How to Train for a Marathon Without Overdoing It

Young woman running, Sweden.

Marathon running surged in popularity in the beginning of the 21st century, with the number of finishers in U.S. marathons mushrooming from 224,000 in 1990 to 507,000 in 2016, according to Running USA's Annual Running Report.

While the event formerly attracted only hardcore training machines whose intent was to race the clock, other racers or both, the marathon is now also for people who take a gentler approach. These marathoners often run to raise money for a charity or merely to complete the event for the sake of a finisher's medal. Many of them do not have significant running or athletic backgrounds.

As a result, traditional training programs and schedules -- most of which are targeted at experienced, high-mileage runners with proven durability and perhaps high-school or collegiate competitive backgrounds -- are not suited for many, or even most, marathon entrants today. Many people would simply break down if they followed these schedules to the letter, never even making it to the starting line, much less the finish.

Fortunately, technology and creativity have combined to offer options for getting race ready that involve activities other than running.

[Running on soft surfaces] is as important as doing the little things like icing, massage and getting physical therapy when you have recurrent 'hot spots.'

The 3 Runs You Can't Afford to Skip Each Week

Just Run

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Most people who train for a marathon run every day or almost every day. This makes sense. Sheer endurance is the single most important factor in finishing a marathon without undue discomfort.

Not everyone, however, has the physical makeup to put in the 70-plus-mile weeks common among competitive recreational marathoners.

Biomechanical issues that don't typically come into play at lower running loads can often cause people problems when running 40 or 50 miles a week.

But this doesn't have to limit you.

There are, of course, certain types of runs you can't afford to skip, including a weekly or biweekly long run of about 16 to 22 miles, a midweek medium-long run of 10 to 13 miles, and a faster effort -- a tempo run or high-intensity interval session --- that includes a three- to five-mile run at a 10K race pace or faster.

Many runners fill in the remaining days of the week with easy recovery runs, but you can choose other workouts that accomplish virtually the same thing.

Each week you might do the three runs listed as among those you can't afford to skip, plus one easy run and two cross-training workouts, allowing you one valuable day of total rest.

The Importance of Cross-Training

A few decades ago, the only recourse injured or fragile runners had when trying to integrate a nonrunning workout into their training was an ergometer, outdoor bicycle or, perhaps, a swim. While these provide an aerobic stimulus, they are not actually running specific because they recruit different muscle groups.

Now elliptical trainers, stair-climbing machines and aqua vests -- which allow runners to closely mimic running while in a pool -- have entered the scene, allowing shelved or cautious runners to perform workouts that unquestionably contribute to running fitness.

Sonja Friend-Uhl, an elite track and road racer and professional fitness trainer, credits cross-training with remaining healthy and competitive into her 40's.

"The elliptical would be my first choice [for cross-training]," she said. "Do it without holding on to the rails, and pump your arms as if you're running, as this works your core muscles better. My second choice would be a tie between deep-water pool running with a vest and indoor cycling."

Whatever you choose to do, get your heart rate up to about 75 percent of maximum for at least 20 to 30 minutes. If you elect pool running, bear in mind that your heart rate at an equivalent land-running effort will be nine to 12 beats per minute lower, owing to hydrostatic forces.

Aim to Run on Soft Surfaces, Whenever Possible

Jogging along the coast.

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A vastly underrated and underutilized way to keep your legs fresh at whatever mileage you top out at is getting off asphalt and onto more forgiving surfaces. Grass or dirt trails, gravel paths, and even the treadmill result in far less impact stress than do pavement and concrete. Given that you take about 1,500 steps a mile, the benefits add up quickly.

Many elite runners max out at 120 to 140 miles a week. While these totals may seem mind-boggling to workaday runners, virtually none of these elite athletes manage this training load without doing the majority of it on trails -- and many have access to equipment such as the Alter-G machine, an anti-gravity treadmill. Since you're unlikely to enjoy these perks, plan your runs wisely, as muscle recovery time is the single greatest limitation among people training for marathons.

Of the importance of soft surfaces, Friend-Uhl offered, "I would say it is as important as doing the little things like icing, massage and getting physical therapy when you have recurrent 'hot spots.'"

She adds that although the treadmill can be boring, it has saved her during times of niggling injury. "I do bounce back much faster. My legs just don't feel as trashed, and it also helps save my low back."

Nicole Hunt, a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier and founder of Speed Endurance Coaching, concurs.

"Run on gravel or dirt roads," she advised, "especially for recovery runs, warm-ups and cool-downs."

How to Put This Together and Create Your Training Plan

So now you know you don't have to put in mega-miles in order to get ready for a marathon. You've also learned that if you're limited to a given running load by biomechanical or even weather factors, supplementary forms of indoor training can make up a large portion of the difference. And you know where to look: to the elliptical trainer, to the pool or to an ergometer.

You might also consider strength- and flexibility-oriented workouts. Some runners find psychological and physical value in activities such as yoga and Pilates. Of course, these should not take the place of aerobic workouts, but you can add them in once or twice a week if you like.

Hunt sometimes has her athletes combine running days with a dose of cross-training immediately afterward for a comprehensive endurance booster. For example, an athlete might spend two hours running at moderate intensity, then run in the pool or cycle for 45 to 60 minutes.

Friend-Uhl has her own recommendations if you're a four-runs-per-week athlete training for a marathon.

She says to perform a long run on Saturday. On Sunday, do an easy recovery run to flush out your legs, plus 4 x 20 second strides at 5K race pace. She advises you use Monday as your rest day. Then, on Tuesday, do a tempo or steady-state run followed by six to eight 80- to 100-meter accelerations. On Wednesday, perform a medium-long run, and cross-train on Thursday and Friday.

Keep in mind that a tempo run is a 20-minute run performed at 10K to 10-mile race pace, while a steady-state run is performed at about goal marathon pace. Note, too, that while you should try to keep the order of this schedule the same, you can, of course, change the specified days to your liking and needs.

Aerobic Alternatives to Running

Pool Running: This can be done with or without an aqua vest or water belt, but the vest helps you maintain a more upright posture. Aqua vests or water belts are available from various merchants, many online, with prices starting at around $40.

Elliptical Trainer: A workout on this mimics running to a greater degree than any other type of cross-training, and the machines are all but standard in health clubs as of 2011. Because there is no impact stress, people with almost any kind of injury can use an elliptical machine without pain.

Cycling: You can ride indoors on an ergometer, or by putting a road bike on a trainer, or you can ride outdoors on a mountain or road bike. Cycling has the advantage of avoiding impact stress, but be very careful when sharing the road with motorists.

Stair Climber: One of the oldest types of "cardio" in existence, a stair-climbing machine remains a low-impact means of getting in a vigorous aerobic workout.

You can use a 1:1 time ratio when doing any of these types of cross-training except cycling, which involves a 3:2 or 2:1 conversion. That is, you need to ride for longer on the bike in order to accomplish an equivalent running workout.