of the year then shift to the half-marathon. We didn’t truly enter “marathon” mode until a mere 10 weeks before the event. At the event in Atlanta she ran the race of her life, not only PRing on a tough course, but beating her seed position by a staggering 298 places.

I’m not the only coach to have noticed this. 

Factoring in Training Age and Experience

“I am a big fan of the short build-up (for experienced runners),” says Ben Rosario, head coach of Hoka’s Northern Arizona Elite program, which includes Aliphine Tuliamuk, winner of the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. “We usually have a 12-week segment,” he says.

“I completely agree,” adds online and elite coach Greg McMillan, now based in Mill Valley, California. “My contention is that as you get more and more experienced, your marathon-specific training phase should get shorter and shorter. For the pros I coached, my goal was to only have them doing marathon-specific training for 8-12 weeks.”

Not that this means you can go zero-to-sixty — or zero-to-marathon — that quickly. Nor can you suddenly jump to the marathon if you have limited experience at it. 

Eugene, Oregon, coach Bob Williams likes to put it in terms of the “training age” of the athlete, by which he means the number of years you’ve been training. 

If your training age is young, whatever your chronological age may be, then you will need more time to build up to the rigors of a marathon, at least if you want to race it, as opposed to simply finish it — a big part what Rosario and McMillan mean when they refer to “experienced” runners.

Thompson, with whom Williams often collaborates, adds that what really matters is your “consistent” training age. “Many runners have been training, say, for 12 years,” he says, “but for much of that time they have had injury after injury, or extended health issues. So they do not have the same base or capacity as a runner who has a training age of 12 years and who has experienced little or no injury or health issues.”

Also, short build-ups presume you don’t need to make major shifts in training to prepare for your race: instead, all you need to do is to adjust your focus to the longer event. My two Olympic Trials contenders were already running all the mileage they needed and were comfortable with long runs of up to 18 miles. They had also both raced at least one half-marathon before shifting focus.

Avoiding the Danger Zone

overtraining can reduce your immune system
Photo: Getty Images

Some runners adopt such a short specific-training schedule due to durability concerns. Back in my PR years, I had a history of injury that deterred me from extended marathon build-ups. Instead, I kept myself in a “safe” training zone most of the time, while making sure that my long runs were long enough that I could easily ramp up to the 20 to 23 mile runs I used for my own marathon prep.

McMillan agrees. “I learned from Jack Daniels years ago that you don’t want to train in the ‘danger zone,’ as he called it, for too long: big volume, big workouts for too many weeks. It’s a recipe for injury or mental burnout. Typically, experienced athletes are getting in the long runs and consistent mileage, so we’re just adding the race-specific training on top of that, not building from scratch.”

Also, he notes, shortening the marathon-specific training phase allows more time for “preparatory training” that will make the marathon-specific workouts more effective, once they begin.

What exactly does preparatory training entail? That will depend on you. It might be strength work. It might be aerobic conditioning, via shorter races and time trials. 

Writing this, I went back to my training logs from my own PR marathon, more than 35 years ago, and was intrigued to discover that during or leading into my (quite short) build-up to it, I PRed at 5K, 8K, 10K and the half-marathon, and won a 5-mile race (albeit not with a PR). The point is clear: I used my short-race fitness to springboard into a marathon which was, itself, a 6-minute PR.

“In the final analysis,” Thompson says, “racing a marathon is simply another arena for your running. If you run PRs in shorter-distance races in the lead up to a marathon, it’s a very good indication that your running economy is improving. That can translate into a leap forward in marathon performance.”

All of which is very good news for those dreaming of marathons while waiting to emerge from the doldrums of COVID-19.

Stay fit, keep up your base, run long runs within your comfort zone (but not so long they beat you up), and do the type of speed work and virtual racing (or time trials) you’d normally do in the off season between marathons.

If you do this, you should be ready to jump into marathon training as little as 8-10 weeks before the next race opportunity the COVID-19 sweepstakes might actually serve up.

McMillan compares it to what high school coaches often face at the start of cross-country season. “If [runners] build up a big aerobic base with summer training,” he says, “you can delay their race-specific training until later in the season (increasing the chance of peaking on time in the championship season and decreasing injury). More prep work usually results in better race-specific work.”

Not to mention that if it works, then once we return to normal racing, you might be able to run a marathon on as little as 2 to 2½ months’ notice.

That’s a lot less than six months.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Getty Images

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