Speed work, long runs, and intervals aren’t the only way to prep for 26.2 miles. Try these other plans to finish strong
Logging 140 miles per week may make sense for an Olympic marathoner. But training for 26.2 doesn’t necessarily require seven days of running, 20-mile long runs, or giving up your other favorite sports. In fact, for most recreational runners, it’s probably best to trade the running-only plans of yore for a schedule that mixes things up. Cut boredom—and help prevent injury—with one of these alternative training plans.
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Every good runner knows she should take off at least one day a week, but some experts— including Bill Pierce, director of the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) in Greenville, SC—think that number should be closer to four. Pierce developed a program called “3 plus 2”: three runs each week with two cross-training sessions, along with some strength training and stretching. The runs include a track repeat workout (building aerobic capacity), tempo (anaerobic threshold training), and long run (to gain endurance). Cross-training workouts include non-weight bearing sports like cycling, swimming, or rowing. “The goal for these is to build aerobic fitness without impact, which can lead to Achilles tendonitis, stress fractures, knee pain, and hip pain,” Pierce says. Running muscles can recover though you’re still working hard during the cross-training sessions, doing away with easy days and increasing the quality of your workouts throughout the week.
Long runs may not need to be that long, argue Luke Humphrey, Keith Hanson, and Kevin Hanson in their book, Hansons Marathon Method. Most marathon training programs include one or two 20-mile runs to physiologically and psychologically prepare runners for the long haul on race day. The authors believe that topping out at 16 miles may do the trick as long as there are other medium-long runs planned during the week. By pairing a 16-mile run with an eight-mile run the day before, a runner’s body is being trained to fight fatigue without the wear and tear associated with go-for-broke, hours-long runs. Along with speed, strength, and tempo workouts during the week, the authors have found that their runners recover faster and suffer fewer injuries.
Eighteen miles into a long run, a beginner runner’s form tends to deteriorate if she has weak core muscles and is overusing her calves and hamstrings to the point of cramping. Brian MacKenzie, founder of CrossFit Endurance (CFE) and author of Power Speed Endurance, believes that CFE’s high-intensity, high-interval workouts can replace some of the traditional time and mileage associated with marathon training while building strength and injury-resistance in runners. On a CFE race training plan, the speed workouts vary between hill repeats, interval workouts, and sprints. Even the long runs are done at a faster-than-race-pace tempo, and they never top 13 miles. This may be one the most controversial alternative training methods, because it eschews a fair amount of mileage—a move most running coaches wouldn’t back.
Most training plans come with a walking option early in your race prep, but Olympian Jeff Galloway, author of Run Walk Run, designed a plan that promises that newbie marathoners can “cross the finish line in an upright position.” Galloway has runners insert a periodic walk break from the beginning of a workout, and intersperse running and walking based on the runner’s pace. For example, a 12-minute-miler who’s been running for at least three months would run two minutes and walk one minute. A nine-minute-miler would run four minutes and walk one minute. Besides the four weekly run/walks, Galloway also encourages cross-training three days a week to improve fat-burning potential. The plan may be the perfect way to ease in and finish your first marathon without the pain or prolonged fatigue that can come with a spike in high-impact running.