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Marathon Training Runs

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Sep 26, 2007


Some runners like to run the occasional official marathon event as a training run in preparation for another marathon. I guess I'm one of them.



There aren't all that many marathoners who perform marathon-length training runs period, let alone in a race environment. But some feel that running 26.2 prior to racing 26.2 gives them an extra bit of endurance that helps them finish stronger when they later attempt to cover the same distance in peak shape, as fast as possible. That's how I feel. Plus, there's a confidence-building benefit.



If you're game to do a marathon-length training run, you might as well do it in the context of an official event, in my view. It's more motivating and less boring, you get some practice with event logistics, early wake-ups, and all of that stuff, and of course you don't have to carry any fluid, as you must when you run solo for three-plus hours. The potential downside of running a marathon as a workout is that it's all too easy to get caught up, run too hard, and ruin your entire next week of training. I've seen it happen.



Several years ago I did the San Diego Marathon (now the Carlsbad Marathon) as a training run. I went a little too deep and was a wreck for the next three days, but after that I felt an immediate quantum improvement in my fitness level. A couple of weeks later I set a huge PR in a half-marathon, and I've been a believer in marathon training runs ever since. In fact, as soon as I publish this post I'm going to use to register for the Sacramento Cowtown Marathon, which takes place October 14, seven weeks before my peak marathon.



Remind me not to let myself get caught up!



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A Use for Tune-Up Races

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Sep 18, 2007


When you're training for a marathon, shorter tune-up races offer a few benefits. First of all, they're great workouts, because you can always push yourself harder in a competitive environment than you can in a regular workout. Also, they reward the hard work you do in training with a chance to post a time you're proud of, win a ribbon, or whatever. To me it would be a shame to train for four or five months just for one race--my marathon.



Another benefit of tune-up races is that they provide information that you can use to determine whether your fitness development is on track with respect to your marathon time goal. If you expect to run X time in a marathon Y weeks from now, then you ought to be able to achieve Z time in a 5K, 10K, or half-marathon today. Of course, there's no formula that you can use to calculate these variables with scientific precision, but the combination of a race time equivalence table or calculator and some common sense will give you good hunches.



I like to use the race time equivalence table in Jack Daniels' Running Formula and the race time equivalence calculator on Greg McMillan's website ( Here's how the whole thing works. My goal time for the marathon I plan to run in December is sub-2:40. According to Jack Daniels, the 10K equivalent of a 2:39:55 marathon is 34:30. According to McMillan, it's 34:05. What these calculations mean is that, if I were to run a 10K race instead of my marathon on the day of my scheduled marathon, after having completed all of my hard training and a good taper, I should expect to run somewhere in the low 34's, if indeed my marathon goal was appropriate.



Now then, how fast should I expect to run a 10K tune-up race taking place 11 weeks before my marathonwhen I should be well on my way towards peak fitness, but still with a ways to goas I did last weekend? Combining the above calculations with common sense, I set a goal to run 34:55.



Well, I ran 35:34. But I'm not ready to hit the panic button just yet, because the racecourse that was promoted as pancake flat turned out to be anything but, and two miles of the race were run into a vicious headwind. However, I don't like saying "shoulda, coulda, woulda," so I decided that this particular tune-up race didn't tell me much about whether I am on track to meet my marathon time goal.



So I'm looking ahead to my next race, a half-marathon on October 14. If I don't run 1:14:50 or better there, I will hit the panic button!



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The 20-Mile Cakewalk

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Sep 11, 2007


There are certain training benchmarks you must reach before you can achieve a specific marathon time goal. For example, roughly three weeks before your race, you should be able to comfortably run a half-marathon training run at your goal marathon pace, with only the first vague hints of fatigue emerging in the last couple of miles.



Another important benchmark is what I call the 20-mile cakewalk.  This benchmark works as follows: By the time you begin your two-week pre-marathon taper, you should be capable of "jogging" 20 miles so easily that you could play a game of pickup basketball later the same day and wake up the next morning with minimal muscle soreness. To reach this benchmark, you should aim to run your first 20-miler roughly 10 weeks before your marathon and complete at least three more training runs of 20-24 miles in the next several weeks.



My next marathon is 11 weeks from Sunday, and I will run my first 20-miler of the present training cycle on Sunday. I don't expect it to be a cakewalk (especially considering I'm running a 10K race the day before!), but by suffering through it I will lay the foundation for being able to coast through a 20+ miler in November.



Note that this benchmark is only relevant to runners pursuing an aggressive goal time in a marathon. If your goal is just to finish a marathon, it's enough to simply complete a 20-miler in training.



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A Tip for Travelers

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Sep 6, 2007


I have been traveling on business this week. Naturally, making two cross-country flights in four days and sitting in multi-hour meetings between flights has had an unavoidable impact on my training. But I don't mind. I came prepared.



