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The Basics Of Smart Marathon Training

You can improve your running economy without battering your body.

You can improve your running economy without battering your body.

LET’S GET THE BASIC WHAT AND WHY OF THIS PLAN right on the table so that you can keep them in mind as you read the how that follows. Here’s what you can expect to be doing on a weekly basis under this plan:

  • * Three runs a week, totaling no more than 35 miles, consisting of speed work or hill repeats, a tempo run, and a long endurance run.
  • * Core strengthening, strength training, running drills, and balance work done two to three times per week.
  • * Aggressive cross-training, recommended as cycling, at least twice per week.

Why this plan? Because too many of us get hurt too frequently doing the sport we love. That’s not acceptable, and it’s not the way things have to be. You may be reading this book because you believe that a change in your running program is a good idea, which also means you’ve already got an open mind about trying a new program. Or you may have come to this program because you’ve had too many injuries or a chronic injury that won’t go away.

RELATED–Smart Marathon Training: Training Smart, Running Healthy

You’re not alone. Most runners sustain an injury at some point that keeps them sidelined. For many of them, the cause is not hard to find: too many miles spent running, with not enough recovery. The high-mileage example comes right from the top: Elite middle- and long-distance runners routinely top 100 miles run per week and often reach over 120 and 140 miles.

Just where did this mania for piling on mileage come from? Often it’s hard to identify the origin of a widespread trend, but in this case it’s not too difficult: coaching legend Arthur Lydiard.

A native New Zealander, Lydiard revolutionized the running world in the 1960s by introducing long, slow runs into his training program. He emphasized the benefits of building a huge endurance base. This provided great improvements in running economy, which is a measurement of how much oxygen the body requires to run at a given speed. High oxygen consumption is a sign of oncoming fatigue, so good running economy means that less oxygen is used to run fast. High-volume running brings improvements in this measurement.

Lydiard’s program required all of his runners—including sprinters and middle-distance runners—to log a minimum of 100 miles per week. His program included more than just this base-building phase, but the high-mileage requirement was always its defining component. From this philosophy was born the general consensus that to be a good runner, an athlete had to nearly always be running. Six days, seven days a week, often twice a day.

It would seem hard to contest Lydiard’s program because of the results it produced: three of his protégés medaled at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and one, Peter Snell, hit double gold in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Nevertheless, a few coaches, like famed coach Jack Daniels, began to question Lydiard’s program. They began to put more emphasis on the intensity of the training effort instead of just the mileage. “Adding more and more mileage to your weekly training does not produce equal percentages of improvement in competitive fitness,” Daniels argued. Long, slow running generally produced long, slow races, they argued. And although high mileage worked for some runners, Daniels argued that each body was different and that each runner had to discover and appreciate his or her limits (Daniels n.d., 2005).

So is it true or isn’t it that only high-mileage running can produce successful long-distance runners? Consider the Africans. Road-racing fans have watched the rise of African long-distance runners since the great Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the gold medal in the marathon in the 1960 and  1964 Olympics. Since then, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners seem to have been conducting a private duel in most of the world’s top races, from New York to Boston to the Olympics.

This has led many American runners to wonder what it is about the African approach to running that has garnered these runners such success. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that many of these runners live and train at high altitude, which forces their bodies to learn how to work harder with less oxygen. Plus, the African culture and daily lifestyle revolve much more around running than does American culture. But the fact that these runners follow high-volume training plans has led many observers to conclude that high running mileage is necessary to achieve any success.

Still, I suspect that there’s a part of the puzzle that’s been missing. Even though successful African marathoners might run high mileage, it doesn’t follow that every African runner can do high mileage. For every successful African runner we see winning or placing in the major races, there might very well be scores of runners back in Africa whose bodies are not able to tolerate the rigors of high-mileage training. But we rarely see in the popular press data about the injury rate of the rest of the African runners, so the myth grows that only high mileage can produce successful long-distance runners.

If you conclude from all this, however, that I believe that high mileage is always bad, you’d be wrong. For the many elite runners whose bodies can handle it, high-mileage training has yielded astounding fitness and success. Other coaches, Daniels included, agree that high mileage can be beneficial where appropriate.

RELATED–Durability: Art or Science?

The problem is that for many of us, high mileage has brought stress fractures, patella tendinitis, iliotibial band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, and a host of other maladies, not to mention the frustration of not being able to do the thing we love at the level we’d like to do it. Or, depending on the injury, at all.

This dilemma isn’t limited to middle-of-the-pack runners; many elite runners who prosper with high-mileage training also fall prey to injury. Former world record holder Khalid Khannouchi swung like a pendulum between record-setting performances and disabling injuries, and the fastest American female marathoner to date, Deena Kastor, was sidelined after suffering a stress fracture in the Beijing Olympics. Even for many elite runners, high-mileage training is often not a sustainable lifestyle.

