Currently there are over 75 million runners in the USA. This number, I’m sure, is rapidly rising as I speak. These numbers are impressive and encouraging. Anyone who gets into this sport knows how life changing it can be. You start by telling yourself you would like to do a few 5Ks and suddenly somewhere along the way find yourself wanting to train for your first marathon. Why would anyone want to run 26.2 miles for fun? That kind of a race takes a lot of time and commitment and, above all, carries with it a lot of risk. The annual risk of overuse injury for an average runner is 50%. This rises to 90% with marathon training. I am in the health care field and I know that many health care professionals believe that the best solution to this is to simply not take the risk.Their advice: “Stop running.”
As a runner who knows how rewarding these “risky” races can be I am not satisfied with this answer.
If you want to achieve a lofty goal such as running in your first marathon, by all means go for it! In my opinion, the benefits of achieving something you have to struggle to get far outweigh the risks you take to get there. I will however say this: Be smart with your training so you don’t become another statistic!
Right now I am in the early stages of training for my first ironman triathlon. When it comes to ironman training the philosophy of the group I am training with (Endurance Nation- the largest online triathlon team in the US) is “FAST BEFORE FAR.” Before they have their athletes reach the heart of their high volume training weeks they encourage them to get really strong and fast on the front end of their training. They also encourage you to pick just a handful of “main races” to train for each year. I think this is excellent advice to follow because it allows you to add more variety to your training and, more importantly, to get the most out of it. I am all for marathon training. I am not for training for them year round. Pick a few key main races you would like to do well at and then structure everything else around that.
Periodization is a term that doesn’t get used much in running circles. Periodization is simply a plan for how you structure your training season during a year. More specifically it is how you prioritize what you do with your time depending on where you are at in your training. Periodization allows you to focus on different goals at different times during the year. This structured approach helps you get the most out of your training by keeping you from placing too many “conflicting demands” on your body. For instance there really is no way to get stronger when you are spending most of your time focusing on endurance. The peak of marathon training is not the time to be putting 3-4 days a week in the gym strength training. You will simply be wasting your time if you are trying to fit all of that in. The same holds true for trying to develop speed and endurance at the same time. Ask any veteran runner, it is very , very hard to PR in a 5k when you are marathon training. Case and point: You can’t train for everything ALL the time! You have to break your year up into phases. Pick a few goals you want to achieve each year and then structure everything else around that. This will not only make you a better runner but will also make you a more injury-free runner!
What does this look like for the average runner? That ultimately depends on your specific goals for the year. But for an example let me share a periodization scheme I recently came across. These general guidelines are from a webinar I recently watched done by Justine Levine. Justine is the owner of California Fitness Academy out in Visalia,CA. He is also an avid runner, triathlete and strength coach. He recently started a program called “Limitless.”
Limitless was a journey he took to prove to himself that he could run 300 miles straight in under 100 hours. He was able to achieve this goal without getting injured. His goal and mission with this program is to show people that they can run and be injury free (look for a documentary to come out sometime this April about his journey). The periodization scheme shown below is what he uses for general guidelines with the endurance athletes he trains. I have added my commentary below as well.
January- 4 weeks of strength training
• My thoughts: To have a true “strength building stage” in your training you should be doing some form of strength training 3-4 days a week (this includes actually getting to the gym to lift more than just your body weight, you have to lift heavy to get stronger!). In my opinion the strength building phase is also a time when you should be doing speed and hill workouts to improve your power production (power is a product of speed and strength). To get the most benefit from your strength training you MUST reduce your overall running volume. In my opinion this is a period of time when your weekly mileage should be 50% or less of what you are used to doing. This is a time to cut your mileage way back!
February- 2 weeks of strength training / 2 weeks of strength maintenance
• My thoughts: Transitioning to “strength maintenance” requires 1-2 days a week of strength training compared to the 3-4 days/wk you do during your “strength building stage.” This again requires you to get in the gym and lift heavy weights.
March- 4 weeks of body weight only strength training(i.e. no heavy weights)/ Main Race #1
• Justine recommends doing body weight only strength training 4 weeks out from a main race. So with this periodization scheme your Main race #1 would be at the end of March.
• My thoughts: I would treat this as a maintenance phase. Do your strength work 1-2 times a week. If time is a limiting factor, do at least 10 minutes of body weight strengthening for the core and hips 2x a week ( a lot of running related injuries can be linked to weakness in the core and hips). With most training plans, 4-6 weeks out from a race is typically when you will be putting in most of your running volume. This is a time in your training where you NEED to put your miles in. The focus here is not strength building, but minimal strength maintenance.
• If your main race isn’t until April or May you would continue strength training with heavy weights during this stage.
April- 4 weeks of strength training
May- 2 weeks of strength training/ 2 weeks of strength maintenance
June- 4 weeks of body weight strength training/ Main Race #2
July/August- 8 weeks of strength training
• My thoughts: There are very few marathons/half marathons during these months anyways. This is a GREAT time to focus on building strength! Another option is to use this time to cross train. Pick up swimming and/or biking for instance. These are the prime months to compete in a Triathlon, which in my opinion is GREAT supplementary training for runners in the offseason!
September- 2 week of strength training/ 2 weeks of strength maintenance
October- 4 weeks of body weight only strength training / Main Race #3
November- Transition Phase
• Use this time for unstructured training to give your mind and body a break!
December- 4 weeks of strength training
• My thoughts: In my opinion the best time for most runners to do off season strength training is during the months when we get our extreme weather conditions (i.e. extreme heat- July & August, extreme cold- Dec & Jan). The months when we are stuck inside are great times to focus on building strength. However, I will say that our holiday months (esp. around Thanksgiving & Christmas) can also be used as a time of unstructured training again as a way to give our minds and bodies a break! I find that it is very hard for most people to stick to a structured workout plan during the holidays. Use this time to rest and reset if you need it. Don’t worry about getting the structured strength training in if your schedule does not allow it. Get your friend and family time in and then be ready to get after it again come January!
I am a big advocate of periodization schemes similar to what is proposed above. You’ll notice there is A LOT of strength training included in this plan. It’s not just about the miles! I think the Endurance Nation motto of “FAST BEFORE FAR” definitely helps point us in the right direction. We must have strong stable bodies if we want to achieve superhuman training feats while staying injury free! For 2014 I personally have my eyes set on 140.6 miles at the end of July (will be competing at the Lake Placid Ironman in NY). My plan is to train according to the mottos of “FAST BEFORE FAR” and “STRENGTH FIRST, DISTANCE SECOND.” Best of luck to everyone with their 2014 training goals!