In the past, I always tried to sustain my normal workout schedule as closely as possible while traveling on business. All too often this effort entailed heroic measures such as setting an alarm for six am on the East Coast, which was three am by my California-calibrated body clock, after having arrived at the hotel at eleven o'clock the previous night and having not fallen asleep until at least one am, struggling out of bed, and running seven miles on a treadmill in a hotel "fitness center" that clearly used to be a mop closet, which feels like running eighteen miles outdoors in fresh air, and then doing whatever I had to do for the day, and in the evening finding a YMCA with a lap pool and suffering through fifty or sixty laps before grabbing a hurried dinner and finally dying of exhaustion.  But frequently, when the alarm sounded, I just couldn't bear the thought of seven miles on the treadmill in my current state of fatigue (I hate working out first thing in the morning under any circumstances and never do it at home) and I would just shut it off and go back to sleep, missing the workout completely. 



Then I came up with one of the best ideas of my life: the ten-minute better-than-nothing workout.  Now, when I'm traveling on business and have to work out first thing in the morning, I plan to run for ten minutes, and that's all.  I can always get myself out of bed for ten minutes of running, no matter how miserable I feel.  Sure, ten minutes won't get me in shape for a marathon, but it is better than nothing, which is exactly what I wound up doing half the time I planned to run for an hour.  The other great thing about the ten-minute better-than-nothing workout is that I usually wind up running fifteen or twenty minutes anyway.  It's basic human psychology.  The hard thing is getting out of bed.  I must ask as little as possible of myself to motivate that painful throwing back of the bedcovers.  But once I start running, the worst of the suffering is already behind me, so I can ask a little more.  I wish I could patent and sell the ten-minute better-than-nothing workout for business travelers.



The other thing I do now is plan my travel weeks as recovery weeks. I train especially hard in the final few days before flying out and especially hard again the first few days after coming home. So the light training I do while on the road allows me to recover from the preceding hard training and prepare for the next batch of tough workouts. I must say, it works quite well, but I'm glad I don't have to travel more often than I do!



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Choose Your Spots

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Sep 2, 2007

An elite runnerI forget which onemade an interesting point in an online interview I read a couple of months ago. He said that if you want to achieve your very best in races, you have to take risks in training. In other words, if you train cautiously and conservatively all the time, you can more or less guarantee that you will arrive at the starting line healthy, but at the same time, you are guaranteeing that your race result will be something less than the result you would achieve if you trained more aggressively and got a little lucky.


The title of my last post was "Discretion Is the Better Part of Valour." I stand by the point I made in that post--namely, that we must resist the temptation to push through "red flag" musculoskeletal pains in training. But at the same time I fully agree with the elite runner who pointed out the necessity of taking some chances in the training process. ("Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.") You just have to do it wisely.


In my Tuesday tempo run last week I experienced a painful hamstrings twinge and immediately shut down my workout. Over the next three days I ran by feel, maintaining a slow pace and stopping completely when the lingering soreness reached an unacceptable level. Happily, I was able to run slightly farther each day. This was the experience that reminded me of the importance of holding to a zero-tolerance policy toward injury pain in training.



Had I been content to be really conservative, I would have continued running slow and short until my hamstrings felt 100% free of lingering soreness. But I am determined to set a marathon PR in December. This will require that I train harder than ever on a consistent basis. So after three days of training very lightly I was feeling the need for another strong training stimulus--that is, another tough workout. If I can't complete a tough workout at least once every three days consistently over the next 14 weeks, my race will be disappointing whether I remain healthy or not.



I normally do my long runs on Saturday, and Saturday fell four days after my muscle twinge this past week. I decided to start my planned workoutan 18-mile run at a moderately aggressive paceand hope for the best. If my hamstrings felt merely iffy, I would keep running. I would wait until I knew for sure the muscle was on a downward spiral towards a severe strain, before stopping. I made it 9 miles before I began to be somewhat concerned. The pain was more intense and widespread than when I started, but still not quite a red flag. I decided to stop if it got even one tiny bit worse. I made sure my route consisted of endless loops around my neighborhood, so I wouldn't have far to walk if it came to that.



But it never came to that. The pain levelled off and then actually began to decrease in the final miles of the run. I wound up running the full 18 in 2:04:53, or 6:56/mile, running the last 8 at 6:48/mile in 90-degree heat. That's a very storng performance for me, and so a workout that could have been disastrousor might not have happened at all, if I had been too conservativeturned out to be a terrific endurance-building stimulus and a great confidence builder. It also served to remind me of the need to "choose your spots"to take calculated risks every now and thenif you want to raise your running performance to the next level.



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