Preparing for your first marathon

If you’re planning to run your first marathon this year, as more and more people are, what should you do to prepare for it properly? Experts disagree on the exact details, but it’s safe to say that the ‘more is better’ philosophy is currently holding sway.

However, a new study completed at the University of Northern lowa indicates that the extra miles and increased workout frequencies may have little value for novice marathoners. At Northern lowa, 18 college-aged males and 33 college-aged females took part in an 18-week marathon training programme. All 51 subjects were active, healthy, and fairly fit at the beginning of the study, but none had previously run a marathon, and almost all of the subjects were running less than 10 miles per week when the study began.

Participants were divided into two groups. The high-mileage (HM) group increased training volume from 23 to 48 weekly miles over the course of the 18-week research, averaging six workouts per week. The low-mileage (LM) group increased their mileage from 18 miles up to 39 miles per week at the end of the study. LM runners trained just four days per week.

A typical schedule for the HM runners near the end of the training programme was as follows: Monday 45 minutes of running, Tuesday- 90 minutes, Wednesday – 45 minutes, Thursday – 90 minutes, Friday – 45 minutes, Saturday- long run, Sunday – complete rest. The LM group simply omitted the Monday and Wednesday 45-minute efforts to arrive at their four-times per week schedule. Actual exercise intensity during all workouts was the same for both groups – about 75 percent of maximal heart rate. Both groups tapered for two weeks prior to the actual marathon.

The duration of the Saturday long run – for BOTH groups – was 60 minutes at the beginning of the study but eventually advanced to two and a half hours after 14 weeks of training. Each group completed three of these 150-minute runs over the course of the training programme. Thus, even though the LM runners ran 20-percent fewer miles during the total training period, both LM and HM athletes carried out exactly the same Saturday long runs.

At the end of the 18-week period, both groups had improved body composition and running capacity dramatically. Each group trimmed per cent body fat by about 10 per cent and hiked muscle mass by 3-5 per cent. Likewise, the groups raised V02max by 3-12 per cent, improved running economy by 10 per cent, lowered lactate levels while running by 25 per cent or more, and reduced heart rates required to run at submaximal paces by up to 15 per cent. These improvements were equivalent between the groups, even though the LM runners had logged 20-per cent fewer miles.

And what about actual marathon times? They were exactly the same, averaging about 4:17 for both LM and HM males (range was 3:36-4:53) and approximately 4:51 for both LM and HM females (range was 3:51-6:32). In other words, the extra workouts and extra miles run by the HM people – hadn’t done them a patch of good. Running 39 miles per week – parcelled into four workouts – was just as effective for first-time marathoners as scooting 48-50 miles per week, with six weekly exertions.

The message for first-time marathoners is clear: if you’re running 35-40 miles per week with four weekly workouts, moving up to six comparable workouts per week and 50 weekly miles is unlikely to help your marathon performance. Of course, if that fifth workout is an intense affair – a tempo run or an interval session – all bets are off: the extra workout probably would be helpful. However, capping four workouts with a fifth workout at a modest pace (75 per cent of max heart rate) and with a moderate duration just 45 minutes or so) is unlikely to help you at all.

The Northern lowa researchers tried to suggest that their study validated the importance of a weekly long run for marathon preparation, but it really didn’t do that. To test the true effects of the single long run, it would have been necessary to include a third group of subjects who ran 39 miles per week but without any extra-long (120 to 150-minute) efforts. All the lowa research is saying is that if you train at moderate intensities about four times per week (yes, we can can call this junk mileage) for your first marathon, doing 20-per cent more of this moderate work isn’t going to help you.

There’s extremely little research going on concerning the effectiveness of various marathon-training programmes (the lowa investigators could find only one study in the scientific literature which compared the merits of different programmes for novice marathoners). As a result, there’s still lots of confusion about how to put together an optimal marathon plan. It IS clear that training at planned marathon pace (PMP) will help you greatly because of its precise specificity, but the advantages of other forms of training aren’t so clear.

Training intensely (at higher than marathon velocities) is great, because it will produce a higher fitness level, compared to slower running, but it lacks specificity because it doesn’t teach the body to function well over a marathon-type span of time. Training long and slowly accomplishes the latter, but produces smaller gains in fitness and is also unspecific, since the pace of such efforts is usually considerably below marathon speed.

However, it’s clear that the value of the long run is greatly overrated in the popular press. Long (150-minute or more) runs will no doubt increase your mental confidence in your ability to handle a marathon, but there’s just no solid evidence that they’ll prepare you better physiologically, compared to shorter, harder exertions.

(‘Long Slow Distance Training in Novice Marathoners,’ Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, vol. 65(4), pp. 339-346, 1994)