For many marathoners, training consists of running as much as they can, as far as they can, as fast as they can. The inevitable result of which is burnout, injury, or dashed race-day expectations. While you do have to push beyond your limits when you’re preparing to run long distances, there are time-tested methods of doing so that have worked for millions of runners that don’t involve pain and anguish. In fact, we here at Runner’s World pride ourselves on being the experts when it comes to safely—and successfully—preparing for marathons. We’ve been telling people how to do that for more than 40 years.
We tapped a few of our running superstars—Bart Yasso, RW’s Chief Running Officer and veteran of more than 100 marathons; Editor-at-Large Amby Burfoot, author and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon; and Jennifer Van Allen, the 2008 National 24-Hour Championship winner—to sift through reams of advice and compile the most valuable tips for running long. In this adaptation of their new book, The Runner’s World Big Book of Marathon and Half-Marathon Training (copyright © 2012 by Rodale Inc.), you’ll find essential rules to help you break through performance barriers and finally achieve your 26.2 dream.
1. Warm up and cool down
It’s tempting to jump right into your run, but don’t. A five- to 10-minute warmup raises your heart and breathing rates and gets blood flowing to muscles. Insert a few strides to wake up your nervous system and get fast-twitch muscle fibers firing (or try this 7-Minute Total-Body Warmup). In general, the faster or farther you intend to go, the more you should warm up. Cool down after a hard run so your heart rate gradually falls. Stop abruptly and blood can pool in your legs, making you feel faint.
2. Start slow, build gradually
Coaches say the best way to avoid injury is to follow the 10-percent rule: Increase your weekly mileage and the length of your long run by no more than 10 percent each week. Your muscles and joints need time to adapt to the workload.
3. Go easy most of the time
Complete about 80 percent of your runs at a pace that’s about 60 to 90 seconds slower than your goal race pace. It should feel comfortable—if you’re huffing and puffing, you’re going too fast. Your heart and lungs adapt more quickly than muscles, tendons, and bones when you increase mileage. Frequent running at an easy pace gives your musculoskeletal system a chance to get stronger and catch up with your cardiovascular gains.
4. Hit the hills
Once a week during the first half of your training, run the hilliest route you can find. Hill work builds leg strength, aerobic capacity, and running economy (how efficiently your body uses oxygen), which gives you the strength and stamina to run faster later in the program.
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5. Alternate hard and easy
If you don’t push yourself, you’ll never develop the ability to run farther or faster. But if you don’t rest enough, you’ll burn out or get injured. Follow speed sessions or long runs with an easy run or rest day, and every few weeks cut back your mileage by 20 percent. These recovery periods allow your body to repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue, thereby helping you get stronger and more resistant to fatigue at faster paces and longer distances.
6. Remember to cross-train
When you run, your muscles, joints, and connective tissues absorb a lot of shock. Cross-training gives your body a break from the pounding while maintaining your cardiovascular fitness. Yoga, Pilates, and strength training promote recovery, build muscle, and develop a strong upper body. Swimming, cycling, elliptical training, and rowing improve your aerobic fitness (for more ideas, try these 4 Workouts Borrowed From Other Sports).
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