The 2019 Vermont City Marathon. Photo Credit: Zach Walbridge.
The 2019 Vermont City Marathon. Photo Credit: Zach Walbridge.

If you have recently decided to run a marathon this spring, you will know the uncertainty of figuring out how to transform yourself from your current state into someone who can run 26.2 miles and maybe even stand up at a BBQ later. There’s no other race that inspires the same type of equal parts giddiness and terror. In my experience, locking down a training plan that works for you is the best antidote to some of these nerves.

After a two year hiatus, I am finding myself in this exact situation. From May 2017 to May 2018 I trained for 3 marathons. My plan for the second two looked quite different from the first and very extremely contrasting results. While I trained for my first, the Vermont City Marathon, I was doing a lot of speedwork with a track club in Boston. These workouts involved me running all out for shorter repeats like 800m. I built up to 20 miles on my own and continued to run hard on Tuesdays with the club. When Memorial Day weekend rolled around I ran 3:49 and felt like death for the last 8 miles. Shortly after this, I left the club and started training on my own.

Chloe on a training run at Lone Rock Point in Burlington, VT. Photo Credit: Zach Walbridge..
Chloe on a training run at Lone Rock Point in Burlington, VT. Photo Credit: Zach Walbridge.

In July, I began ramping up for the Baystate Marathon with the hope of qualifying for Boston. This had been my secret dream in my first VCM, but I got dusted by the 3:35 pace group around mile 18. I increased my mileage in a similar way to my first race but this time around my body seemed to adjust more easily to the long runs. A few months later, in Lowell, Mass, I crossed the finish in 3:32 and felt surprisingly strong through the last six miles. The craziest thing about this to me was that I had not set foot on a track this time. I had not done any speedwork. What I had done were some accidental tempo runs with my very fast friend, also named Chloe, which she called easy ten-milers.

Now as I get back in the marathon game I’m reflecting on what I’ve done, how it’s worked, and what direction I want to take my training in 2020. The overarching question seems to be when to run slow and when to run fast. I’m no expert but I’ve done some research and there are pretty contradictory ideas out there about how to run your best 26.2.

1. The Maffetone Method

  • I stumbled upon Maffetone during a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole and the concept is intriguing. Maffetone preaches that low-heart rate training is the way to run faster in a marathon. Since the marathon is a largely aerobic event he states that athletes must focus on building their aerobic base rather than doing speed training where the heart rate is higher and functioning anaerobically. He has a formula for the ideal heart rate at which to train which is roughly 180-minus your age with other factors taken into consideration. Click here to find more info on the 180 Formula.

2. Slower Mileage plus Speed-Workouts

  • This is the type of plan that most track clubs carry out with impressive results. People training with a club will usually do a weekly speed workout where they run much faster than their goal race pace but for shorter intervals. There are also tempo runs built into training where the runner runs at a pace that is comfortably uncomfortable for miles at a time. For example, my friend Chloe continued to run with the same club after I left and went on to run a scorching 3:08 in the Chicago marathon. She achieved this with a combination of individual mileage, tempo, and group speed workouts.

3. Slower Mileage with Weekly/Biweekly Tempo and No Speedwork

  • This is what I have found to work best for me, however, I think I tend to link speed work with fatigue when that might not be entirely a fair association. There were many other factors that could have contributed to how terrible I felt in the last part of VCM 2017. It was my first marathon. It was hot. I drank way too much water. The speedwork I was doing was too exhausting because I was trying to keep up with much faster runners in the club. I didn’t do enough slow mileage in addition to my weekly long runs. I am open to trying to incorporate some anaerobic running back into my training, but for now I find that a combination of slow miles and regular tempo runs make me feel strong without burning out.

  • How to Build Up: My plan is based on 1 weekly long run with other mileage filled in throughout the week. I try to run 5 times a week but some weeks it ends up being less. My goal is to avoid going more than 2 days without any type of running, unless I am sick. Cross training such as skinning at Bolton or Nordic skiing can be a great way to mix in some lower impact aerobic effort. For the actual build up, I have always done the up, then down, then up higher method. For example, for my weekly long run I will do 12 miles one week, then go down to 10, then up to 14 until I get to 22, but some people prefer to build each week. More advanced plans will have you run over 20 miles more than one time but I have not ventured into this territory yet. As far as length, the plan I’m doing right now is 17 weeks. 16-20 week plans are common. If you can already comfortably run 8-10 miles you can definitely get away with the shorter end of this spectrum but if you’re still building up your base, a longer plan can be nice to work up more gradually.

The Taper: Two week vs. Three week:

The Taper: Two week vs. Three week: Tapers are one of my favorite subjects. A lot of runners get very nervous about tapers and feel uneasy about dropping down in mileage. I am not like this. I enjoy shorter runs, which is perhaps related to me pretending to be a sprinter in high school. For first time marathoners, I would recommend a two week taper because the idea of toeing the line with your 20 miler being three weeks ago sounds insane when you’ve never done it. For my first race I did 20, then 9 the next weekend, and raced the following Sunday. However, if you have one marathon under your belt, I have found the three week taper to lead to fresher legs on race day. I now like to run 22-23, then 14, then 9, one week before the race. Some people run better on a shorter taper; it’s all about finding out what type of runner you are and what works best for your body.

At the end of the day it feels like a miracle that all the soggy, often very grumpy, winter miles turn into something as glorious as swinging into the Burlington Waterfront with 400m to go but it does happen. Best of luck to everyone dodging puddles and braving negative wind chills over the next few weeks. You got this.

- Chloe Egan,
Skirack Run Specialist
Click here to learn more about Chloe.