Running a marathon is hard. You need to have the mental toughness to toe the line and start a 42.2km run that you know will push you to your limits and beyond. You also need the physical strength and endurance to have the confidence to take the first steps of the tens of thousands you’ll have to take over the course of a marathon.
That mental toughness and physical strength is built over the four or five months of running leading up to the race. Success in your marathon is realized during individual runs throughout the 18 weeks of training.
Every time you go out and run on a day where everything went wrong and you’re tired and you don’t feel like running, it contributes to your race. Each time you push through a side stitch to finish the mileage on the schedule instead of packing it in is more toughness in the bank that you draw on come race day.
Different distances, different paces
Long runs on Sundays are key to building strength and muscle. But those 6km tempo runs on Tuesdays on legs still sore from the 26km you did just two days earlier give you a sense of what you’ll face in the last few kilometres of the marathon. The burn in your legs at the top of the seventh hill repeat is a preview of what you’ll run through in the latter stages of your race.
The mix of different distances and paces you run each week all provide different benefits, both physical and mental:
- Tempo runs help you discover your limits and build cardio and strength in your legs. You learn what it feels like to run tired and still keep going.
- Hills and speed work build the all-important strength in your legs and teach you how to push hard, but not too hard. You learn to run on the edge, keeping your heart rate from climbing into the red zone at the top of each hill or at the end of each speed segment.
- Steady runs teach you to hold back and run easy. It’s experience that you draw on in the early stages of your marathon when you foolishly think maybe you should abandon the race plan and run faster, earlier.
- Long runs give you the experience of pushing yourself farther than you have before without going too far and hitting the wall. They give you time to learn about nutrition and hydration, and also what clothes and gear works for you over the course of a three or four hour run.
It’s not 18 weeks of fun
Personally, I love the first few weeks at the start of training and the transition into longer distances on Sunday. The Running Room plan I generally follow starts with a few Sunday runs around 13-16km. It’s a great time to really push hard during the week since the long Sunday runs aren’t really all that long.
Once I hit the sixth or seventh week, I know that I’d better be ready to go. Things get serious in a big hurry and before I know it I’m running at least 19km every Sunday and more during the week for five or six weeks in a row.
Then things get crazy with 29 and 32km runs coming at you week after week for a month and a half. It’s honestly not a lot of fun and I don’t enjoy it much at all. Tempo runs are always on tired legs, and my body starts telling me it’s had enough. I push through because my experience on race day is determined by what I do during weeks 11 through 16.
Put in the time and run the miles, and things will go well. Start skipping runs and cutting back on the distances and I know I’ll regret it big time.
By the time the taper comes around, I’m always ready to ramp down the weekly mileage and start thinking about getting ready for the race. 23km two weeks before your marathon seems like a walk in the park after the 30km+ runs of the last month or two. My legs are strong and, more importantly, I’m confident in my ability to not only finish, but to run well.
When I’ve stuck to the plan and put in the miles, I’ve found these last couple of weeks to be really enjoyable. The runs are easy, I start to feel great as I dial down the distance and my legs always feel strong.
A 750km marathon
42.2km is a long way to run. But by the time you finish a marathon, you’ll probably have run 750km (or more depending on the program) when you total up all the training runs leading up to the race.
If you do the work, you’ll have a great run on race day.