Things to Consider When Selecting a Marathon Training Program

The following is a revamp of an email I wrote for one of my running groups when I led a marathon training groups for CARA.  This content is Chicago Marathon centered but could easily be applied to any marathon.

So you’ve decided to train for a marathon.  You got your shoes and your running clothes ready and you’ve accepted, perhaps reluctantly, that your Saturday mornings will be sweaty and tiring for the next few months.  But there is at least one more thing to figure out: Which training program should I follow?

If you have never run a marathon before, the answer is a no brainer: Go Novice and use the program designed by Hal Higdon, the Godfather of marathon training.  The Novice schedule is a gently progressive program involving four days of running a week.  Each weekend, the Long Run (LR) gets longer, peaking at 20 miles three weeks before the marathon.

If you already have a marathon or two under your belt and want to achieve a faster time, set a new Personal Best, or even qualify for The Boston Marathon, there are programs which step up the difficulty and intensity. These programs require more mileage and incorporate speed-work and cross training.  Here are a couple:

  • The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST®) seeks to promote running as a healthy physical activity by providing training based on scientific principles.
  • http://www.runnersworld.com/tag/marathon-training-plans
  • Hal Higdon’s Intermediate and Advanced Training Programs

Word of caution:  If you are thinking about moving up a pace – from 9:30s to 9s for instance – I recommend you do not simultaneously change programs.  Running longer mileage at a faster pace might set you up to fail.  It’s better to run longer mileage at slower pace than shorter mileage at a faster pace for marathon training purposes.

More mileage doesn’t necessarily guarantee better results and a consistent pace is better than a sloppy one.  You might be able to run an additional 2-4 miles each LR, but if your pace is deteriorating at the end, it might be better to drop back to lower mileage and work on consistency.

The next thing to decide is whether you are going to train solo or join a running group.  Marathon training involves piles of miles and it helps to have someone to run with for some of them, especially the LR.  I encourage you to find a group to train with because not only will it keep you on track, but you will likely make life-long friends in the running community.  Two great resources are Chicago Area Runner’s Association and The Clock Tower Runners.

The final thing to consider is How much time will this take?  Looking at Higdon’s Intermediate and Advanced Programs, the most noticeable difference between the schedules is the weekend LRs. In the early weeks, it doesn’t seem like much. But soon the difference is literally miles apart. Take Week 7 for example. Novices run 12 miles which is almost a half marathon in itself. But the Advanced runners do that and tag on an extra 5K (and then some) for a total of 16 miles.

 

Photo Courtesy of Robert Meyers

Photo Courtesy of Robert Meyers

Another key difference between the programs is the number of additional 20 milers scheduled (2 and 3 respectively). Not only do these LRs take a large part of your morning but you have to factor in recovery time as well. Ask yourself, how will that impact other areas of your life?

Pro-Tip:  Get a blank calendar and mark out in different colors the mileage of each program schedule you are considering on the dates you would run them if this were a perfect world and all you had to do this summer was train for a marathon.

Now go back and add important can’t change the date events like weddings, vacations and business trips.  At this point ask yourself, honestly, what is realistic?  Now put your ego down and back away slowly and ask yourself again: what can I do?  If you still aren’t sure, you can use the early weeks of the program to see how you feel about extra mileage.

Which program is right for you?  The only person who can answer that question is you.  The good news is this is one of those times when it is absolutely, positively all right to be selfish.  After all, your friends aren’t running the race for you.  So if everyone you know is running the Advanced, but you are more comfortable doing Novice, run Novice and make some new friends along the way.

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