As an avid runner and self-proclaimed non expert marathon runner, I often get a lot of questions about my training. I caveat this post with disclaimers and asterisks that individual results may vary, consult your physician before considering any training program, and objects in the mirror are closer than they may appear.
The most often asked question is, "how do improve my time in a marathon?"
I have only run six marathons, but as a beginner, I've tried a lot of things and been able to PR in all but two of my four marathons. Being a competitive "Type A" personality, I have taken a runner's addict approach to my running who constantly tries to improve on my training and races. Apply one or all of these, and you will likely see improvements in your times;
1) Don't do it alone. I ran my first marathon by reading a book and running 100% of my training runs by myself. It's amazing that I broke four hours in my first race in San Diego. There are a ton of resources online and your best bet is seeking out a local running club--mine is Runner's Edge of the Rockies. This has huge benefits as you will find runners of all abilities and more importantly, runners slightly faster or quite a bit faster who are usually eager to share how they improved over time.
2) No Pain, no gain. Was it the Nike prophet that came up with this one? It's applicable in many sports and certainly applicable in marathons. For those that have run a marathon or several, you've "hit the wall" at some point in your marathon race (usually somewhere around 20+ miles.) I've "hit the wall" in five out of six races and I know that to improve my time and decrease my pain on race day, you put the work in over roughly 16 weeks up to the race. Skip days without reasons frequently or don't follow the plan for a particular week, and you will likely not be setting a PR on race day. I will typically log around 600 training miles preparing for a race over those 16 weeks.
3) Build a schedule and stick to the schedule. There are plenty of plans out there. I used Hal Higdon's online plans for the first three marathons I ran. I now use a plan built by my running club coach. You have to be a bit anal about training plans. I put each plan into a spreadsheet and actually chart plan vs. actual for each day. I will also put details into each run (distance, pace, heart rate, where I ran, how I felt) which proves helpful the next time you build a plan--I leave the comments and details in the plan I build so I can compare how I did compared to the previous time I trained. You have to have faith in the plan and follow it religiously. Do that and it will pay off on race day.
4) Listen to the body. This may be contradictory to the previous rule, but injuries and illness happen. I had a running buddy who I trained for Boston with side-by-side each week on our long runs. We ran the same pace every week and logic would put us within a few minutes of each other on race day. A "tweak" put him out of commission for almost three weeks. Ironically, I was over training at the same time (but didn't know it at the time.) He would also have a cool down period at the end of every long run while I was the "horse racing for the barn." Race day, he "smoked it" and came in eight minutes earlier than I did. Two lessons learned here; listen to the body and don't over train. His time off wound up being a benefit vs. a detriment to his race. A serious injury is another matter and you need to surround yourself with a good running physical therapist who can help you determine when you can get back to full training. Most plans have cross training days or optional cross training days--take advantage of those or take days off if your body is begging you for it.
5) Speed work. I would apply the "no pain no gain" rule and also don't do it alone to this one. Speed work or track work isn't particularly fun and it is definitely not very fun alone. To run a fast marathon, you need to learn how to run far (26.2 miles to be exact,) and run at a particular pace. Your long runs (typically on a Saturday or Sunday) are not the venues for fast and long--save that for race day. I've used a mix of speed work and tempo runs during my training week. Like most training plans that build up in mileage, so does my speed work. Don't try running ten 800's in your first week of training. Just as training miles tend to pick up over your plan, so should your track work. Don't do this alone--use a reputable online plan like Higdon's or from your local running club coach and they'll likely throw some track and hills at you.
6) Hills. For those old enough to remember the great Walter Payton, NFL Films captured an infamous clip of Walter's off season training which consisted of running straight up some "bad ass" hill. Mike Singletary, now head coach of the 49er's end ex-teammate of Walter, built a similar man-made hill at the 49er's practice facility. Makes sense...if you can run uphill, running on flats should be much easier. While you at it, go ahead and strap on a parachute (kidding about that part.) If you're running hilly courses like Boston, San Francisco, or Big Sur, you'd better have some hills in your diet. I've got two hill options I typically use in my area. One is an "out and back" that includes one stretch that's practically a mile uphill with around 800' in elevation gain over a six mile route. The other is my Walter Payton Hill which is the bluffs in Lone Tree, Colorado which is another character builder.
