2018 and 2019: How Two Approaches to My Offseason Prepared Me for Marathon Training

In The Sting of a Near Miss: A Framework for Handling Disappointment (in Running or in Life) I described the difficulty of getting so close to a goal (gaining entry into the Boston Marathon) only to miss out on it (three…freaking…seconds…). As difficult as that experience was, the truth is 2018 was a good year for me as runner. I took my training to new heights and enjoyed the results that followed.

One of my goals with this blog is to teach others through sharing the technical details of my own experiences. I don’t simply want to tell you what I did but explain why I utilized certain training approaches and the learning curves and pitfalls of trying those approaches.

As we head in 2019 I will be sharing a series of posts that highlight a particular aspect of race training: off season training, running, strength training, nutrition, recovery, and mental training. I will explain my approach to each of these subsets of training in 2018 and how I plan to advance to make 2019 an even better year.

Off season training: late 2017 and early 2018

Given the vast interest in running and racing there is surprisingly little information on what do to in the down periods between race training cycles. Looking back at the training I did between the 2017 Towpath Half Marathon and the start of training for the 2018 Cleveland Marathon, one gets a clear sense I was making it up as I went along. Weekly mileage totals vary wildly. I do not run on set days. The sole constants are a weekly long run and speed development work. Tempo runs are nowhere to be seen.

To be fair, training outside of race training cycles does not need to follow a strict regimen, depending on what one’s immediate goals are. One of the reasons I love the break between my fall race and my spring race is that, at seven months long, it offers me enough time to break away from the strict routine of race training. If I want to relax, I can. If I want to head out and run and not worry about time or distance, I can. However, as the start of a race training cycle looms, the goal shifts. I entered 2018 knowing I would be utilizing a plan designed to elicit a major jump in performance. The plan, utilizing the Hansons brothers’ (famous for being Des Linden’s coach) approach to training, called for a jump in weekly mileage compared to my previous highs and running six days a week. Jumping into it after spending several months with an “I’ll run if I feel like it mentality” was brutal. I dealt with small but nagging injuries and struggled to adapt to running six days a week.

The last thing that stands out to me looking back at my training logs is the total absence of strength training. None was done. I simply ran. Given the demands marathon training would place on my body, I am somewhat stunned that I held up as well as I did under the Hansons plan without a base of strength work. I would start to strength train once actual marathon training began but it is hard not to wonder if my early training would have gone smoother if I had done more to strengthen my body first.

Off season training: late 2018 to the present 

This offseason I have built far more structure into my training. My earliest weeks were just about getting out and enjoying the freedom of the road again. Structure is good, but marathon training is a long slog and I did not want to get sucked in too early into the grind of a daily routine. However, after Thanksgiving I got serious and adhered to a plan that emphasized the following points:

  • Running five days a week, and later six days a week, to get me mentally back into the weekly routine the Hansons plan establishes.
  • A focus on three hard runs: long runs, speed development runs, and tempo runs. In years past I ignored tempo work until actual training began.
  • Strength work four times a week, establishing a pattern I plan to continue when marathon training begins. This year I am strength training using the principles Jay Dicharry outlines in his book Running Rewired. My workouts during the offseason have been at the low end of the intensity spectrum and will get progressively more intense when marathon training begins. I will be discussing strength training in more depth in two weeks.
  • Running a weekly mileage that progressively builds to the mileage I will be running during the first several weeks of marathon training.

I have followed this plan with one large break in the week that began the day after Christmas and continued through New Year’s Day. I took a trip, planned quite late, to Charleston, SC, in the days following Christmas and then passed around a stomach flu with the rest of my family. Rather than risking a setback, like a prolonged illness because I was pushing my body, I decided instead to take the week, adjust the mileage the week after, and then resume my normal training load.

With marathon training beginning next week I feel good about where my body is. My easy pace is faster than last year’s but feels effortless. I have felt noticeably faster during my speed development runs and my tempo pace, which I often struggle to find and hold, feels hardwired into my legs. Granted, I am running roughly 20 miles per week less than what I will peak at later in the year. If I learned anything from the Hansons plan last year, it is that the cumulative fatigue the plan prescribes will make everything feel harder as I get deeper and deeper into training. Still, a year later, I feel I am eyeing the start line of another training cycle with hard-earned experience, the confidence that comes with it, and feeling far more physically ready for the challenge that awaits. We will see what happens.

The lesson

Rest and recovery are important. Race training is physically demanding and the routine can be mentally draining. There is nothing wrong with using your down time to break from that structure and run when and how you want. However, when you begin to stare down the start of another training cycle, it is beneficial to prime your body for the mental and physical demands of training. Adopting structure, mimicking what your training will look like, but at lower mileage, will help you enter a new cycle with confidence. Time will tell if I’m better prepared for marathon training in 2019. I feel I am, though, and confidence can go a long way.

Next week I will be talking about the Hansons plan that I followed last year and my plans to advance that training this year. Hansons is not for everyone but I will vouch for the results. I hope what I can share about it will be educational to anyone that reads the post.

Happy running,

Adam

 

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