Don’t look now, but the New York City Marathon is now less than two weeks away, and by now, I hope that you’re about 95% ready to run it. In a previous blog, we discussed in broad terms what the last month of your training for the marathon should be like, and went briefly into the concept of periodization. 26.2 is a fitness goal that has a deadline–and the proper preparation and timing of the training can make all the difference.
When a fitness goal has a time stamp, whether it’s a marathon, power/weightlifting meet, or some type of race, planning your training becomes more straightforward. You know exactly what you want to do–achieve a specific time, hit personal records on your squat/bench/deadlift/clean&jerk/snatch, or even have a good time with your friends and not feel like a physical wreck the day after. The biggest challenge now is sticking to schedule to make sure that you’re ready to hit that goal when the time comes.
The preparation and planning necessary to complete a marathon is best conceptualized through periodization. It’s the concept of planning your training over the long haul to succeed at a certain and specific time. Here’s a basic, but powerful periodization model that applies for almost all of us casual athletes:
We can go into the nitty gritty, and talk about the minute details that would result in peak performance; but unless you’re a professional athlete looking to beat competitors by a hair, or improve your times by 0.01 of a second, this model is a powerful starting point for anyone looking to dominate at the deadline.
In general, both running and strength-training should decrease in total volume (the total amount of weight lifted in each training session, or the total mileage and frequency of running) as the marathon comes into the picture. You can still maintain your intensity though at low volume, as you want to maintain your strength but not at the expense of compromised recovery. Your sets and reps are likely the first things to decrease in number as the date comes closer. By this point as well, your lifting technique should also be proficient, as you want to keep the technical demands of exercise low on your central nervous system.
There is really no right or wrong way to prepare for a marathon, and the way that you specifically structure your training is entirely up to you. But based on that, you have to determine what it is exactly that you need and what you want out of your marathon experience.
Many running models exist for the marathon that are also, like strength-training, based on concepts of periodization.
There are both linear and non-linear periodization models, with the most famous one perhaps being the linear model that goes from base -> strength -> speed -> race popularized by Arthur Lydiard, shown here.
The linear model probably over-simplifies things, as all three energy systems (ATP-PC, anaerobic, aerobic) work at the same time all the time–they never work in isolation of one another. But once again, this is a good starting point for anyone.
In addition to total mileage, you can also modulate intensity with running pace (marathon, half-marathon, 10K, 5K, etc). In these instances, marathon-pace is the lowest intensity, so to speak. Closer to the deadline, you can still do short runs at higher pace, as long as you keep the distance short. This is important still, as you want to be able to improve your anaerobic threshold, which is especially critical in the last leg of the marathon.
Here are important points pertinent to each of the phases outlined in the basic periodization model.
- High volume, low intensity, elementary technique
- low mileage, more frequency, marathon or slower pace
- This is a great time to learn new or unfamiliar exercises that pay off in the long run–compound movements that move through multiple joints, with excellent strength potential. High volume is important here to build technical proficiency.
- For the running, you want to focus on building your aerobic base, which involves lower intensity runs (slower pace), but at a greater frequency to allow your body to adapt to the mileage necessary to not only complete a marathon, but train for it.
- Moderate volume and intensity, better technique
- moderate mileage and frequency, higher than marathon pace (half-marathon, 10K, 5K)
- This is the middle ground here. You want to continue building strength, and you also want to improve your speed and running pace, while improving your endurance for better mileage
- Here, there is a mix of faster pace/low mileage runs, and slower pace/high mileage runs. We’re not quite at 26.2 yet, but we’re getting there and still building our speed and running pace.
- Low volume, high intensity, pristine technique
- high mileage, less frequency, marathon pace with higher intensity runs mixed in
- In the competition phase, things get a little trickier on the running side. Strength-training is straightforward; by now your technique should be pristine on your main exercises, with will reduce the demands on you nervous system, and allow you to push it on the weights, without compromising your recovery. High intensity, low volume is important for at least maintaining the strength you’ve gained.
- The running is tricky. You have to be stingy with your physical resources here. It’s important to run longer at marathon pace to build your endurance for 26.2. However, you shouldn’t get away from higher intensity runs to build your anaerobic threshold for the last leg of the marathon. Here, you should mix in a very small amount of sprint work, at very short distances, just to get comfortable with tapping into an extra gear when you need it in the last mile.
- active rest, low volume, low intensity
- Take a break! You’re probably a little beat after the marathon.
Of course, the biggest determinant of your training regimen is time. The more time you have, the more wiggle room you have, and the less setbacks or injuries will hurt you. Each of these phases should last at least 4 weeks. Depending on your weak link–your aerobic base, your strength&speed, or your endurance–you can extend the preparation, transition, or competition phase, respectively.
Hopefully, this short blog gives you a better idea of how to periodize and structure your training for the marathon. Best of luck out there!
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.