Over the past four and a half years, I have grown to love the marathon more and more. This doesn’t mean I haven’t struggled along the way, or that I have the whole marathon figured out. However, I have learned a lot through each and every training cycle. In fact, some of my best successes in races have come from looking back and pointing out what worked and what didn’t.
It’s so simple to say: “train and race and just go get the time you want.” In reality, it’s not that simple. I want to take you step by step through the past four and a half years of my marathon career to show you how I went from a 3:46 to a 2:58. And by doing that, I think you’ll learn a lot about finding your own recipe for marathoning success.
Consistency is Key
First, let’s go over the usual things people look at when assessing a marathon training cylce. Here is a list of the marathons I have done, including the common data points most people focus on: mileage, goal time, and actual finishing time.
It’s hard for me to even call my first 3 marathon build-ups actual training. My first was a hot mess, I got sick quite a few times throughout training which meant lots of down weeks, skipped runs, and lower quality training. Perhaps most importantly, it was my first and I had no idea what I was doing. My second marathon, Rochester was basically done on a whim. Then I ran my third, Harrisburg to redeem myself after that second one was disastrous.
Consequently, I think the training cycle for my fourth marathon, Marshall as my first real marathon training cycle. There is an entire year in between Harrisburg and Marshall because I broke my foot in a non-running related accident early in 2012. This was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to take time off and then start marathon training from scratch. This allowed me to get strong and healthy again, and made me look at training in a more structured way. The result of consistent mileage, weekly workouts and long runs? A huge PR.
It’s also not hard to notice that as my mileage gradually increased, my times went down for the most part. Erie was hands down one of my best training cycles- and having the average and peak where they were, definitely played a part in that. One of the things I love about those numbers though, is that they feel manageable to me. Yes it took time to get there, but by gradually increasing mileage and intensity I didn’t kill myself trying to take on more than I was ready for. But, I do want to see if I gradually increase mileage more what the results would be.
Key thing learned: Consistency, consistency, consistency. Gradual increases, along with consistent numbers each week helped me gain the fitness needed to reach my goals and also kept me healthier.
Respect the Distance by Training for It
Now let’s take a look at another chart considering a completely different set of data points: length of runs and double-digit mileage days (days when I ran at least 10 miles either in one run or two).
This chart is perhaps the most important one for my progression as a marathoner. I have always identified as an athlete “built for speed” rather than the athlete “built for the long haul.” Because of this, learning to pace, and also training my endurance became incredibly important in improving my marathon times. The highlighted training cycles are chosen in this case, because I believe the big jumps in my PR came as a direct result of increasing the number of double-digit days in my training.
For Marshall, my first breakthrough race, I nearly doubled the previous cycles average double digit miles per week. The result was a 16 minute PR. Yeah, that could definitely have something to do with strong endurance base that wasn’t there before!
Wineglass marathon and CIM cycles kind of go together (each was a 4 minute PR, 9 weeks apart). Another increase in the average number of double digit runs per week helped my endurance a ton, and found myself staying strong later in races.
While Rochester to Memphis was a 7 minute best, I think that the 6 minute Erie PR was more important. I don’t say that just because it was my first sub-3 marathon, I say that because the Erie training cycle went WAY better than the Rochester or Memphis ones for many reasons. I felt like I found a sweet spot with that cycle, and the confidence I gained was immeasurable. All of a sudden, running double digits mid week was no big deal and my long runs on the weekend felt shorter because it wasn’t such a stretch from mid-week stuff.
Key thing learned: It’s not about the overall mileage each week, but how you distribute those miles. Instead of running 6-7 days a week at 6-8 miles per run, try running 5-6 days a week with a 8-10 miles per run. Salty Running’s own Jasmine talked about running a Sub-3 hour marathon with 10 miles a day. There’s definitely something to be said about upping average daily mileage.
Don’t Automatically Discount Cross-Training
This one might surprise you. How many times can one runner hear someone say that only running makes one a faster runner. I don’t think that’s an absolute. I believe I thrive by incorporating some cross-training.
Typically, I tend to throw in more supplemental training in the first half of the cycle. When my mileage might be a tad lower, and I’m not into marathon specific training quite yet. The second half of a cycle, and especially in peak phase, I tend to push my focus almost all on marathon-specific training, which means more running.
I highlighted a few cycles on this chart for different reasons. With my first marathon, my mileage was low and my running was inconsistent which leads me to believe my performance was improved by my cross-training. I was hitting multiple spin classes a week, which built my aerobic endurance. I also think cross-training made my Cleveland Marathon much better than it would have been otherwise, because I was training for my first triathlon and the extra biking and swimming really helped me aerobically.
For that first breakthrough race, Marshall, cross-training was an important tool to ease back into marathoning after breaking my foot. I couldn’t jump right into training, and I also needed to be good about strength work for the same reason.
Both of my Boston Marathons went well. My first Boston, while not a PR went very well despite struggling with a calf injury all winter. I managed to train to finish Boston that year, by supplementing with extra cross-training and using strength training to replace the hill work that I wasn’t able to do because of the cranky calf. Boston 2015, I was healthy during training this time, but I think the performance was enhanced more by strength training which helped on the demanding course than the actual increase in run-specific training.
Key thing learned: Yes, you get better at running by actually logging miles, but as my experience shows, cross-training can be great for getting and staying healthy, as well as counteracting your training restrictions.
Find Your Own Recipe for Success
While I love being able to say that I’ve improved a ton with my training, I know there is still a lot of improvement left in my marathoning career. Laying out what I have done over the first four and a half years of marathoning and analyzing the obvious and not-so-obvious data points show me the path to future improvement is likely continuing to be consistent, focusing on endurance and staying healthy and strong by continuing to balance cross-training with a solid foundation of running miles.
As the difference between what I do and what Jasmine did to achieve our sub-3:00 marathons shows, the most important thing is to find out what works for you.
What do you think our your keys to marathon success?