Q I’m training for my second marathon and shopping for training plans, and I wondered about the best length of time for marathon training. I want to improve my time, and I’ve seen plans that last anywhere from 14-30 weeks. What are your thoughts? – CATIE
A There are a lot of plans out there, so it can be overwhelming when you hit “marathon training plans” on Google. It is helpful to stick with resources that have a foundation of knowledge and support their training philosophy. The first question should always be “who developed the plan?” and the second, “what are their qualifications?”
When I first started developing plans in the early ’90s, times were different. People trained to run one or two marathons a year, and their focus was primarily on performance. When they started a training plan, it almost always began with a long run of 10-16 kilometres because they had a solid foundation of mileage and rarely ran a marathon as their first event. Back then, marathon training plans were around 16 weeks in duration. It was enough time to build on the mileage foundation, peak, and then taper down to race day.
Life is different in today’s marathoning world. For one, the marathon (and half) is the carrot for new runners, some of whom have never run a race before. And two, runners are participating in marathons more frequently throughout the year – sometimes every month! Both of which affect the optimal duration for a marathon training program.
But let’s get back to you because at the end of the day, the best way to find the optimal marathon training plan is to learn to find one that best suits your fitness, experience and goals.
You’ve run two marathons, and you want to improve. You could go with a shorter duration plan of 16 weeks, but it doesn’t leave you much wiggle room. For instance, when I coach runners online, it is rare to have a season go by where they don’t get sick, have a family holiday, or just struggle through a week that gets mucked up from life.
For that reason, I develop most of my performance-based marathon plans on a 20-week cycle to allow for the flexibility to move long runs around or recover from illness, holidays and more. My plans also allow time to alternate a longer run one weekend with a shorter long run at race effort the next (a great strategy for seasoned marathoners). Plus, having a longer runway removes much of the stress related to getting in quality training to perform your best come race day.
It also depends on the marathon plan’s philosophy as to how long the season should go. My plans build to one or more long runs of 32-35 kilometres in duration, depending on the experience and adaptability of the person. If you’re following a plan that goes beyond the magic 32km’er, say, 42-45 kilometres, it will take longer to get there, and you’ll be running quite a few more 32+-kilometre runs. Be cautious with this method, as in my experience, a longer season can bring on fatigue, burnout and injuries.
Ultimately, the optimal time to prepare for a marathon depends greatly on your mileage, experience, age, adaptation response and life schedule. New and 40+-year-olds tend to need more time to recover from the demands of marathon training, hence needing more time to build to the longest run.
I’m asked all the time about how to train up for a marathon from the couch, and my answer never changes – start from where you are (zero), build up gradually, and give yourself at least 10-12 months. That’s not always the answer people want to hear – and there are certainly plans that will get you there much faster – but the risks definitely outweigh the fastpass to the start line, and many runners end up on the sidelines unable to run the race.
A marathon is still a marathon, and it’s a challenge that, when you let it, will teach you a lot about yourself along the way.
On the other hand, if you’re running multiple marathons throughout the year, say, five or six in one year, the duration of time for your training plan will need to adjust away from the normal 16-20 week paradigm. When you’re running a marathon every other month or more, you hold a higher base of mileage, especially for the longer runs, so you don’t need to train from lower kilometres to build endurance. Instead you use the marathons as long runs, plug in shorter runs for a few weeks post-race to recover, and then fill in the gap with a mid-distance long run of 22-26 kilometres to bridge the gap between marathons. It’s more about finessing recovery than it is about training.
So there you have it. The short answer for the question of optimal marathon training time: 20 weeks. The long answer is, your training needs to first match your experience, fitness, health, and your target goal. If you’re looking for performance improvements, go the more traditional route and give yourself a little breathing room. If you’re a marathon maniac and want to run a series of marathons in a year, your year will be broken into smaller micro-training seasons and hopefully include plenty of smart recovery along the way.