Bonus Commentary on “Time to Rethink Your Marathon Training?”


This earlier post discusses a subtle but important change in your marathon training program that may be very beneficial. In an nutshell, many coaches are finding that rearranging the phases to focus on speed before stamina provides a better path to marathon success.

Some caveats to the article:

1) Proper Base Training

After discussing the article with my friend, Kevin, his complaint was that going from base to speedwork was dangerous. The muscles and tendons would be “shocked” going from easy distance training right into fast speedwork. “This is true,” I said. But followed with the suggestion that most runners have not been taught how to do a proper base training phase.

I am a student of Arthur Lydiard and toured with him on his last tour in the US. It’s unfortunate but Arthur’s training ideas have been misrepresented over the last few years. Everyone thinks that a proper base training phase (as popularized by Arthur) is simply easy running – each day, each week for the duration of the phase. This is not true. In his original training schedules released with his first book back in the 1960s, there was a fartlek workout on Tuesdays. If you were lucky enough to come to Arthur’s last tour, then you will remember this program on the video screen. I asked Arthur (and Peter Snell) about this workout since it just listed “fartlek.” Runners in the late 60s and early 70s knew what a true fartlek run was. It included a free-form workout where you surged and slowed down to whatever your body felt like doing. You might run very fast for 10 seconds (from a telephone pole to another telephone pole) or run at a fast pace for a couple of minutes. The recoveries were likewise free-form and this fun speed play workout provided some stimulus to the muscles and tendons but lacked the anaerobic/lactic acid build-up of true speedwork.

Further, I’ve learned that the Friday 60-minute run from Arthur’s original schedule was done quickly. I can’t remember the reason why but there seems to have been an incentive to finish the run quicker than normal – something about happy hour at the pub or getting to the movies. Lorraine Moller even related that she raced cross country once per week during her base phase. This stamina run, like the fartlek run, provided a subtle touching of other training phases to come for these athletes who had already built up their ability to run at an easy pace for two hours.

With this understanding, the base phase that I prescribe for my runners includes some very light workouts that develop leg speed (stride workouts) and also touch the stamina system (progression runs). None of these workouts are “hard” or cause lactic acid build-up but do provide the subtle stimulus to prepare the body for the next training phase. The end result is that my runners don’t get hurt when going to speed after base because their bodies are strong and ready for the training.

2) Start Easy, Finish Strong

Understanding Kevin’s point, it should be emphasized that when starting the speed phase (no matter if it follows base or stamina), you must start easy with each workout for the first 2-3 workouts. Your goal is to finish each workout feeling strong and fast. It is much better to start a little too easy than start too fast and struggle to finish the workout. That’s why I provide a pace range in the calculator. I tell athletes to start on the slow end of the pace range and gradually move toward the fast end of the range across a workout and across the speed phase. If performed correctly, each and every speed workout will leave you pleasantly fatigued but mentally motivated. It sometimes takes athletes a while to learn the discipline to perform a workout properly but trust me, if you can make “start easy – finish strong” your mantra for speed workouts, you’ll see terrific improvements without the pitfalls many runners face when doing speed workouts.

3) Classic to New – New to Classic

As I mention several times in the article, each method is valuable and runners who try both usually find the one that works best for them. One thing that I’ve found in my coaching, however, is that the same runner at different times in their running career needs different methods. For instance, one athlete with which I work started with the new method and moved to a new level of fitness but his marathon didn’t improve. In our discussions/recap of the training cycle, we began to feel the classic method may hold more purpose. For his next marathon, we used the classic method and building on the new fitness from the previous new method training cycle, he jumped to yet another performance level. While he improved his marathon, it still wasn’t up to our expectations. In his third marathon cycle, we plan to create the “Keith” method – a hybrid of the various methods that, taking the data we have from previous training cycles, will provide what we hope will be the perfect build-up for a peak marathon performance.

It’s important to understand that this is how the training process works (and shows the value of having a coach). You must be constantly evaluating and re-evaluating your training program and the results you are getting. It makes no sense to continue to do the same training and expect different results. You are ever-changing as a runner and your training program should be ever-changing as well. What I find is that well thought out yet subtle changes from training cycle to training cycle leads to fulfillment of your potential as a runner.

4) Peaking Too Soon

I’m not sure I emphasized enough in the article that the new method will allow you to peak sooner than the classic method. As a result, you must shorten your marathon training cycle by 2-4 weeks. If you are fitter before starting marathon training then it stands to reason that you will adapt quicker to the workouts and be race-ready earlier. With some experimentation, you’ll soon learn just how many workouts and just how many weeks you need to bring yourself to a peak. Once you know this, you are virtually guaranteed to run well, pending good weather of course.

I hope these few caveats add to the article and I look forward to more opportunities to share my coaching experiences with you.



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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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