By Greg McMillan, M.S., Published Jan. 25, 2016, Updated Feb. 1, 2016 at 3:43 PM UTC
Training for the Boston Marathon is unlike getting ready for any other marathon. It’s all about getting ready for the Boston Marathon and the unique challenges and opportunities this race presents. Done correctly, you can run very well in Boston; done incorrectly, and the course will eat you alive.
It’s important to understand who this training is for and who it’s not. First, this is for athletes who have qualified for (and are running) Boston. By default, this means that this marathon is, at minimum, your second marathon (but often your third, fourth, fifth, etc.) so what you will see is not designed for a first-time marathoner.
Second, runners training for Boston shouldn’t be starting from scratch. You’ve recovered from your previous training cycle, built back a solid aerobic base (consistent weekly mileage and long runs) and are ready for 12 weeks of focused training. You are not injured and can easily run for 45-60 minutes on mid-week runs and 90-105 minutes on long runs. In other words, you’re ready to begin marathon training, not just begin training.
Training: Weeks 1 & 2
With three months to go until race day, our focus right now is on developing VO2max, leg turnover, leg strength and mental toughness. This is slightly different than many training plans that work on stamina first and speed second (or work on both at the same time across the plan).
I learned long ago that for the vast majority of marathoners—especially Boston marathoners—it’s better to first fatigue the runner with the speed of workouts (first few workouts) and, as the marathon approaches, fatigue them with the duration of workouts. This philosophy puts the most race-specific training closest to the race, something that is in accord with basic training theory.
Early in the training, I want you to be mentally challenged with workouts that elicit the same kind of suffering you get in a 5K. I want you to get used to high levels of suffering for a short amount of time. What I’ve found is that this allows you to better tolerate the lower level (but longer lasting) suffering that the upcoming marathon-specific workouts (and race) produce.
Coach’s Note: I’m going to present the key workouts and long runs for each week of training. Each reader will be different in the number of runs she does each week so I’ll let you fill in the other easy runs, cross-training and off days based on your usual running schedule.
Twelve weeks out from the race, I suggest a hill workout and a long run. For advanced runners accustomed to doing two workouts and a long run during each week, I suggest also adding a progression run.
Workout #1: Hill Repeats. Warm up 15-30 minutes of easy jogging, then run 6 to 10 times a moderately sloped hill (6-8 percent grade) at 5K effort or harder lasting 60 to 75 seconds. Jog back down the hill for recovery between repeats, then cool down with 15-30 minutes of easy jogging.
Workout #2 (advanced runners): Progression Run. Easy run for 60-80 minutes with the last 10-20 minutes at a slightly faster pace (around tempo effort).
Long Run: 1:45 – 2:00 (which will be 12-16 miles for intermediate runners and 14-20 miles for advanced runners, respectively). If you can complete the run without fuel, great. If you need to fuel, only fuel enough to complete the run but try to use as little as possible. Our goal is to expand the muscles’ store of carbohydrates (called glycogen) and a good way to do it is to deplete the stores in these long runs, which then stimulates the body to store more glycogen afterward. So, we want to minimize external fueling so we use more of these internal fuels and thus stimulate more fuel storage.
With 11 weeks to go, we continue to work on VO2max, leg turnover, leg strength and mental toughness. Note that I’m suggesting effort-based VO2max training (a.k.a fartlek runs) as opposed to the usual track workouts to build VO2max. I do this because I prefer these workouts are performed over a hilly route where the runner will do some fast running uphill, some fast running downhill and some fast running on the flats. The pace will vary depending on the terrain, so effort is a good way to monitor the workouts. By following this approach, we are beginning the process of getting used to the Boston course.
Workout #1: Fartlek Run. Warm up with 15-30 minutes of easy jogging, then alternate 8 to 12 times one minute at 5K effort (or harder) with one minute at an easy pace for recovery. Cool down with 15-30 minutes of easy jogging.
Alternative Workout: For runners who are what I call Endurance Monsters (perform much better at long races/workouts and find that speed training causes undue mental and physical fatigue), I have them warm up then run at Steady State pace (easy-medium effort) for 4-6 miles, then cool down. Note: You can calculate your exact Steady State Pace on my McMillan Running Calculator.
Workout #2 (Advanced runners): Leg Speed. Warm up with 15-30 minutes of easy jogging, then alternate 8 to 12 times 20 seconds at faster than 5K pace with one minute at an easy pace for recovery. Then cool down with 15-30 minutes of easy jogging. Note: This leg speed workout is best done on flat terrain.
Long Run: 2:00-2:30 for sub-3 hour marathoners; 2:00-3:00 for 3+ hour marathoners