Many athletes have a fitness goal that pushes them to train harder — be it competing for a league championship, hiking the tallest peak, or running the fastest. For the past decade mine has been simple: break the family marathon record.
The record is currently held by my grandmother, who set it as a mother of 3 in her early 40s. I have completed four marathons so far, the most recent in 2019 where I came a painfully close 2 minutes from besting my grandma’s time. This time around I plan on learning from past mistakes and following a new marathon training plan.
Creating a marathon training plan.
Readying your body to run 26.2 miles is no simple task. Attempting to get the fastest possible time out of your body only adds more complexity. The basics of marathon training are fairly straightforward. Over the course of 4-5 months gradually build up your weekly mileage and long run distance before a 2-week taper leading up to race day. A taper is a reduction in your weekly mileage to allow your legs to fully recover so that on race day you have peak energy storage and strength.
Marathon training plans can be customized to fit individual runners, using previous running and race experience and personal goals as a guide. Based on how my past races have gone – or ended – I decided to make some specific changes to my plan. In my past 3 races I have hit “The Wall” around mile 20 and suffered through hamstring and calf cramps through the finish line. Beyond being quite uncomfortable, I doubt I’ll be able to achieve my family-record-breaking goal should my legs quit on me again. So, in addition to trying to ramp up my miles a bit more, I decided to add some runner-specific strength training 2-3 days per week at the start of training, scaling back to weekly in the later stages, and to include regular time on a stationary bike. My goal is to increase the load capacity of my legs in general, and hamstrings in particular, in hopes that this helps me cross the finish line strong.
Why run a marathon?
When deciding to train for and run a marathon, it’s a good idea to know your reason behind your goals. For me, I asked myself why a marathon and why set my goal as breaking the family record. Well beyond bragging rights at the dinner table, I see aiming for my grandma’s record as a way of honoring her lifelong work ethic and fitness enthusiasm. She was a rock climber, chemist, and distance runner at a time when women were too often shut out of those and other spaces. I have a healthy fear of heights and not enough brains to be a chemist, but I got her long legs and ability to zone out in my own thoughts, so marathons seemed like the best fit.
As I’ve trained for and completed a handful of races, I have come to appreciate the complexity of the marathon. If you go out too fast, your body will fail you before you cross the finish line; too slow, and you will never make up the time. Eat too much and you will need to make a pit stop or two; eat too little and your energy will crash. Same story with hydration, clothing, training, and a lengthy list of other variables. To get the most out of your body over such a long distance requires the perfect balance of effort and pacing, planning and creativity, preparation, and luck.
Navigating obstacles during marathon training.
Even if you’ve created a customized training plan for your pre-marathon season, issues may arise that derail things. Runners dream of being able to train hard every day, especially when pushing toward a race goal. However, rest and recovery are crucial to the overall gain. It’s important to listen to your body in order to avoid an injury that might result in the end of your marathon season for the year.
On Tuesday of week two of my “official” marathon training plan, I was taking my two dogs on our usual early morning run, but my left heel hurt. I told myself what many runners tell themselves, “It’ll feel better after I run on it.” The dogs and I finished our run, but my heel did not feel better. I limped around at work all day and tried to ignore it. When that didn’t work either I gave it a bit closer inspection and looked over my training log. I diagnosed myself with a calcaneal contusion (bruised heel) and decided to take two weeks off from running. The culprit — increasing my mileage too quickly and stubbornly trying to fit more mileage into a busy schedule.
My running has fluctuated greatly over the past two years, but in my mind I’m a marathon runner. That day, my body reminded me that running for four consecutive days was not currently on the table. Fortunately, neither biking nor weightlifting aggravated my heel. So, for two weeks I replaced all of my running time with time on the bike and continued my strength training plan. After two weeks my heel felt normal during the day, so I started a return to running protocol that involved walk/jog intervals with gradually increasing jog durations.
The reset strategy — transitioning to a half-marathon training plan.
“Everyone has a plan, ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” Mike Tyson is far from the most model citizen, but I often think of this quote when things don’t go the way I expected. How do I want to respond to adversity? Running, specifically marathon training, gives me a chance to practice rebounding when things go awry. After taking two weeks completely off from running, I mapped out a modified training plan. I quickly realized that there was no way for me to appropriately build up enough miles in time without risking reinjuring my heel, or something else. So, I made the choice to shift goals and switch from the full marathon to the half marathon. The training plan is very similar, other than reducing the mileage, everything else stays the same. I’m also going to use this half marathon race to boost my confidence. This heel injury caught me off guard (despite hindsight making it seem predictable) and I want to be in a better mental space when I attempt to break my grandma’s family record.
Since returning from injury I’ve been able to steadily increase my mileage without any heel pain. I can run on consecutive days without issue and have done a mediocre job of keeping up with my strength training. Not every race, training plan, or run goes exactly as you plan. The marathon asks you to push your body to its limits, so don’t be discouraged if/when you reach your limit. Being honest with myself has allowed me to decrease my mental stress and focus on a healthy and sustainable training plan. With race day still about 8 weeks away I have plenty of time to continue to build and am looking forward to crossing the finish line.
Thinking about running a marathon?
If you’re thinking about running a marathon, it’s important to recognize the planning and preparation that needs to go into it. You will need to get you mind ready, along with your body. Checking in with a physical therapist is a great way to uncover any imbalances or faulty mechanics that can lead to injury. A PT can help you design a training program specific to your needs and goals, building strength, flexibility, speed and endurance to see you across the finish line and through recovery.