(Originally Published on Runners World Loop 11/8/11)
Most of the marathon “Training Plans” out there are for 12 to 18 weeks. But is that really the ideal preparation time? Just how far in advance should you begin your training?
Let’s say you wanted to run in the 2012 San Francisco Marathon, which will be held on July 29, 2012. If my math is correct, that’s a little more than 37 weeks from now. So is that too far away? Should you wait 4 months before you start your training?
My suggestion is to start training NOW. It’s never too early to start laying down (or maintaining) the base mileage – really, what you want to do is to work on making regular running a habitual part of your life. Tackling a 26.2 mile race is not an easy task, but if your definition of a “normal” life includes running, it’s definitely achievable. If you’re not a runner, use the next 4 months to establish the base, and if you’re already a runner, use them to enhance your base.
By the way, the first step in your training plan should be to make the commitment. Larger marathons often sell out far in advance (some within a few hours), so if you wait until 12 to 18 weeks before the race, you may find yourself turned away from the registration process. Participant numbers are usually limited by the local authorities, because they need to balance the needs of racers and the public in general. So my advice is to register for your desired marathon as early as possible – watch the race website for announcements and get your debit card ready to go as soon as online entry opens up. I’ve personally already registered for several large events next summer. (A bonus for registering early is that you’ll get substantial discounts on fees).
Once your registration is accepted, you should immediately write out a training plan. If you purchase a plan, or buy a book with plans, or even have a trainer make a plan, I still recommend that you personally write it down. This means writing down your intended workout for every single day until race day – yes, the full 37 weeks! Start with a calendar or excel spreadsheet, and write in a general description of your workout. Don’t worry about fancy terms like “4x400” or “fartlek”; just scratch down a mileage goal for each day (be sure to include regular rest days, and some cross-training or strength days). Doing this yourself allows you to notice days when you may need to make some special modifications – for example, birthdays, business trips, or other obligations. It also allows you to visualize yourself as a consistent runner for a long time. This is extremely important. You need to mentally see yourself as A Runner – somebody whose life includes a substantial amount of running. You’re not just somebody who exercises, you’re A Runner. It’s part of your identity, part of who you are. If you can’t spend time planning out your running, and making it an important part of your limited time, then you’re probably not going to have what it takes to complete a marathon either. Neither of these is easy, but they are both rewarding. So don’t skip the planning!
Many large races offer training programs. The San Francisco Marathon, for example, offers comprehensive packages of various lengths for runners in the area, which include group workouts and custom training plans. You can also find coaches and personal trainers nearly anywhere who will help develop an appropriate training plan for you, and most cities have running clubs that sponsor group runs. I strongly encourage you to train with others, and to share ideas about training plans, but I still believe you personally need to write out your plan, even if that means you’re mainly just copying the information from a purchased plan.
My own planning process includes several spreadsheets with varying levels of detail. My schedule includes numerous races of varying distance; I love to participate in running events, and the races serve as nice speed workouts and also provide valuable competitive experience. I also make sure to include a lower-mileage week about every third week, to allow for some recovery time. Here’s a sample of a couple of weeks from one of my basic spreadsheets:
I also use the online service “Training Peaks” to maintain my plan, as well as to log my actual data. This is a clip from my Training Peaks log of the same period:
If you look closely, you’ll notice that between the broad-level spreadsheet plan and the more detailed Training Peaks plan, I made some slight tweaks. It’s important to feel o.k. about modifying your plan as time passes, as long as any changes are consistent with your end goal – the marathon!
If you run more than one big race per year, you may find it tempting to make your plan only up to the big event. After all, once you’re done with that, you may want to take a well-earned rest, right? Well, since you are now A Runner, you should already be training for the next event the minute you cross the line. Training includes rest, so schedule in some rest days, but if you complete a race and don’t have a plan for the next one, you may very well backslide to the “I’m Not A Runner” mindset. Plan beyond the big event; if you have a smashing success at one race, modify your plan to take advantage of that, and if your race does not go so well, review your plans and decide on any necessary changes. Either way, treat every race as part of a larger overall training plan.
If you’re not the type who enjoys schedules and long-range planning, you still need to do some planning. Nobody just wakes up one day and happens to run a marathon; it takes more effort than just one race morning. Proper planning will prepare you for the race, and will give you confidence when you hear the starting gun go off.
Does all this planning mean that running just becomes a routine chore, something that you’re locked in to? Absolutely not! You should always keep it fun. Training with a group and running smaller local races will help mix things up. Some days you’ll feel like going farther than plan, so go ahead and do it; other days you’ll want to quit early, and you can’t allow yourself to feel guilty about that. The purpose of the plan is to provide focus for your goal, not to create restrictive parameters. You’re going to write the plan out when you’re feeling positive and excited about your goal marathon, and that will help you to keep training when outside influences are trying to drag you down. In a sense, the marathon training process is itself like a marathon, and you’ll experience ups and downs – but the plan will help keep you on track.
Good luck over the next 37 weeks – or however long it is for you – and I hope to see you on the morning of July 29, 2012, in front of Pier 1 on the Embarcadero, as we prepare to head out for 26.2 miles of fun!