There is no consensus. For some internationally renowned coaches, the training to face the 42km should take several months, some even suggesting close to a year! Others say it doesn’t take so much preparation, even for newcomers to the race.
A common fact among street runners, the progression of events is the subject of questioning and debate among coaches, and even more so among practitioners themselves. Is there a right time to go up? How much practice time in short events does it take until you are “allowed” to do a longer one? Many runners wonder whether or not to take that dreamed race and leave the final decision to their coaches.
The problem is that, like everything else, there will always be coaches defending each of the different points of view, and it’s hard to know which side the evidence weighs the most.
Before we get into the factors that may influence the runner’s decision as to when is the right time to increase the distance of his races, a short statement of conflict of interest: We were 50 days ago from Two Oceans Marathon (56 km) 4/23 here in Cape Town as I was writing this article.
A friend, who is visiting the country until the end of May, and who never ran more than 5 km, learned about the race, its excellent organization, a lot of party etc, and signed up! Nothing else to do but try to prepare it in these 6 weeks; the result of this venture may possibly be at the June CR.
To far less extreme degrees than this friend of mine, many runners decide to face an unprecedented distance a few weeks before the event. It is common to hear people excited about their first 5 km talking about facing a 10 km in the next fortnight.
This pursuit of the greatest distance arises from the euphoria of conquest or even the doldrums of always running the same distance at the same time, and is a common occurrence especially with runners with no significant results. But were they really ready to face greater distances?
ELITE ALSO SKIPPING STEPS. Different phenomena occur with income runners who think about their careers in the long run, and where the vast majority of today’s founders began their professional life in 800m and 1500m competitions.
Over the years, these athletes take advantage of the speed acquired on the tracks to climb the race. However, until the 1960s, 70 of them spent their entire careers on the track (like our Joaquim Cruz, 800m gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and silver in Seoul 1988).
With the marathon boom, and the media (and sponsors) spotlight on these events in the 1980s, early 1990s, the middle and bottom runners began to progress to half and marathons.
Recently this process has undergone a new twist as it used to take place slowly. After the junior years, athletes built a solid track career and then evolved into longer competitions at an older age, about 25-30 years old.
The new crop of elite athletes already thinks differently. Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru, for example, was featured in the 800m in his junior years, but soon went on to major events with great success, being Olympic champion in the Beijing Games marathon at 21.
This is however the first generation of elite runners using this strategy, and the long term effects are still unknown. Runners like Haile Gebrselassie have had long careers, with 5-7 years of track running plus 5-7 years of marathons.
IN THE BOOKS, VARIOUS GUIDELINES.
But let’s get back to the amateur runners, with their increasingly grandiose dreams. Are there any prerequisites for longer tests? Probably not, and practically every book on running brings the ideal training of their authors, presented in the form of spreadsheets they suggest for different performance goals.
Tim Noakes’s book “Lore of Running”, for example, suggests that marathon training lasts for 26 weeks, but must necessarily be followed by an earlier 25-week workout (10 km walker preparation). The total recommended by the author then is 51 weeks, or one year, for a walker to become a marathoner.
This is an extremely conservative measure, and other coaches have much faster sequences. American Jeff Galloway, for example, features a 25-week near-nothing marathon program in which the first week is comprised of 30-minute (sometimes alternating with running) walks between Monday and Friday and 5-7 km. of running over the weekend, reaching the marathon at week 25. Both models presented suggest a phase of 24-26 weeks, or approximately 6 months, of marathon-specific training, followed by several others, such as the Americans. Jack Daniels and Matt Fitzgerald.
The different programs vary according to the starting grade of the runner, so there are 25-week programs for both those who just want to complete the marathon and those who want to complete the 42 km in less than 3 hours. Peter Coe, father and coach of British midfielder Sebastian Coe (Joaquim Cruz’s opponent …), does not indicate in his work the length of preparation for a marathon, but suggests that 20-30 km races be made every 12-20 days in the two months preceding the event. Although this author is more focused on competitive athletes, it is evident the need that he feels that the preparation for the marathon is long term.
Minimum training for a marathon
It is possible to find consensus that marathon runners should have a minimum weekly training volume of at least 70-90 km per week and should be runners facing long 20-30 km without major problems. T
The point then is to check how much training a runner needs to achieve this conditioning. Many people not used to running, but with experience in other sports, start training facing 10, 15 or 20 km with ease. Obviously these people are advanced in their readiness and do not have to go through as much training time as someone who can barely run 2 km.
The important thing here is to check the initial condition of the runner, and from there create a training cycle that foresees gradual increases of load. Weekly increases of 10%, for example, are a reasonable recommendation. If we consider that every fourth week of the periodization consists of a recovery period, we will see that it is unhealthy to take a 20 km weekly runner to 70 km weekly in a matter of two or three months.
In a practical example, a runner who starts running 20km per week and climbs 10% each week, repeating this cycle for three weeks and then returning one step in the fourth week (imagine climbing three steps of a ladder, returning one, climbing three more , go back one and so on), it will take about 36 weeks, or 9 months, to reach a volume of 70 km per week. If the runner starts the program already 42 km per week, it would take about 20 weeks, or 5 months, to reach the same 70 km per week.
These examples are obviously not considering training phases; they simply calculate a mild to constant increase in weekly running loads, but give you an idea of the time taken to reach recommended marathon fitness levels.
Coaches must necessarily watch over the health of their runners. Therefore it is always advisable to act more carefully than the minimum necessary. Nevertheless, it is evident from past and present athletes that events such as marathons do not require years of preparation, at least not to be completed. If the beginner is aware that he will not have his best marathon at first, and that it may take three or four years to develop his true potential in the distance, let the walls come!