7) Cross training and strength training. This is starting to get into the territory of I know what's good for me, but don't always follow my own advice. To get to the next plateau in your training, you will likely want to incorporate some strength training and stretching exercise. Stretching is likely a whole blog story in itself, but as the older you get, the more stretching you require. Even young runners need ample stretching in their regiment as witnessed by my crashing the famous Stanford track field this last year when I saw the team literally stretching for a good 20 minutes before they began their work. On the strength front, the elite runners I try and sponge advice off of typically use the "off season" (lately I haven't had the luxury of such a thing) for strength training. Fundamentally, a lot of core exercises such as planks to help get the body tuned for the training over the season. You don't need to look any further than Meb Keflezighi's thighs to realize the elites spend time in the gym in addition to foot miles. Some experts focus more on hammies vs. quads...I suspect Meb spends quite a bit on quads. I will also throw some weights in on cross-training days and low mileage days when I'm at my gym.
8) Diet. This is my other "Achilles heel" or kryptonite. I curse the guy that puts the junk food box in our kitchen at work. This is an area I'm trying to improve upon and all experts will stress the importance of a healthy diet and the right amount of carbohydrates in particular. I'm currently reading "Racing Weight, How to Get Lean for Peak Performance" by Matt Fitzgerald. So far, a great read, and good advice for a closet junk eater like me. As an aside, when I had my VO2Max study done this last May, I also had a body fat analysis. Dr. Millan suggests my ideal running weight to be 165 pounds. By race day, I have probably averaged around 170 after logging 600 training miles. You're bound to be trim by race day. The other sound bite that plays in the back of my head is five pounds can equal five minutes in a marathon. Makes sense as Matt describes the weightlessness treadmill test in his book.
9) Heart Rate Training. This is something new for me and I've written a couple blogs (Young Bull and Old Bull, and Slow Down You Move Too Fast) on my initial VO2 Max study, charting of my heart rate zones and applying it to my training routine. Short version is you have two different muscle types and you can't spend all your time training your sprint muscles. The other thing is despite the urge to go "balls out" on a recovery race day because you feel good, resist the temptation and "stick to the schedule." For more on this topic, check out my other blog stories and follow my progress on twitter and DailyMile.Com.
10) The taper is your friend. Having used both a two week and three week taper, I've realized that I'm a three week taper guy. A lot of people I talk to dread the taper, and I am just the opposite. Kind of like the reward you have after a long run, but this is the reward you get after 500-600 training miles getting ready for a marathon. There is such a thing as being over trained and this is the time to rest the body and mentally prepare for the big day.
Some of the other feedback I got from my DailyMile peeps.
ALEX: "miles. miles. miles."
John E: "Tempo runs, tempo runs, tempo runs and back to back long runs every weekend instead of every other weekend. Ran my 2:48 PR at Boston in '08"
Mickey W: "Consistent training with a good plan that rotates easy/fast, endurance, and rolling hills with some steep inclines. Setting time goals for the workout whether it be for fartleks or intervals. Good cross training that includes swimming and cycling and also weight training.Training at the level you want to be at."
Ron L: "Honestly for me was doing lots of races from 1 mile to 25k and uping my weekly mileage. I was very poor at doing speed work and races seemed to encourage me to be faster. I worked my self up to 50 to 70 miles a week and ran 3 races a month. I only would run 1 to 2 marathons a year because they were very time consuming. I never ran a race to just run it... I always wanted to be faster than the last time. So, like Alex, miles miles miles & races races races."
Michael W: "dedicated HR training, running slower made me faster."
Eric: "For me it was using the run/walk method. It help me conserve energy and keep up a good pace. My PR for the marathon was 3:43:43"
Anything I've missed? Direct message me on twitter or leave comments here. I don't claim to have all the answers and am constantly trying to find ways to shave minutes off my time. Here's hoping you PR your next time out.