I ran my first marathon in 2002. Since then, in my running “career,” I have completed 21 marathons. That’s 21 marathons in 17 years, a pretty good rate.
I have run some races pretty quickly, with my PR taking place in Chicago in 2006 (3:25:16). But, as I have aged, I have (not surprisingly) gotten slower. I knew going into this year’s New York City Marathon that I would be very slow and that it would be a huge struggle for me for numerous reasons including the fact that I was coming back from an injury (Achilles tear) that kept me out of the previous year’s marathon and the fact that, while I was upping my mileage, I still wasn’t 100%, nor was I properly trained for a good showing.
You get out of it what you put into it.
I put in determination and heart. Those traits got me through the race. I din’t put in the necessary training miles. That resulted in my slowest marathon time ever (4:47:47).
While I am not overjoyed with that result, I have to admit that I actually thought I’d be a lot slower. I was concerned that 2018 would be my first ever five hour marathon. Determination and heart prevented that from happening because I was not, by any definition of the term, in marathon shape.
Now about a month after the marathon, I’m still not in great shape. But, I am determined that when I take the starting line for what I hope will be two marathons in 2019, I will be in much better physical shape. I have been on a cycle of poor showings for quite a while now…and I’m ready to break that pattern.
It is to that end that I designed this new marathon plan – a 10-month plan that (I hope) will get me to the starting line in my best shape in many (many) years. While I persevered and got through the 2018 New York City Marathon, I did it with a lot of self-doubt. Most of my most recent marathons have been run that way. I need to change that.
It’s about time I once again went into a marathon believing in my abilities as a runner. I have proven to myself that I can push through the race. What I need to do, once again, is take the starting line, in shape, physically and mentally, not injured, and feeling confident.
I don’t know if I am a sub-4:00:00 marathoner any longer (I haven’t bested four-hours since 2009), but it’s about time I started going for it once again.
The following is my plan to get me to the starting line healthy and well-prepared to run my best race in a decade. I will share this plan in two parts. This article, Part One, is the Big Picture stuff – my plans to cover a significant amount of miles, incorporate speed work, and to listen to my body. Part Two will be where I list all the little things (that still mean a lot) that I plan to do to supplement this overall approach.
MY 2019 MARATHON PLAN, PART ONE: How I Plan To Cover The Miles
1) TWO LONG RUNS EACH MONTH BEGINNING IN JANUARY – I believe a marathoner needs to get his body used to handling the long distances. When I was at my peak running shape, when I was routinely running races in under four-hours, I was putting in a ton of miles. This makes all the sense in the world. Most of the marathon training plans I have followed involved lots of long miles. My typical plan had me running long runs every weekend, sometimes for years on end as I tried to stay in peak running shape all year round. Those plans made a lot of sense. I needed to get my body and mind prepared for the long hard miles of the marathon. The best way to do that was by running long hard miles.
The problem with this approach, I found, was that my body started breaking down. I got into marathoning in my mid-30’s. I’m now 50 and my body has told me the last few years that it just doesn’t respond or recover as quickly as it used to. While I have not had a debilitating injury (defined as one that ends my career), I have had numerous other injuries familiar to many serious runners: plantar fasciitis, torn muscles, a stress fracture, and this current Achilles tear. These have all shut me down for periods of time – some for months on end.
My approach in coming back from an injury was to always try to rush to get back to where I should have been as quickly as possible. I felt that because I was strong, tough, and able that this would be a problem. And, for long periods I was able to run this way, but, invariably, as I have aged, I’m finding myself breaking down again and again and again. What I need to do now is break that cycle. I need to break the cycle of breaking down.
This new plan will have me running long twice every month until marathon season when, as I get closer and closer to the races, I’ll need to increase my frequency of long runs. In short, until marathon season, I need to put in some good long runs on a consistent basis. I don’t think my body right now can handle runs of ten miles or longer every week, but I also don’t want to go too many week without pushing myself to achieve some meaningful distances.
This new plan, I think, achieves a happy medium. I want to have long miles as part of my training, but I don’t want to over-do it. I think the big key for me, both for the 2019 marathons, and probably for the rest of my running life, is to understand that, since I am now in my 50’s, I can’t run like I’m in my 30’s – or even my young 40’s. My body needs more recovery time. That’s what it has told me by breaking down. Until this point, I’ve just been too headstrong to listen.
Beginning in January, and continuing each month, I plan to run a steady 10-mile run on the first Saturday of each month. (I took a few weeks off after completing the 2018 NYC Marathon in November to give my body a rest. These last few weeks, I have been building back towards longer and longer runs. It’s obvious that I’m taking this slowly.)
For me, ten-miles is a big number. When I’m in shape, I can usually cover that distance with moderate effort that doesn’t over-tax me. If I run the ten-milers slowly, these runs should take me a little over 1 hour and 40 minutes. If I push them, and run them hard, I might be able to get them down to approximately 95-minutes. The key though (as I will explain further in the third part of this plan) will be for me to listen to my body. I will start every long run off slowly. (If it is on my treadmill, that means at about 11-minute-mile pace (5.5 mph).) From that point, I’ll increase my speed based upon how I feel. (Again, in my younger years, I used to try to do every single run as fast as I could. I’d start most runs at 8.0 miles-per-hour or faster. I wanted to always be better than myself, and I often was. I don’t feel the need to compete with my 38-year-old self any longer. I just want to run, and run well and be the best runner I can be today. In essence, I’ve lost the battle with my 38-year-old self. When I try to be him, I end up injured. I am finally okay with that.)