Specificity Of Training

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: To run better, you have to run more. Runners need to run. That’s called specificity of training. You can’t be a better runner by playing racquetball, no matter what other health benefits might come from that activity. And alongside that fact sits this conundrum: To improve in any activity, you need to practice that activity, but when you do nothing but that activity hour after hour, you raise the risk of developing a repetitive stress syndrome and other overuse injuries.

But you don’t have to settle for one extreme or the other. You can improve your running economy without battering your body.

This book presents an alternative to high-mileage training. It focuses on quality runs over quantity of miles, supplemented by other activities that not only produce better overall fitness but also develop the kind of strength that wards off running injuries. By running less frequently and at a lower volume while running more purposefully—and developing balanced strength—you can run better and be stronger and healthier.

Although much of the running and coaching community still sticks by the older method of training, which calls for running six to seven days a week, building up to 60, 70, or more miles per week, there’s a growing body of evidence supporting the view that less is often more. Research has linked the relationship between mileage and injury onset and has established that as the miles pile up, so, too, does the rate of injury. For example, a 2007 British Journal of Sports Medicine review of running injury studies found strong evidence that running more than 40 miles per week increases men’s risk of lower extremity injuries, especially to the knees, from as low as 19 percent to as high as 79 percent (van Gent et al. 2007).

Clearly, then, there’s a point at which most runners top out on the benefits of running, after which more miles bring more harm than good. Research shows that this point hovers somewhere around 35 miles per week (Eyestone 2007).

All this seems pretty straightforward, so the question, then, is, why do so many runners continue to log more than 35 miles per week?

There’s no single answer to this question, but here’s what I suspect: We’re stubborn people. We wouldn’t be distance runners and marathoners if we stopped every time we got tired or sore. I don’t know if running distance makes people stubborn, or if stubborn people are drawn to distance running, but in the end these just seem to go together. If we believe that running more than 35 miles per week is what it takes to become better, many of us are willing to live with the pain and injuries that come with that. At least up to a point.

The Bigger Picture

We love to run. As a coach, I used to get frustrated when my athletes would resist doing things that I knew would make them better runners, like strength training, core training, and cross-training. But then I had a stunningly simple epiphany: The reason for this resistance was that they just loved running. They didn’t get into running so that they could do these other things, so the more time they had to spend doing non-running stuff, they believed, the less time they would have to run.

That makes sense, but the bigger picture is that for many runners, a failure to do all the necessary non-running activities will lead to an end to running as well. We think that the rules don’t apply to us. When you become a marathoner, you instantly become part of a very select group. Even if you earned your medal in a race with 20,000 to 30,000 other people, you still belong to a group comprising less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. You are probably an oddity to your friends and family, and you take pride in that. You begin to believe that you’re special. And you are. But you can get hurt like anyone else.

I’m guilty of this myself. I would hear about people who had the full menu of classic injuries, from plantar fasciitis to patella tendinitis to sore backs and strained hamstrings, and I would think, “That’s sad, but that’s not something that could ever happen to me.”

My running friends apparently think the same way as I do. Many of them seem unable to make the connection between their training routine and the injuries they develop. They seem to think of their injuries not as a direct result of something they did—or failed to do—but as freak accidents, like slipping on a banana peel. I guess that would be called denial.

To progress as a runner and to reduce the risk of injury, you need to get over these roadblocks. You need to become smarter than you are brave, more reasonable than you are stubborn. You need to recognize that, although you love to run, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. In economics this is called the Law of Diminishing Returns, according to which desirable things usually lose their value in direct proportion to their increased availability. As my college economics professor liked to put it, his first burger was delicious, the third one not so much, and the fifth one was pretty terrible. This is true in running as much as in the marketplace.

You also have to recognize that in order to keep running, you have to do all the necessary non-running training that will make that possible. Although I hope that all runners will come to find this training program as enjoyable as I have, you must recognize that, like it or not, these are just activities that you have to do if you want to run to your potential.

No amount of wishful thinking will inoculate you against reality. The body is capable of wondrous things, but when we act like we have no limits, we act foolishly and dangerously. This book is an effort to restore reasonableness to your running program when you are faced with the limits of your body.

This article was adapted from the book Smart Marathon Training with the permission of VeloPress. Old-school marathon training plans ask runners to crank out 70 to 100 miles a week. It’s no wonder those who make it to the start line are running ragged. Smart Marathon Training maps out a healthier, more economical approach to training that emphasizes quality over quantity. This innovative program eliminates junk miles, paring down training to three essential runs per week and adding a dynamic strength and cross-training program to build overall fitness. Runners will train for their best performance in less time and avoid the injuries, overtraining, and burnout that come from running too much. Download a free sample and preview the book at


About The Author:

Jeff Horowitz is a certified running and triathlon coach and a personal trainer who has run more than 150 marathons across six continents. Formerly an attorney, he quit law to pursue his passion for endurance sport and now works with DC Tri; The Nations Triathlon; the nonprofit summer camp ACHIEVE Kids Triathlon; and Team Hope, a charity fund-raising training group that benefits the Hope Connections Center, a cancer-patients service organization. Learn more about Jeff at

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