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Training plan for a sub 3 marathon

The disclaimer

Well, I haven’t squeezed the flannel dry on this topic. Just a heads up that if you are not into running this blog, like the flannel, will be dry. All this advice is based on my experiences so you’ll need to individualise it. Want to know more about my experience running the marathon click this.

The intro

When you think about it a marathon is an unreasonable distance for anyone to run continually. 42.195km is an unpleasant looking thing, I mean, just round it down to 42! In training I have frequently asked myself the question: why? You’ll also recognise this question if you have ever experienced hitting the wall. It’s a personal pain dungeon. The marathon is masochism on a grand scale, but then again isn’t that the appeal? And nothing’s worth doing unless it’s a challenge, right? At least that’s what you tell yourself.

The wall

In all my previous marathons I have hit the wall. It is like nothing else: tunnel vision, extreme fatigue, brain fog, just the sound of your rasping breath and the road curling up inception-like in front of you. You can’t even muster a grimace ‘cos your face has inexplicably melted! The Dutch have coined it nicely, the man with the hammer. The scourge of all runners. So for those of you who are interested in how I trained for sub 3, this time with no sign of the wall, here is my framework. This was my minimum amount of training needed, so probably not wise to do any less than this, unless you’re borderline Kipchoge:

  • Starting level: a recent 38:30 min 10km, or an 19:00 min 5k.
  • Runs per week: 3
    Every run has a certain goal and specificity. No album fillers. This means the runs themselves are tougher, but you have longer recoveries, which is particularly important if you are over 30.
  • Rest days per week: 3
    In my experience most training plans don’t allow enough rest days. There are some I have seen online that give 6 runs a week. This is totally unsustainable in my book and will cause injuries. As a physio, I see this all the time.
  • Swims per week: 1 (recovery/cross-training after intervals)
  • Build-up per week: 10%
    A 5-10% increase is the physical maximum adaptation per week (decreases with age)

The specifics

Below is an outline of my training schedule:

Monday:   Marathon Pace (MP) – 4:15/km

Simple marathon pace runs for increasingly long distances. Approaching the marathon, your body is absolutely attuned to this pace and you’ll be able to run this pace probably without even looking at the watch, you’ll just know how it feels. Don’t worry if you feel like it never seems to get easier, during tapering your body will adjust and come marathon day it’ll feel much easier.

Measure your heart rate (HR) on the first of these runs and you will see small reductions in HR at the same pace, throughout the 14 weeks. As a loose guide it is said that you can’t maintain more than a 165 bpm HR average over a 3 hour marathon. If in the marathon you’re already tipping into the 170s at the half way point, you’ve probably over-cooked it, and will be found out.

Wednesday: Track intervals – 800m at 3:40/km (fast pace) with 400m slow recovery laps

This increases heart stroke volume: volume of blood pumped in one pump, i.e. the power of the heart muscle. Progress in cardiovascular efficiency will occur as your lactate threshold improves.

Thursday: Recovery swim – 30 mins

I am a terrible swimmer so 30 mins is a big cardio effort for me – 2 min/100m was enough for me to maintain a hard cardio effort, with no strain on the joints. Also a 20 min hard cycle to and from the swimming pool, keeps a good 60 or so mins cardio effort.

Saturday: Long run – up to 3 hours

This run is absolutely crucial. I have skipped some of these in the past and not managed under 3 hours as a result. If you must skip a training session, skip one of the other runs. These runs generate aerobic and metabolic adaptations that are absolutely vital if you want to go sub 3.

This run has 2 sections:

  1. MAF (Max Aerobic Function) running based on running at heart rate of up to 145 bpm (MAF is loosely 180 bpm minus your age). This is held for an increasing amount of time running every week (up to max of 2 hours 10) followed immediately by MP. It should feel relatively easy, if it doesn’t, go slower. I would sip up to 300ml water slowly in section 1, based on a temperature of around 10 degrees or lower.
  2. Marathon pace (4:15/km). This is to simulate race conditions creating an up to max heart rate effort at the point of fatigue, like the end of a marathon. For me these were by a long way the hardest runs. Done without nutrition in the MAF section, only allowing one gel at the beginning of section 2 means your body becomes used to metabolising the calories at marathon pace and at fatigue, but also increases your glycogen stores as you essentially starve your body of energy up until this point. I used Powergel Smoothies from PowerBar (65% fruit puree, with electrolytes). They’re easy to digest in combination with standard gels. Don’t try a new one for the race, try a few on your long training runs.

So that’s it, 4 different activities, on loop for 14 weeks. Boring, but effective. Get your podcasts on.

Peak training period (weeks 8-11)

Fatigue and recovery are affected by multiple external conditions- sleep, nutrition, footwear, stress to name a few. Don’t plan too much in outside of work, you’ll be knackered. Eat well, sleep well and keep the avoidable stresses to a minimum.

