December 13, 2015

Training for a marathon (part 2) – Big goals, minimal miles


In part 1 of this post I set out the problems I have with the traditional way of training for a marathon. Part 2 is about the alternative approach I’ve decided to take & the goals I’ve set to test it.

Is running enough?

As a recap, if you follow the theory that “metabolic fitness precedes structural readiness, many traditional high mileage training plans will also leave you with a high chance of getting injured. For some context, studies have shown that the number of injuries sustained whilst training for a marathon is 5 to 10 times greater than when actually running a marathon (Chorly et al. 2002; Holmich et al. 1988; Holmich et al. 1989; Kretsch et al. 1984).

So what is it that the typical plans are missing? What can you change to reduce the risk of not being able to train at all for days, weeks, or even months?

The simplest answer is to just run a lot less. I’m not (quite) stupid enough however, to overlook that cutting mileage by itself is a recipe for a slow & painful race. Perhaps even a dreaded ‘DNF’?

A more sensible option may be to add mileage at a slower rate. Most training plans suggest an increase of about 10% per week, so being more conservative would require you to start training a lot earlier. Whether this would be 6, 8, 12, or maybe even 18 months out who knows, but it would certainly take longer than I’ve got!

A question mark also remains over whether just being more cautious about training progression would significantly reduce injury risk. Would it guarantee that structurally your body was keeping up with the miles you feel able to run, or would you still be leaving the window of injury ajar?

Whilst high mileage approaches do recommend complimenting running with other exercises (core work, stretching, cross training etc.) this tends to be optional and at most only 1 day a week. The type/intensity of running changes but running is basically all you do. On one level this is completely logical – the principle of specificity would suggest that if you want to get better at running, you need to run. Lots.

Regardless of how you structure it though, training plans that consist solely of running seem to always leave you exposed to injury. There didn’t seem to be an obvious solution to the performance vs. injury risk quandary.

Enter the unbreakable runner

The answer I’ve arrived at is to redress the balance. Well, I say ‘I’ but inevitably my answer is essentially someone else’s – in this case Brian MacKenzie.

I first heard about MacKenzie via an interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast (this will be a common theme) which came out around the time I started looking for some alternative training ideas. As a result, his and T.J Murphy’s book “Unbreakable Runner” immediately stood out. More importantly, the Cross Fit Endurance programme it details seemed to offer a possible solution.

Here’s a summary of what – for me – are the key elements of this approach, and how it differs from the assumptions in traditional plans:

Cross Fit Endurance Traditional marathon training plans
Treat running as a practised skill. You’ll automatically get better at running the more you do it.
Build an athletic foundation (strength & mobility training). Build an aerobic foundation.
Higher intensity, avoid running ‘junk’ miles. Long slow run(s) every week – trial by miles.
Experiment with how to fuel your body for consistent performance and recovery. Focus on maximising glycogen stores for long runs (carbo-load!).

For both approaches I’ve probably made some lazy generalisations, but hopefully it’s clear there’s some pretty contrasting ideas. Amongst other benefits, the claims are that by following the CFE programme you can expect:

– Sustained or improved performance whilst running fewer miles (yes please),

– Reduced injury risk (tick),

– Improved running efficiency (less effort for a given pace… tick).

Sounds too good to be true? Well, even the book recognises this, but here’s why it makes sense to me…

Pace & impatience

The type of training and running seems a good fit. For example, the ultra slow runs required when your primary focus is to build up mileage just don’t feel natural to me.

I’d also much prefer to go out and destroy myself in 20 mins, than slowly tire myself out in 60 mins. This is important to keep in mind for anyone thinking CFE is an ‘easy’ route. Whilst you’re covering a lot less miles, every single metre (yard?) counts. There are rest days, easier workouts and a recommendation to stay aware of whether your body is recovering properly. Ultimately though, you’ve got to be prepared to consistently push yourself extremely hard.

As a result, people who like to just get out for a run to clear their heads and slowly rack up the miles probably won’t like this approach. I have enjoyed those sort of non-demanding runs, but whilst training for a 10k earlier this year found the intensity and need to focus on each and every step actually helped me better disconnect from worrying about the day to day stuff.

Strength & stability

In part 1 of this post I set out my idea of the sequence your body goes through whilst running long distances, and how that leads to the risk of injury. The first link in that chain is muscle fatigue/damage. To minimise the chance of injury therefore, it makes sense to train in a way that delays this for as long as possible.

I’m not questioning that running alone wouldn’t help improve that (and neither does MacKenzie in fairness). Keeping in mind the window of injury however, devoting more time to building functional strength and stability seems like it would be more effective. As an example, running specific strength training has been shown to help avoid loss in stride length (Esteve-Lanao et al. 2008). Whilst stride length is a whole other topic of conversation in terms of running form, at a basic level it’s a good indicator of how tired you are.


The inclusion of broad range crossfit style training may make it seem like CFE programmes has you spending less time getting better at actually running. Integral to the approach however, is the inclusion of drills inspired by the Pose Method that help improve your technique. Combined with exercises that strengthen muscles you need to run effectively, you could argue that is even more ‘specific’. It just trains all the different components of running so that you minimise weaknesses.

The assumption I went into this with was “everybody know’s how to run”. Well, it turns out that pretty much everybody is able to run, but that doesn’t mean we’re all good at it. CFE is focussed on changing that whilst building endurance before you start racking up big mileage.

Endure or endurance?

Finally, if you do genuinely love running, it seems that the aim is pretty simple; keep healthy enough to be able to do it as much as possible for as many years as possible. One of the big draws of CFE is that it sets out a method for gaining the fitness required to run long distances without having to put your body through the number of miles that might result in long spells out injured.

My interpretation of CFE then, is that it’s not solely about doing less volume. Instead, it’s about treating running as a skill and making sure that your structural fitness is always on par or ahead of your metabolic fitness. As a result, it might just be the foundation of an approach that closes the window of injury, and keeps it shut.

Goals or dreams? 

So, now I’ve set out the training approach I suppose I should probably share how I’ll be measuring whether it’s actually successful.

Initially I was ready to start training with the aim of getting round injury free and in a decent time. 4ish hours maybe? That’s more than respectable. Lovely. Up steps my cousin with a generous donation (thanks cuz!) and a promise to double it… if I can break 3 hours 30 mins. Ah. Thanks cuz.

As well as finding it difficult to turn down a challenge, I’ve somehow also decided that the overall time isn’t enough. These then, are my goals for the race:

  • Get to the finish line!
  • Stay injury free.
  • Raise over £1,700 for the Mental Health Foundation
  • Finish in under 3:30 with a negative split (second half faster than the first).
  • Minimise pain after the race.
  • Use the training as a way to build comprehensive fitness, minimising physical weaknesses & imbalances. In other words, injury proof myself for life not just running.

…all whilst running as few miles as possible in preparation.

In summary then, this isn’t advice. This might not work. There’s many ways to train for a marathon. This is just the story of mine.

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3 Comments on “Training for a marathon (part 2) – Big goals, minimal miles

[…] Training for a marathon (part 2) – Big goals, minimal miles […]

March 11, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Well researched and written!

It would appear I am following this plan without realising in.

I always say, trust your intuition and listen to your body while training.

March 28, 2016 at 12:16 am

Thanks Donato, appreciate the kind words. Absolutely agree – whatever plan you follow I think it’s important to see it as a guide vs. an exact prescription. Hope the last few weeks of training go well & good luck for London!


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