Marathon Training: The How and the Why

I’ve been mentioning my marathon training in passing, without going much into the “how” or the “why” behind it.  Because I’m a bit of a lone wolf in regards to my triathlon hobby (although less than I was six months ago!), this was a decision that I made entirely on my own.  I started considering doing a marathon training cycle about a year ago.  I knew I planned to do an Ironman in 2016, and I liked the idea of having some more confidence in my running endurance.  I’ve ridden a few centuries and done a few swim workouts that hit two miles, but the longest run I’ve done is around 14 miles.  Fourteen miles does not translate to confidence in my ability to run 26 after the swim and bike leg.

I had sort of, tentatively, very loosely planned on doing some sort of marathon training plan last winter, but I moved to Salt Lake City at the end of November, and I lost motivation.  I got busy with a new job, a new city, and the anxiety that comes along with those, so I barely managed maintenance over the winter.  Besides, the nebulous “they” (read, the Internet) said you didn’t need to run a marathon before doing an Ironman anyway.  But still, as this past summer progressed, the idea of doing a fifteen, eighteen, and twenty mile run for the first time during Ironman training… well, it scared me.  So when I heard that Coeur d’Alene was being moved to the end of August instead of the end of June, I started looking into a marathon training plan.

Long story short, I decided to go for it.  A 16-week training cycle fit into the winter months really well, and I figured focusing on running would alleviate my guilt for not spending hours on a trainer riding my bike.  I’ve laid out some of my reasoning, in FAQ style.  Now, these aren’t questions I get asked frequently, but they are questions that I frequently have for other people who are training for marathons.  So… I decided that was close enough!

Why did you decide to train for a marathon?
The number one reason I decided to train for a marathon is confidence.  As I mentioned above, I have never gone on a run significantly longer than a half marathon.  My Ironman training includes some long runs, of course, but the thought of doing my first and only 20 miler in my life just a couple months out from an Ironman does not appeal to me.  The other reason is to keep me active during the winter.  I want to do some significant endurance training during the winter.  Cycling is out of the question unless I want to spend all winter staring at a wall on a trainer, and swimming offers limited gains because of the relatively short length of the swim leg.  I actually don’t think it’s necessary to run a marathon before doing an Ironman.  An open marathon and the marathon leg of an Ironman are different beasts, and you should approach them differently.  Additionally, “they” say one of the best ways to improve your triathlon run is actually to focus on the bike leg so that you start the run with fresher legs.  Training for a marathon isn’t necessary, but because of the confidence factor, it’s the right choice for me, at least this time around.

I remember in vivid detail how horrible I felt when this picture was taken at mile 11 during my Ironman 70.3... I do not want to feel that way at mile 11 of my Ironman marathon.
I remember in vivid detail how horrible I felt when this picture was taken at mile 11 during my Ironman 70.3… I do not want to feel that way at mile 11 of my Ironman marathon.

Why aren’t you actually culminating your training cycle with a race?
Yep, that’s right.  My “race” will be a 26.2 mile training run.  There are two reasons for this.  First, even if I wanted to, there isn’t a local race that works within the time frame of my training schedule.  I guess not a lot of people have the desire to run a marathon at the end of February.  Second, racing a marathon takes a lot out of a person.  It’s a big ordeal.  I’ll be starting my Ironman training plan just about a month after running my “marathon,” and I don’t think that would be quite enough time to recover after a hard, all-out marathon effort.  So, I’ll cut out the anxiety and recovery of a full marathon and just enjoy a long training run with my dad some time in February.  We plan on running the course of the Lake Lowell marathon that usually takes place in the spring.  The bonus is that the course is pretty much flat as a pancake.

I need iPhone photography lessons
The scenery on the course isn’t bad either.

What training plan are you using?
I’m using a plan I found online known as Run Less, Run Faster that was created by the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training.  There’s a whole book about it, but I just used the version of the plan I found on Runner’s World because cheap.  And lazy.  Essentially, it’s a training plan that has three runs a week—a track workout, a tempo run, and a long run.  I’ve taken the template I found and added in my specific paces.  If you’re interested, the whole thing is here.

Why did you pick this particular plan?
You mean beyond the click-bait promise of completing a marathon on three runs a week?  Actually, the limited running was the main reason I chose this plan.  It calls for 2-3 days of cross-training per week in addition to the weekly runs.  These 2-3 days will allow me to keep up with my swimming and cycling which is kind of important with my Ironman looming.  Additionally, I like the idea of doing some speed work.  I think speed work will help me become a better runner overall and not just a better runner in triathlons.  Plus, it breaks up the monotony.  Oh, and finally, it’s a super simple training plan.  I like simple.  It was very easy for me to fill in the given plan with my personal paces, and it will be quite easy for me to track where I need to be each week.  If I were training to race a marathon, I may look into a more complicated plan, but this felt perfect for my first “marathon.”

What is your goal?
Even though I wanted to avoid setting a goal for what will be a glorified training run, I kind of set one anyways because of course I did.  (What can I say?  I really like goals!)  I’ll be running my long runs at an 8:45/mile pace, so I’d be pretty disappointed if I failed to break four hours (9:09/mile).  I’m going to try to run my marathon at the same pace as my long runs which would put the final time at 3:49:25.  Because I’ll be running a flat course that is about 2000 feet lower in elevation than Salt Lake City, I may end up running it faster.  But my dad and I will play it by ear.  Even though I do have a couple goals, both are goals that are well within our abilities (I say “our” because we’ll be sticking together), so bar something unexpected like an injury or really bad cramping or something, we shouldn’t have to kill ourselves to perform at the level we want.

What are your biggest concerns going into marathon training?
My number one concern is loss of bike fitness.  I know that running and cycling are great cross-training for each other, and I know it’s hard to fit cycling in during the winter anyway.  But I’m still worried about losing my cycling base over the winter.  I only plan on cycling a couple hours a week at most during much of the winter, and I’m worried the lack of cycling on the off-season will hurt my bike leg.  The bike leg is significantly longer than the swim and the run, so a sub-par performance on the bike is a huge detriment to your overall triathlon performance.

And those are the basics.  If I’m being honest with myself, I’m shockingly excited to see how this training cycle goes.  I’m glad I get the chance to do a marathon training cycle (and a marathon-distance run) without the emotional pressure and anxiety of actually racing a marathon at the end of it. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have told you I would never, ever run a marathon.  And here I am, just getting started on a marathon training plan… and actually kind-of-sort-of looking forward to it.  I’m pretty sure my dad told me this would happen, and I dismissed him as being ridiculous.  It always sucks when someone can say, “I told you so!” but I’m thankful that in this case, at least, someone can say “I told you that you’d run a marathon!” and not “I told you that you were making a terrible mistake!”

So, here’s to a winter full of long, cold runs and getting re-acquainted with the track!



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