The Compressed Marathon Training Cycle.

compressed marathon training cycle

My training plan for this year’s Marine Corps marathon was different.

It had to be.

A few weeks before the marathon training cycle began, an injury to my foot sidelined me from running for 8 weeks. This disrupted my original marathon training schedule.

By the way, one huge lesson learned from this experience is to have a backup plan – a training schedule for the phase that I’m in (base, strength, speed, or race). Training schedules are not set in stone, and they have to be flexible to adapt to life’s curve balls.

This led to three concerns:

1) While I had held on to my fitness base with biking and swimming, my mileage base was largely depleted.

2) I had only 10 weeks to work in a marathon training cycle. A typical marathon training cycle will be somewhere between 12 weeks and 20 weeks.

3) And running a lot of miles posed a risk of re-injury to my foot that I was not willing to accept.

How I set up my compressed Marathon Training Cycle.

My theory was that I would run on fewer days, with more meaningful miles, trying to reach a target pace of 10:30 per mile or faster.

I had toyed with the idea of trying to break 4 hours, but after much reflection, this was just not a realistic goal. Getting trained was challenge enough – hitting the stretch goal was a recipe for pushing myself too hard too soon.

After a compressed 4 week base training phase, here’s how the rest of the plan shook out.

There were 10 micro-cycles of one week each. Within each week, there were 4 work out days and 3 rest days.

In hindsight, I would have liked to have broken the whole 10 week macro cycle into 2 or 3 meso cycles, to add in a little more focus on strength training.

Midway through the marathon training cycle, I would test out my marathon pace at a midway goal race: a local 20k known for its steep hills.

If I couldn’t get a run in, because work or family commanded my attention, I would skip runs in this order: speed runs were the first to go, tempo runs were second, long runs were not to be skipped if at all possible. I learned that lesson in Chicago in 2017.

The speed workouts were primarily hill-work. There is a 250 meter hill near my house with a 5% grade, and I did sprint reps up that hill. The plan was to stair-step the reps with a 1 mile warmup and cool-down before and after:

  • Weeks 1 – 4: 3 reps at an easy pace, then 5, 7, and 9 reps.
  • Weeks 5 – 8: 3 reps at tempo pace then 5, 7, and 9 reps

For tempo runs, I found a 5 mile route that mimicked the first 2.5 mile uphill of the Marine Corps Marathon. Rather than try to increase mileage at tempo, I would work on keeping a steady pace uphill and downhill. (In hindsight, I wish I’d done a few more miles of tempo running, but we’ll see how that plays out tomorrow).

And to help with the reduced mileage, I planned to get my weight down to 175. I’ve been struggling with losing some weight for a couple years now.

I had started 2019 at 200 lbs, which is getting too much for me to carry at age 47. By June I was down to 179, so losing 4 lbs in a marathon training cycle didn’t seem too unreasonable.

A look back at the compressed marathon training cycle.

The plan has not gone perfectly, but overall I think it has gone very well.

First of all, for the last week of the taper, I feel like a pinball about to explode into the game. Having that kind of energy bodes well – I can’t recall feeling this way before any of my prior marathons.

Midway through the cycle, I started running with a neighbor on Wednesdays.

These 3 mile easy runs with Rabih have become a staple of my week. Growing up in Lebanon in the 1980s before coming to the US and serving in the US Army in the Persian Gulf, Rabih has a fascinating life story. Like me, he is addicted to trying new things. He is rebuilding houses in our neighborhood, creating a sheep farm in NW Arkansas, and crushing his day job as a loan officer for residential mortgages.

To keep up with the Wednesday runs, I bumped my tempo run to Sunday and made Wednesday my recovery day.

I skipped a lot of the speed runs. Life was busier and more demanding than I planned for: a lot of work travel, a heavier than expected work schedule, and a sign language class I am taking at the University of Arkansas (Little Rock) sapped enough energy that I skipped most of the speed work. I’ll be curious to see how that affects tomorrow.

But I made almost all of the long runs. I missed one – the final pre-taper 8 miler. I cut one 18 miler short at 16 miles because of a weird sensation in my big toe that was concerning at the time. And I cut another 20 miler short at 10 miles due to oppressive heat and humidity.

And, but for the 3 mile uphill at the end of my last 20-miler, I would have comfortably hit an even 10:30 pace. If the saying is true that we are adapted to comfortably run a distance that is the average of our last three long runs, then I’m adapted to comfortably run 19 miles at marathon pace of 10:30.

Oh, and that test race in August?

I ran the Arkansas 20k in Benton, Arkansas, at an even pace of 10:01, even while walking the steep uphills on the course.

While I “feel” great about this marathon training cycle, the data has me a little nervous about tomorrow.

  • I only ran about 375 miles total during the entire marathon training cycle – that’s way less than in the past. (Although I did have 160 miles of cross training on the bicycle to mitigate the impact of lower mileage overall.)
  • My average weekly mileage was 22 miles. That’s really low for a marathon, I think. I once heard a rule of thumb that the average training week for a mid-packer should be twice that. (Who knows if that is true, it could have no basis in reality).
  • I didn’t lose that weight. In fact, I’m going into tomorrow weighing 186, which is a 7 pound gain.

The mindset going into a marathon.

In the end, no matter how good I feel or how much I ran, performance in a marathon seems mostly a matter of luck.

Chicago stands out in my mind as the marathon where I learned this lesson. We were hit with unexpectedly warm temperatures, and I had some significant issues with my strategy and pacing.

So, I’m going to approach tomorrow’s marathon with three words in mind:

  1. RESPECT. (Respect the distance). 26.2 miles is no joke, and there is never a point in the race where I can presume I’ve “got it in the bag.” Likewise, there is never a point in the race where I can say I’ve lost all hope of doing well. Respect the distance, and take it one mile at a time.
  2. TRUST. (Trust my training). The “shoulda-coulda-woulda” mentality in the middle of the race is a morale killer. I made a decision to follow the plan that I did, and that plan is going to produce a particular result. I won’t know that result until the end, so I should just trust my marathon training cycle to produce the result it was designed to produce. That result may or may not be what I intended, and that is what I must learn from – after the race, not during it.
  3. ENJOY. (Enjoy the run). In the end, there’s no point to running a marathon if I don’t enjoy it. Yeah, parts will hurt. But there are so many parts of a marathon that make it fun. In the NYC Marathon, it’s the crowds that change so dramatically from one block to the next. In Chicago, it was the public support for the race, from the “Charity Mile” to the fire-engines creating cooling waterfalls, the community there pours itself into supporting the marathon. Who knows what the highlight of tomorrow’s Marine Corps Marathon will be, but there will be one.

Whether I hit my goal or not, I plan to enjoy the run.

Check back Monday and I’ll tell you how this plan worked out!

Have a Runderful Day

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