My client wants to starts training for a marathon, so I am trying to put together a running program for her first time.
This is a great question, and with the popularity of endurance events - especially marathons - it is beneficial to be able to structure a beginning marathon program for clients.
While I am sure you appreciate the complexity of coaching an athlete for their first marathon and all of the variables that are involved with it, I will provide the basics of having your athlete get to the start line in good health and without injury.
I would highly recommend a training program of at least five to six months to prepare for the marathon. This provides you some room for allowing life “speedbumps” such as illnesses, vacations, etc. Once you know the date of the marathon, mark it on a calendar and work backwards five to six months to the starting date. There are many periodization cycles that I progress an athlete through before a competition, but with a novice marathoner, the preparation (base) cycle is the main one that I will focus on besides the taper.
Now that you know the marathon training start date, you can begin to segment her periodization cycles into build and recovery cycles that will meet her needs and lifestyle. Most athletes can handle a basic three week build and one week recovery cycle, but some require a 2:1 ratio due to life stressors and responsibilities. It is important to err on the safe side and structure two week build and one week recovery cycles if your client 1) has not had much running experience, 2) has a demanding career/family/social life or 3) is prone to injury.
Knowing what structure of build to recovery cycle you will follow (2:1 vs 3:1), you can move on to separating the months into training blocks. The following are guidelines to follow during each month.
- Goals: focus solely on improving aerobic endurance and remaining in an aerobic heart rate training zone 100% of the time.
- Frequency: I would recommend three days per week with a long run of five to six miles during week one.
- Goals: focus again on improving aerobic endurance.
- Frequency: three days per week.
- Goals: focus on improving aerobic endurance and introduce leg strength building run sessions with one day per week hill running. These are not to be intervals but running on a hilly course.
- Frequency: four times per week.
- Tips: it is best to stay in an aerobic heart rate training zone as much as possible when running the hill workout.
- Goals: improve aerobic endurance and continue to build more leg strength with one day per week running specific hill intervals of one to four minutes in duration with similar recovery time between each interval.
- Frequency: four times per week.
- Goals: decrease volume to allow the body to regenerate, increase intensity slightly to allow positive physiological adaptations prior to the race. Frequency: four times per week
- Tips: it is best to begin the tapering of the long run distance/volume but maintain/increase slightly the intensity by adding a tempo run (heart rate below lactate threshold) one time per week. Hill running can be maintained, but long hill intervals should be discontinued.
There are many assumptions that I will make with the following sample training program, but I have tailored it to a true beginning marathoner with limited time to train during the week, following a three week build and a one week recovery periodization cycle throughout the program.
- B1: build, week 1
- B2: build, week 2
- B3: build, week 3
- Rec: recovery week
- Prep: preparatory (base) periodization cycle
- “: minutes
- ‘: hours
- CT: crosstrain (preferably non or low-impact activity), core strengthening would be a valued addition
The main focal points for preparing a person for their first marathon are:
- Build cardiovascular endurance
- Build leg strength
- Build core strength
- Prevent injury
Overall, it is important to stress training at proper intensities (heart rate zones) so that the aerobic energy system can be fully developed before introducing hill and tempo running.
I have not mentioned preparing for a first marathon nutritionally as that would be a full article, but in general, it is important to follow these guidelines:
- Stay hydrated. Sports drinks that contain carbohydrates, sodium and fluid are best. Drink 20 to 30 ounces per hour. Limit water consumption before, during and after training to prevent hyponatremia.
- Eat. Experiment early during training to see what types of products are acceptable with her digestive system. Liquid or semi-solid sources are typically more preferable for runners. Eat between 120 to 240 calories per hour.