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Marathon Training: A Practical Overview

Neil Running

If you are a Marathon runner or are considering running a Marathon, please read Part 1 of Dr. Feldman's Marathon Training: A Practical Overview.  Dr. Feldman has been helping guide and treat patients training for races of all distances from the 5k to 100+ miles, Ironman and Ultraman triathlon and adventure racing over his 20 years in Podiatry.  More importantly, Dr. Feldman has participated in countless events over the last 17 years including 12 Boston Marathons, 7 Ironman triathlons, 5 100-mile trail runs and numerous other races of distances between 1 and 100 miles in that time span.  This is the wisdom gained both personally and professionally.  So as not to overwhelm you with information overload, this "overview" will be broken into 3 parts over the next 3 weeks.  Enjoy, comment and most importantly, run!


Marathons are hard.  Training for a marathon is hard.  If they were easy, more people would do them.  To train for a marathon properly, you must understand that the race itself, 26.2 miles, is more than the sum of its parts.  Broken down into smaller distances, the marathon is almost 8 ½ consecutive 5K runs, just over 4 consecutive 10K runs or two half marathons.  Making the safe jump in distance, and the time that it takes to jump up in distance, requires adaptation of the body and the feet to handle the additional running, a mindset focused on a goal that may have been at one time unfathomable, and lastly and of equal importance, the ability for your stomach and GI system to handle the additional fuel (food and fluids) to power you over 3-6 hours of steady movement.

For many first-time marathoners, I see them following one of the many free training plans that are readily accessible with a simple google search.  With my 1st several marathons in the early to mid-2000s, I followed Hal Higdon’s training program for the intermediate to advanced runner.  17 years since my 1st marathon, and after completing numerous running events from the marathon to ultramarathon, I’ve come up with a few practical guidelines to help those training to prepare properly, minimize the risk of injury and maximize the likelihood of enjoyment.  Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be fun!

  1. Choose a realistic goal based on your running history and injury history. If you run a 5K in an average of 8 minutes per mile, then it’s going to be very difficult to average that (3:30 marathon) for 8 consecutive 5K’s.  An 8 minute per mile 5K runner should not be shooting for a 3:30 marathon is that chance of finishing in that time is low, yet the chance of having a miserable experience is high.  Let’s just take an extra few lines to discuss PACE. Pace ONLY matters to you or to people who judge you.  Pace should be between you and the powers that be.  Other than that, any time goal is a completely arbitrary number that you, or others, have applied significance to.  You ultimately want to run every race to your ability.  If you do that, then the time takes care of itself.  If you want to become faster with experience, then you must earn it through effort, training and experience. As you age, your body will naturally slow, so to expect personal bests (p.r.’s) with every race is folly. I do set time goals for myself to serve as a benchmark, but I am very aware that anything can happen on the day of the race from how you feel, to the weather to any unforeseen circumstance that can hinder a goal (nausea, gi upset, poor aid station set up).  At this stage of my life, after experiencing both achievement (occasionally) and failure (more often) of pre-race goals, I am truly satisfied when I run to my ability on race day, whatever that may be.  There are coaching services and online sites which offer race calculators to help better predict your race potential which helps take the guesswork, which is often emotional, out of the equation.

  2. Don’t do Boston! This comes from the person who has run 12 Boston Marathon’s. It happens to be my favorite race and a race I hope to be able to run for the rest of my life.  So yes, I’m not serious as I think everyone should have the experience of running Boston. However, when you live in Massachusetts and must train through the winter, the challenges with training for Boston become immense. That, coupled with unpredictable weather and a net downhill course that savagely beats up your quads if ill prepared, make Boston one of the more challenging races out there.  If you are local to Massachusetts or the northern states, the fall marathon season offers weekly options all over the place that affords seasonably cooler running after the ability to train through warmer weather with longer days.  Ideal marathon weather is around 50 degrees, overcast and with a slight tailwind.  The next time that happens for me, it will be the 1st time!  It can also be very helpful to choose a course that is similar in terrain to where you live and train.  Choosing the Pike’s Peak Marathon that crests at over 14000 feet may not be the best choice for someone living at sea level.  Conversely, when living in a hilly region like central Massachusetts, hilly races not at altitude are perfect.  With experience, and perhaps a different set of goals, destination races such as Pike’s Peak or any number of races around the world are terrific challenges and motivators to keep running.  I suppose that ultimately, you want to choose the right course and right event for you.  If it’s time you’re after, choose the right course. If it’s the experience you’re after, then you should absolutely choose a race that is meaningful or special.

  3. Train using Time as your unit of measurement. A 4-mile run on a flat road with perfect weather is not the same thing as a 4-mile run on a cold and wet day with a big headwind on a hilly route. The impact on the body with the latter scenario is much more significant than the former.  The length of time it might take from one to the other, with equal effort, would be a significant difference.  As the distances go up, so too does the effort level and the effects on the body.  Though you have a goal marathon pace, you are really preparing your body for a sustained maximum effort!  Who cares if you can run even 20 miles at your goal pace if it beats you up? 

  4. Use Heart rate to measure effort, not pace! Much the same with time vs. distance, consistently measuring your efforts and keeping most efforts aerobic will be crucial to success. Developing your aerobic function is probably the most important consideration when it comes to running, period! Marathon running should be entirely aerobic (burning fat for energy) and the more developed your aerobic system, the faster you will get for a given heart rate, not to mention the reduction in stress to the body and reduced risk of injury. Phil Maffetone developed the 180 Formula which is one of the most simple and effective ways to use your heart rate to help you develop aerobic function. The newest training (and racing) tool is power. Stryd makes a device which attaches to your shoe and measures power output.  While heart rate is an excellent measure of effort, there are times when heart rates can be elevated or depressed from normal baseline levels.  This creates instances where you may be unknowingly over or under training.  Power is the most consistent of all measurements as it yields real time feedback of your output (effort).  This is the next frontier of running gadgets expected to flood the market.

If you can, please take time in reviewing the links provided above and try to delve deeper into developing your aerobic function. Next week I will share my guidance on building mileage and give suggestions for the older and/or oft injured runners.


As always, Keep Moving! Neil Feldman, DPM


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Dr. Neil Feldman Dr. Neil Feldman is a Podiatrist at Central Massachusetts Podiatry, in Worcester and Westborough. As an ultramarathoner, runner and triathlete, he loves to help his patients remain consistent with their regular activities, assist in getting patients back to health and dedicates himself to patients achieving their goal events and races from walking the Camino de Santiago, to a first 5k run, to Ironman to a 250 mile run…and yes, that’s a thing!!

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