In the early training weeks I would increase all three runs each week, while in weeks 8-11 I increased only one or two of the three runs each week. Here you are dealing with the most accumulated fatigue and are working regularly at your physiological limit, so it is an injury tightrope. One or two sessions will feel unexpectedly horrendous, don’t be scared to cut it short in this case, your body is telling you something and one shortened/slower run won’t hurt.

Do not play any other sport in this period – explosive high energy sport is likely to irritate tendons that are being put under a lot of stress with the training. As a rule, I would avoid any other sporting activities that aren’t in the training plan.

The taper

Tapering begins 3 weeks from the marathon, but I added a few easy-paced 3 hour recovery cycle rides to give the running joints a rest and sustain the 3 hour cardio efforts until the last week of tapering, where I did next to no running and no cycling to gain full advantage of the body’s adaption period during a taper.

Do not be tempted to over-train when tapering. Your body is recovering, so let it recover. Some training plans begin the taper at 4 weeks out, this is too early for me. I tried it, and it didn’t work. Looking at the consensus in the literature, the longest run should be 3 weeks before the marathon.

Next post will be on training and race nutrition, so stay tuned.

Sub 3 hour marathon

Like me, you’re probably thinking – 2020 needs a reset button. Normal life has been totally overhauled and replaced with coronavirus: uncertainty, isolation, anxiety and for some even worse. Not a good time to be writing a blog about as trivial a subject as running a marathon, but maybe it’ll provide a few minutes distraction for those of you who don’t regard the topic as a dinner party silencer. So I’m going to give an unapologetically long-winded account of my latest marathon because quite frankly, I have some time on my hands.

The context

One of the most disappointing things I’ve read in the last year was an article describing marathon finish times. It stated that sub 3 hours puts you in the category of a local class runner. Local. Class. (insert disappointed face emoji). I thought sub 3 would, at the very least, shoot me into the Regional Level glamoursphere. Nope, it’s a local level challenge. Hardly a frontier of human achievement, but for the last 5 years it has proved to be my unbeatable foe, my impossible dream, my unbearable sorrow.

To bring it back down to earth, the sub 3 writing on the wall: 3 failed attempts…

Amsterdam 2016: 3:01:30
Paris 2018: 3:04:30
Rotterdam 2019: 3:05: 21

Looking at the previous attempts you’d be forgiven for thinking sub 3 was slipping away from me, a little bit like the 3 hour pacer at the end of every single marathon I’d ever run. Sub 3 was in danger of becoming my nemesis. The Eddie Merckx to my Raymond Poulidor, the Goran Ivanišević to my Tim Henman, and dare I say it, the World Cup to my The Netherlands. I was desperate not to become a nearly man. This was my motivation, my 2020 running raison d’être, and this year I was going to close the book on the sub 3 chapter with a dusty thud.

The narrative

Coronavirus came and what we all thought would be another flash in the pan, has become a pandemic of enormous scale with a dreadful effect on everybody’s day to day life. Among a long list of other events, Rotterdam marathon was – understandably – cancelled.

Since I had been following my training plan so meticulously and with the majority of the hard training already out of the way, I hatched a plan. So long as running on your own was still allowed with the new government measures, I was going to carry on training, and do the marathon in the park at an absurdly early hour in the morning to avoid any distancing issues.

So that’s what I did: 4:30AM alarm, bowl of muesli, banana, marathon in the Vondelpark. No crowds, no Erasmus Bridge, no start line Euro-pop, no countdown, just a wholesome Saturday morning marathon before most people have brewed a pot of tea.

The wrap-up

Marathon run

Thank the running gods, I managed it in 02:55:24. At last. Why was it fourth time’s a charm? One word: commitment. In terms of training I found that you need to be obsessive. I’m not saying the wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat-at-3-in-the-morning-contemplating-a-change-in-your-race-day-fluid-strategy sort of obsessive, although I definitely did do that. I’m talking the sort of grim, dogged, po-faced sort of obsessive that gets you over the line with gritted-teeth. The idea that skipping a training day isn’t an option, even when the Beauforts are tipping up to 6s and 7s. Which, let’s be honest, we’ve had our fair share of this winter.

Well, that’s what I needed, anyway. That, and a pregnant girlfriend; which helps limit alcohol intake for obvious reasons. The long Saturday morning runs simply wouldn’t sanction a casual Friday night beer sesh. Saturday brunch, you ask? Sling yer hook! These were the sacrificial lambs, alcohol and brunch, the jury is still out on whether that will ever be worth it, but in this case it was a necessary evil.

If you haven’t been bored to death already and you’re interested in exactly how I trained for the sub 3 marathon, the numbers are coming up in my next blog so stay tuned. Or, take a look at my Strava where I logged all 50 training sessions.