After that ten-mile run to begin each month, I will not do any long runs until two weeks later. Then, on the third Saturday of each month, after giving my body those two weeks off from long runs, I will run 15-miles. Again, I will do these slowly. These will probably require 2 1/2 hours, at least in the first few months. The time isn’t what matters though, it’s the fact that I’ll be giving my body exposure each month to some long miles.
I believe that the 10-mile run and the 15-mile run each month will provide me with a strong base heading into the late spring and summer. At that time, with this strong base, I will have the physical and mental strength to ramp up when I begin my first 16-week marathon training cycle. The benefit, I believe will be that by only running long twice, I will not be taxing my body and encouraging it to break down. I will be providing the necessary time for my body to heal and recover. Until now, I never believed much in recovery. I always just pushed myself as hard as I could whenever I could. The main part of this new plan is acknowledging (finally) the reality that I’m older and that I need time to recover while still maintaining a process that allows for consistent long runs to build and maintain my endurance.
2) SPEED WORK – One major aspect of training that I have basically ignored the last many many has been doing planned speed work. One cannot run fast races unless he trains by running hard. This is a simple truism. If all of my training runs are slow, come marathon time, I’ll run slowly. It doesn’t work any other way.
The main reason I have moved away from speed work is that, in short, I’ve been focused more on pushing myself just to complete my runs, on trying not to get hurt, or in attempting to come back from an injury. In short, I’ve just been trying to survive.
As I look back on my training for last many years, I see that I’m not really following any real plan, what I have done is just try to make it through. I made plans, but I haven’t been able to stick with them. I didn’t really care about the quality of my efforts so long as I eventually covered enough distance on a few long runs. By completing these runs, I would declare myself “good enough” for a marathon. And I was, if my goal was to struggle though and eventually finish. I’ve done that a lot lately. I’m good at struggling through, walking a lot at the higher miles in a race, and eventually finishing. In addition to the more focused long runs that are necessary to train my body and mind for distance, I also need to train my body (and mind) to get stronger by running faster. I need to find a way to incorporate speed work into my routine as I did when I was running strong and running well.
Just like with the long runs, though, I have to do this with a smart plan. I can’t just try to randomly plan for some speed exercises or just try to run every workout as hard as I can (even if that’s what I used to do).
This plan will have set speed days and set speed workouts that I will follow. But, I want to make sure that I don’t over-do the amount of speed work or the type of speed work. To that end, I am planning to do speed work on two out of every three Wednesdays – two weeks on, one week off. Just like with the long runs, I am pre-planning recovery time between these hard efforts.
In addition, in order to vary the workouts, so as to keep them fresh and to hopefully not tax my body in the same way each time, I plan to rotate though the speed exercises that I have used most often, and found the most success with, in my running life. These will be exercises known as Yasso 800’s, The Perfect Mile, and Semmer 400’s. The first two speed exercises are well-known in the running community (and are linked), the third (Semmer 400’s), I invented myself. I’ll do a future post on this exercise one day soon. (I’ll link to that exercise once that post is written.)
I believe that by adding planned speed work, basically just three times a month, I will be able to get my body better used to running fast. I won’t run these drills at speeds like I did when I was younger (I used to use a 3:15:00 marathon as my target speed for these workouts, now I’ll be targeting 4:00:00), but I will be doing them regularly once again. That will also be a big key to getting to the marathon season in much better shape than I have in many (many) years.
3) MAKING SURE I LISTEN TO MY BODY – This is the part of the plan that might make the most sense. I believe that if I have two good long runs each month, and three good speed efforts, then the rest of my running should be loose, less focused, and less structured. In short, what I’m going to do is listen to my body.
I exercise each day, and have been doing so for decades. But, rather than telling myself that I have to run X amount of days for X amount of miles, I’m just going to let the other days happen. I will still run three to four times a week, maybe more on some weeks. But on those runs, I won’t set any expectation for time, distance, or effort. The only requirement of these other runs will be that I won’t run too far (no longer than 9 miles) and I won’t run at my fastest pace.
When I run, rather than having a goal that I feel I must attain, I’ll just let my body tell me how I’m doing and how far I should go. This will be new to me, but I think this is the best part of the plan. Rather than forcing myself to get through specific training runs, I’ll just…run.
I like this idea the most. I think this will help me find more joy in the sport. I also think this is the key that will keep me healthy. For the most part, just running will be the key. When I run, I will know that I accomplished something. Period. For too much of my life, I have made myself beholden to the various detailed plans I dream up. I have never really listened to my body, instead I’ve focused on ill-advised training plans that invariably got me hurt. For the first time in my life I will try to listen to what my body is telling me on most of my runs. It’s a novel idea, one I should have started doing years and years ago.
Long runs, speed work, and listening to my body. It makes a lot of sense. I hope this approach will be one that works! (I’ll keep you posted.)