I recently was asked how I would train someone to run a sub 3 hr 30 min marathon. That is 8 minute per mile pace for 26.2 miles. No problem. I like to keep it simple when it comes to developing training programs.
No complex formulas, just hard work. Ask everybody from a particular race that breaks 3 hr 30 min, and you will likely get countless different training methods that enabled them to run that time. Pop your survey at about mile 19 or 20, and I guarantee most will tell you they wish they had done a few more long runs, and they are probably right.
First of all, you need enough speed/endurance to run at least 22 minutes for a 5K. If you cannot do that, I would say a sub 3 hr 30 min marathon might be tough. If you are already that fast, then you need to focus on 3 key components when preparing for a big race. Total weekly miles: The number of miles you have run in the previous 12 weeks correlates well with your ability to maintain pace the last 10 miles of a marathon.
The questions are, how many miles should you do and what is too much? Without conducting the survey, my guess is a peak of 40 miles per week will be necessary to break 3 hr 30 minutes. You can go more, but here is where you need to develop a feel for balancing training and recovery so you can avoid burnout or injury. Long run: The second component you need for a successful marathon is the long run. No way around this one either, but again the question is raised, how long is too long? You will want to build up your long run gradually.
Once you can do a 10 miler I would just add 1 or 2 miles per week until you reach 17 or 18 miles. Do not worry if you have to cut some of these runs a little short because your legs cannot handle it. If you average 9 minutes per mile, that is going to take you in the neighborhood of 2 hr 40 something minutes.
Long enough. How many of these do you need? The more long runs you do beyond 2 hours the better, but my recommendation is try for at least 4 in the 17-18 mile range, completing the last one 4 weeks before your race. Pace training: You should run miles at 8 min per mile pace or faster, but how many? Set aside one day per week to work on your race pace, using either an interval program or sustained tempo runs.
If you choose intervals, then I use the old Yasso 800s, starting with 6 and moving up to 8, with maybe 1 peak workout at 10 if you can handle it. According to theory, these would be done in 3 min 30 sec or under, with at least 3 minutes to recover. If you choose sustained tempo runs, then I would begin with 3-4 miles and work that up to 7-8 miles at 8 min per mile pace or faster. You might like to race 5Ks, which are usually held on Saturdays.
If that is the case, just cut your Friday run in half. You should still be able to run long on Sunday without too much trouble. Other issues you must consider are preparing for hills and hot weather, but for now lay out the basic plan to see what it looks like. Sunday is your long run, adding 1-2 miles each week.
Four weeks before your marathon, do a 13-15 mile time trial. Monday is a rest day, or light cross training. Tuesday is an easy 5 mile run. Wednesday is 800 repeats, starting with 6 increasing to 8 by week 4 or 5. Thursday is another easy 5 miles.
Friday is an 8 mile run. Saturday is off or light cross training. You end up with approximately 40 miles per week, 4 quality long runs, and a good solid base of tempo work. As you can see, the 2 days off provide a great opportunity to add some easy miles if you feel the need, or even better cross train. Let the taper begin! Most taper programs are designed over 3 or 4 weeks. Here is my suggestion.
4 weeks to go: Schedule a time trial 4 weeks before your race. If a half marathon just happens to be on the calendar, perfect. Otherwise take it easy for a couple of days then see how well you can handle your goal pace for 13-15 miles. Wear the gear you plan to use on race day, eat and drink the same way.
Lay out an accurate route that simulates the hills that you will encounter on race day, and you can even start at the same time of day as your race. Do not worry if your pace is a littl slow- often the extra rest you get the week before your big day makes all the difference. You should feel some soreness for a day or 2 following this effort, which is exactly what you want. Take a couple days off and slowly ease back into running. I tend to believe that my legs always come back stronger a month after a hard effort like this. 3 weeks to go: Your long run is now down to 90 minutes.
Everything else stays the same. 2 weeks to go: Same long run, but during the week there will be a difference. On Wed and Fri, run a 1 mile warm up then 4 or 5 mile temp run at your 8 min per mile or faster if you can. You will want to feel comfortable running the pace you need to hold on race day.
1 week to go: Your last long run is 60 minutes, then two more mid-week 4-5 mile tempo runs ought to do it, preferably Tuesday and Thursday if your marathon is Sunday. Anything else is just easy. Day Before: Just relax, eat and drink! The time to work hills into this schedule would be Friday or actually in the middle of your long run. To prepare for heat, you might want to wear an extra layer or run later in the day starting 3 weeks before your race.
Dave Elger is a well respected authority within the running community having written hundreds of articles on the topics of running and wellness. You can contact him at http://www.daveelger.com. He also supports the Okinawa Running Club.