How Advanced Marathon Training Works

Training for advanced marathon running may bring you even further off the beaten path.
Training for advanced marathon running may bring you even further off the beaten path.

The day you slapped that "26.2" sticker on your car was one of your proudest in recent memory -- it was the day you advertised your membership in the club of marathoners. You've seen major cities while pounding the pavement of major thoroughfares that were closed just for you. Maybe you've completed several marathons already, and you're wondering if you can shave a few minutes from your current best time. Congratulations, you're one of the elite -- or you will be, soon.

If you've already run marathons, stepping up to advanced training means only one thing: You want to achieve your best time. Though advanced marathon training programs all feature some variations (based on theory, experience, trainer preference or some combination of the above), all are designed with the same goal in mind. While beginner and intermediate training focuses on teaching your body to adapt to and cope with distance running, advanced training features long runs (some well beyond the 26.2 mile mark) and incorporates speed workouts. Instead of training to finish a marathon, you're training to race one.


Sound tempting? Generally, you shouldn't attempt an advanced program unless you've run at least one marathon before and you regularly run five or six days a week for at least 45 minutes at a time. For your body to handle the stress, you should have a minimum of a year's experience of running such at an intensity [source: Health Magazine].

Are your legs tingling in anticipation? On the next page, we'll discuss a typical advanced marathon training schedule, and you'll see how you can select one that's right for you.


Advanced Marathon Training Schedule

Experts offer conflicting advice about running strategies, but if you're an experienced runner, you probably have some idea of what works for you. Keep in mind that the objective is to achieve a gain in speed and consider the reasoning behind each strategy.

Weekly mileage varies among programs and throughout the duration of training, but most clock in at about 60 to 70 miles over a combination of long and short workout days. Beginner and intermediate programs focus on preparing the body without overwhelming it or causing injury, and therefore, the training distances are much shorter (in some cases, you won't even tackle 26.2 miles until race day). Advanced training, however, assumes your body can handle the distance and allows you to focus on speed and stamina.


Leading marathon coach Gabriele Rosa believes that marathoners should work on speed first and endurance second, because when distance comes first, runners are too exhausted to push for speed afterward [source: McMillan]. In Rosa's program, elite runners had success by adding a speed- and core-focused pre-training session for several weeks before regular training began. In this case, the regular training program was a few weeks shorter so the runners wouldn't be lethargic during the most crucial part of their training and worn out on race day.

Trainers agree that runners need a couple days per week to recover; they disagree, however, in the definition of "recovery." Some feel that an easy run, a stamina-building hill workout or light cross-training is an acceptable recovery day, while others advocate a day off for complete rest. The most important consideration is understanding the different objectives for each day and following the program you've chosen [source: Palmer].

Though running generally contributes to better fitness and a healthier overall lifestyle, the intense and accelerated pace of marathon training can cause health problems. A runner who's working to build speed and endurance, both of which are crucial to really race a marathon, is probably working too hard, though it's perceived as a necessary evil [source: Palmer]. Advanced marathon training is especially stressful on your joints, bones and muscles. That's why it's important to adhere to the rest and recovery portions of your program. An injury might force you to drop out of your big race.

Marathoners might be goal-oriented people by nature, but mere motivation can't take you all the way to the finish -- some sacrifices are necessary. Read on to find out how you can fit advanced marathon training into your lifestyle.


Tips for Advanced Marathon Training

Like any goal worth pursuing, training for a marathon will affect other aspects of your life. In addition to planning your running time, plan about an extra hour of sleep each night so you can recover and go about your normal business [source: PBS]. You'll also be eating more food, preferably prepared fresh by you (so you can control ingredients and portion sizes). An ideal diet, in brief: Calculate how many calories you need to maintain your current weight (multiply your weight by 13, and the result is your body's ideal daily calorie intake). 60 percent should come from carbs, with the remainder from a balanced mix of protein and healthy fats, such as nuts and avocados. Plan your biggest carb consumption for before and after your workouts, and keep easy-to-digest, high-carb foods and drinks accessible during long workouts [source: Fernstrom, Douglas, Pfitzinger].

At times, your life will affect your running. Accept that you'll miss some workouts for things beyond your control. Legitimate excuses are severe weather (do a lighter workout indoors instead), injury or illness, and family- or job-related crises. When faced with scheduling conundrums, it helps to prioritize your training. Decide in advance which workouts you're willing to skip if necessary, and which are absolutely mandatory and have to be rescheduled. This will help you feel on track when you have to make adjustments [source: Pfitzinger].


If you're a gym rat, look for a regimen that incorporates alternative workouts. Some experts say cross-training is OK, but this isn't the time to try anything new or impress others at the weight rack. Do short-term goals and socialization help you stay on course? Try a couple of shorter races, such as 5Ks and 10Ks, into your schedule, which will provide speed training with real motivation [source: Rennie].

Running's simplicity may be a factor in its continued popularity. All you really need are good shoes, comfortable workout clothes (try sweat-wicking synthetics) and a safe route. Be aware of your environment: If you're running at night, wear reflective clothing and leave the headphones behind. Whenever possible, train on soft surfaces, such as grass or dirt, so an early injury doesn't derail your whole season.

If you're just about to start training, your next marathon is months away, and there's a lot to do in the meantime. The next page contains links to more advanced marathon training information.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Douglas, Scott. Pfitzinger, Pete. "Advanced Marathoning." Human Kinetics. 2009.
  • Douglas, Scott. Pfitzinger, Pete. "Pfitzinger shares tapering strategies." Human Kinetics. (Accessed June 24, 2010)
  • Health Magazine. "Run a Marathon: Advanced Marathon Training Program." June 3, 2010. (Accessed June 24, 2010)
  • Fernstrom, Madelyn. "The Runner's Diet." Runner's World Magazine. August 2004. (Accessed June 27, 2010),7120,s6-242-304-310-7771-0,00.html
  • McMillan, Greg. "Time to Rethink Your Marathon Training Program?" Running Times Magazine. November 2006. (Accessed June 23, 2010)
  • Palmer, Andy. Ph.D. "Training Program - Marathon Advanced." Running Times Magazine. (Accessed June 23, 2010)
  • PBS. "Ask The Expert." November 2007. (Accessed June 27, 2010)
  • PBS. "Ten Tips From the NOVA Marathon Challenge Training Team." (Accessed June 27, 2010)
  • Pfitzinger, Pete. "Coffee, Tea and Me." Running Times Magazine. March 2004.(Accessed June 27, 2010)
  • Pfitzinger, Pete. "Lab Report: Flexibility (in) Training: How to Avoid Being a Slave to Your Schedule." Running Times Magazine. March 2007.(Accessed June 27, 2010)
  • Rennie, Doug. "Your Ultimate Marathon Training Plan." Runner's World. August 2004. (Accessed June 24, 2010),7120,s6-238-244-255-6946-0,00.html