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How to Train for a Marathon on Three Days Per Week

Q I’m training for my fourth marathon, and I find that if I run more than three times per week, I get injured. Is it possible to train for a marathon and improve my time on three days per week? – DAVID

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A What a great question, David. The short answer is yes, it is possible to both train for a marathon and improve your time.

I’ve coached many runners who have a three-day threshold to personal records, and the key is in keeping the quality kilometres, tossing out the junk kilometres, and weaving in low-impact cross-training to build a solid foundation of fitness, stamina, and strength.

 

Here’s how:

Since you have a mileage base and marathon experience, here is what I would recommend for your three core running workouts during the week.

1. Aerobic Workout

The long run is all about running at a consistent and comfortable effort to build fat-burning enzymes, cardiovascular endurance, and time on your feet. One of my coaching strategies is to build the long run from where you are, gradually, and once you hit 22 kilometres, alternate a longer run with a shorter run that progresses to marathon race effort and beyond. The secret sauce is in running your long runs by effort and your body to avoid over- (too quickly) and under- (too slowly) training. If you can pass “the talk test” and are able to speak in sentences, you are in the right zone – which, by the way, is also known as “the happy zone.”

2. Threshold Workouts

The threshold is where your body begins to use more glycogen for energy and less fat, and when you train at and slightly above it, you can “raise the roof,” so to speak, so you can run faster at easier efforts (pretty cool). There are several workouts that you can fit in this slot, but my go-to is a variety pack of three workouts.

How to find “threshold effort”: You know you’re at this effort when things start to feel uncomfortable, and it’s hard to talk. If you can get out one word responses, you’re there. If you can tell me what you did last night, you need to pick things up. If you’re gasping for air, slow it down. Because this is a physiologically based run, it works best when running by your effort rather than a pace; as you gain fitness, your pace will improve or you may slow down when the elements are challenging (heat and humidity).

Five-Minute Tempo Workout:
Warm up three minutes walking. Run 10 minutes at an easy effort (conversational).
Repeat four to five times: Run five minutes at or slightly above your threshold. Recover by jogging easy for two minutes in between. Cool down running five minutes easy and walking three minutes slowly.

2 or 3 x 10-Minute Tempo Workout:
Warm up three minutes walking. Run 10 minutes at an easy effort (conversational).
Repeat two to three times:
Run 10 minutes at or slightly above your threshold effort. Recover by jogging easy for two minutes in between. Start with two repeats and build to three over time (maybe even next season). Cool down running five minutes easy and walking three minutes slowly.

20-30 Minute Tempo Workout:
Warm up three minutes walking. Run 10 minutes at an easy effort (conversational).
Run 20-30 minutes at or slightly above your threshold effort. Cool down running 10 minutes at an easy effort and walking 3 minutes slowly.

3. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Workouts)

These workouts may be the hardest effort-wise, but they also make the most dramatic changes in aerobic fitness, speed, metabolism and caloric burn, and overall fitness. My favourite HIIT Workout is:
1-2-3 Intervals:
Warm up three minutes walking. Run 10 minutes at an easy effort (conversational).
Repeats two to three times:
Run one minute at a hard but controlled effort in the red zone. Recover with one minute easy walk or jog. Run two minutes in the red zone followed by one minute walking and one minute jogging easy to catch your breath and recover. Run three minutes in the red zone followed by one minute walking and two minutes jogging easy to catch your breath and recover.

Another option for your third workout is to alternate HIIT speed intervals one week with hill repeats the next. In both cases, you are working at a high intensity–in one, focussing on speed; in the other, building strength.

Workouts 4-5: Training for a marathon on three running days is an effective strategy, but it also works well when you fill in the gaps with strength training and a low-impact cardio activity like cycling. Since your three running days all lie on the harder end of the effort scale, keep the cycling and strength workouts to an easy to moderate effort. That way, you won’t miss recovery along the way and get into a chronically fatigued state by training too hard.

As you put these workouts together, it will look a little something like this (his is a sample of a mid-season phase, not the whole training plan):

 

Monday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min and strength training
Tuesday: Interval workout (1-2-3s)
Wednesday: Easy-effort cycling 45-60 min
Thursday: Tempo workout (5 x 5 min)
Friday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min. and strength training
Saturday: Long run – 22 kilometres
Sunday: Rest or restorative yoga (light stretching)

 

Monday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min and strength training
Tuesday: Easy aerobic run – 45-60 min
Wednesday: Easy-effort cycling 45-60 min
Thursday: Tempo workout (5 x 5 min)
Friday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min and strength training
Saturday: Long run – 16 kilometres (race effort: eight easy kilometres, six at moderate effort, two kilometres hard)
Sunday: Rest or restorative yoga (light stretching)

 

Monday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min. and strength training
Tuesday: Hill workout (repeats or hilly road)
Wednesday: Easy-effort cycling 45-60 min
Thursday: Tempo workout (5 x 5 min)
Friday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min and strength training
Saturday: Long run – 26 kilometres
Sunday: Rest or restorative yoga (light stretching)

 

Monday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min and strength training
Tuesday: Easy aerobic run – 45-60 min
Wednesday: Easy-effort cycling 45-60 min
Thursday: Tempo workout (5 x 5 min)
Friday: Easy-effort cycling 30 min and strength training
Saturday: Long run – 16 kilometres (race effort: eight easy kilometres, six at moderate effort, two kilometres hard)
Sunday: Rest or restorative yoga (light stretching)

 

The long run schedule might look something like this:
11km; conversational, happy effort
13km; conversational, happy effort
15km; conversational, happy effort
11km; conversational, happy effort
16km; conversational, happy effort
18km; conversational, happy effort
13km; race-effort run, six easy, five moderate, two hard
19km; conversational, happy effort
21km; conversational, happy effort
13km; race-effort run, six easy, five moderate, two hard
22km; conversational, happy effort
13km; race-effort run, six easy, five moderate, two hard
26km; conversational, happy effort
16km; race-effort run, eight easy, six moderate, two hard
29km; conversational, happy effort
16km; race-effort run
32km; conversational, happy effort
16km; conversational, happy effort
32km; conversational, happy effort
16km; race-effort run
13km; race-effort run
Marathon

 

This is a fun, effective way to improve your marathon time with less overall impact on your body; however, it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s not a beginner’s plan – it’s advanced, so make sure you have a solid base of mileage (at least 32-40 kilometres per week) and marathon experience under your belt.

 

Coach Marathon

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