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How to create a marathon training plan

No coach? No problem. Here are some basics on how to create your own marathon training plan

Though it’s safe to say that most of the fastest runners have coaches, it’s not everyone’s goal to be the fastest, nor is it necessary to hire a coach in order to reach your marathon goals. If you’re the type of runner who likes to train alone and coach yourself, here are a few basic principles of marathon training, so you can create and follow your own training plan.

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RELATED: A week-by-week breakdown on how to approach marathon training

How to formulate your marathon goal

Before you start training, you need a goal race (so you have a date to work towards) and a goal finishing time. If it’s your first marathon, your goal may be simply to finish. If you want to set a time goal, one way to determine your ballpark marathon potential is to take your latest half-marathon time, double it and add five minutes, according to Hugh Cameron, coach of the Newmarket Huskies’ high performance group. Then figure out your goal pace, i.e. how fast you’d need to run to achieve your finishing time goal.

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Photo: Matt Stetson

When should I start training?

If it’s your first marathon, give yourself 16 weeks to train, assuming you have a decent base. What’s a decent base? You should be able to run at least 16-20K on your weekly long run. If you’re an experienced marathoner, you should still plan to spend an absolute minimum of eight weeks on marathon-specific training (and 12 to 16 weeks is better). 

Lee McCarron of the Halifax Road Hammers follows a 12-week training plan with his athletes. “Broken into blocks of three weeks up, one week down (30 per cent lighter), we continue to build each block with both volume and intensity,” says McCarron. 

Based on these principles, you should be able to take out your calendar (or draw up a spreadsheet, if you prefer) and formulate a plan that will get you to the start line well prepared to achieve your goals.

How often should I run?

Most coaches recommend running four to six times a week, varying the distance and intensity. Most of your runs should be at an easy, aerobic pace (marathon race pace plus 30 seconds per kilometre). One weekly run should be an LSD (long, slow distance), one should be a tempo workout at marathon race pace or faster (anywhere from 6K to 15K, depending on your experience level), and one should be a shorter, more intense speed workout using fartleks, timed intervals or track intervals.

McCarron’s group typically starts with long runs of 20K, increasing by 2K each week. 

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How long should my long runs be?

Most coaches recommend building up to three or four long runs of 35 to 37K to prepare to race the marathon distance. They should be run at your marathon race pace plus 30 seconds per kilometre. It’s very important to run these long distances at an easy pace, since running them fast could leave you too beat-up to benefit from the following week’s training.

The long run is also your opportunity to practice fuelling and hydrating, which are critical for marathon success. Your body can only store about an hour’s worth of glycogen for fuel, so you’ll need to replace carbs in the form of gels or chews at regular, frequent intervals during your long runs and the race itself. Also, you will need to replenish water and electrolytes, so get accustomed to carrying some diluted sports drink on your long runs. 

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Tune up and taper

Remember to build in a two-week taper at the end of your plan, where you cut back on mileage to give your body a chance to recover slightly from peak training and reap the gains of all that mileage.

RELATED: The art of the taper

At some point during the latter third of your training block, a “tune-up” half-marathon race to replace one of your long runs is a great idea. It will help you gauge your progress, as well as give you a chance to race with no pressure to perform well.

Cameron mentions one difference between training for the marathon and training for shorter road races: you typically do not practice, let alone exceed, the full distance in training. For that reason, it’s harder to know exactly what to expect, come race day. But that’s part of the beauty of the distance. As Cameron says, “there is some magic in the outcome.”