November 25, 2015

Training for a marathon (part 1) – Why I’m ignoring traditional advice


This post is about why I’ve decided not to follow the typical marathon training plans. If you want to know what I’ll be doing instead, that’s covered in part two.

What’s wrong with the typical marathon training plan?

So, what happens when you find out you’ve just secured a marathon place? My response went something along the lines of … “yeah!!! …err, how many miles is it again?”. Cue much research on how to get in shape to run 26.2 of them in a row. Looking through some traditional marathon training plans however, it didn’t take long to start wondering whether there might be an alternative approach.

It turns out there’s a whole world of training plans out there, but the most widely used approaches all seem to share a few common features:

– Long slow runs (building aerobic endurance)

– Tempo runs (a pace just below your anaerobic/lactate threshold)

– Speed work (typically sprint/fast intervals to improve leg speed & VO2 Max)

– Tapering phase (reducing mileage to ensure you’re fully rested before the event)

The reason they are all broadly the same? It works. In fact there’s decades of evidence to suggest this combination prepares you for the demands of running long distances. The principles are also responsible for delivering numerous Olympic & World Championship medals. So why would I (or anyone else) ignore all this tried and tested advice? Here’s 4 of the issues I have with it:

  • Boredom – lots of long plodding runs which I don’t really enjoy  (well… not at 6:15am in the depths of winter).
  • Time – many miles = many hours training to fit in every week = big compromises.
  • Recovery & pain – long runs can leave you unable to train for some time.
  • Injuries – managing injuries seems almost inevitable for marathon runners.

Now, if you’re thinking that I need to stop whining and get on with the hard graft like everybody else, then on the whole you’re probably right. But injuries becoming inevitable? That was a deal breaker.

How likely are you to get injured?

A quick look at the stats suggests running is a hobby you might not actually spend that much time participating in. There’s no definitive answer, but it seems somewhere in the region of 19.4% to 79.3% of long distance runners are injured at any given time. Admittedly that’s quite a big spread, but even in the best case scenario that’s a 1 in 5 chance of getting injured. Best case! Other research suggests that – on average – you’ll pick up one injury for every 100 hours of running. If I’m going to put in so much effort I want to end up stronger and healthier, not broken and with ruined joints.

The obvious question at this stage was “why?”. Why is the injury rate so high & what’s causing it? It’s a complex topic, so I was intrigued by a quote from running coach Jay Johnson that offered a possible explanation in just 5 words:

Metabolic fitness precedes structural readiness

Not impressed yet? Let’s break down what this really means…

The key idea is that adaptations in aerobic fitness (the metabolic part) happen faster than those in bones, muscles, fascia, ligaments and tendons (the structure part). This means that your ability to run a certain distance/speed without getting exhausted can easily outpace what your musculoskeletal system is ready to handle.

Through the injury window

One analogy is that whilst this imbalance exists, you sit in a ‘window of injury’. The longer it’s open, the longer you’re exposed to the possibility of getting injured. The really interesting part? If you follow this logic through, the more mileage you’re running the wider open you’re leaving the window.

The bigger the difference between metabolic & structural fitness, the higher your risk of injury.

This concept makes sense to me because it describes my (admittedly very limited) experience of running longer distances. During a half marathon I never really felt it pushed my aerobic capacity. By the 10 mile point however, my puny muscles had started to give up. I lost the ability to effectively accelerate/decelerate forces, so instead of a smooth transition from one foot to the other my running style had become more of a jarring shuffle. Sound familiar? In my mind, the sequence goes something like this:

Muscle fatigue > onset of muscle damage > decline in running form (dysfunctional bio-mechanics) > increased/unequal force through muscles, tendons, ligaments & bones > risk of injury.

Whether or not my interpretation is accurate, “metabolic fitness precedes structural readiness” still might be one of the most important concepts in any endurance based exercise, and one the average marathon training plan doesn’t take into consideration. I’d even go as far as saying it could describe the underlying cause of almost every chronic sports injury. Not bad for 5 words.

Luck or probability?

If you subscribe to this view, luck also stops being a factor with injuries. Of course, you definitely can get unlucky in terms of when an injury happens (just before or during a race), but if you’re running miles your body isn’t ready to handle, an injury is only a matter of time. It’s inevitable.

There’s a couple of ways of looking at this. The first is pretty depressing (we all like to blame things that go wrong on external factors right?), but the flip side is this – if there’s always an underlying cause for an injury, figure out what that is and you can fix or even prevent it.

I want to give myself the best chance of staying healthy all the way up to the marathon and beyond. To do that I needed to find a way of building up aerobic fitness without it exceeding what my body can handle (avoiding the ‘window of injury’). In part two of this post, I’ll outline what I’ll be doing to try and achieve that…

…assuming of course, I don’t pull a hammy in the meantime.

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One Comment on “Training for a marathon (part 1) – Why I’m ignoring traditional advice

David Grimm
April 24, 2016 at 1:28 pm

I think I speak for everyone else when I express my disappointment that this stupid idea worked and you didn’t crash and burn spectacularly! Well done Si 😉


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