The second question I’m choosing for my Q&A comes from a reader who just trained for and ran a spring half-marathon. She asks, “Now that I’ve completed my half and am so ready to tackle the full marathon distance, what should I focus on for the next month before my 16 week marathon training program kicks off in the middle of June? On the one hand I feel as if I should recover a bit before starting marathon training, but on the other hand I don’t want to drop down my mileage and lose the fitness that I have now. What strategy would you recommend?”
Let me start by acknowledging that since no two runners are built the same or have the same training history, there are going to be varying opinions on this subject. Although I will share my personal perspectives on the matter (since the reader wanted a response from me), I don’t claim my approach to be the only or even the best way. I encourage the reader to pursue more authoritative resources than what I can provide to find a more definitive answer to her question.
The way I see it, a successful marathon training program consists of four phases: base training, endurance training, speedwork, and the taper. The work done in each of the four training categories complement each other to build a stronger and faster distance runner. In my mind, the phase that is most neglected is the base building stage. At least some, if not most, of us do not readily take the time to build a strong running foundation of ~30 miles per week before we embark on full marathon training. As runners, we would much rather skip the mundane warm-up or recovery miles than deal with aimless and spontaneous running that seemingly has no purpose. However, I’d argue that the slow maintenance base mileage not only serves as an effective starting point for full marathon training but offers the mind a slight psychological reprieve between training cycles as well. Remember that “wherever the mind goes, the body will follow” and that the mental training is just as important as the physical one.
The key to remember is that during base training, miles are meant to be run very slowly. Speed workouts are optional, if not strongly discouraged during this phase. In fact, in the strictest sense, there should be no racing whatsoever in this invisible first month of marathon training. The physiologic reason is that maintenance miles facilitates and builds slow-twitch muscle fibers which offers the athletes stamina and endurance while racing encourages the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers which allows one to run much faster but also burnout much quicker too. Since base training is meant to provide a general framework upon which subsequent and more specific distance targeted training is built, having muscles that can sustain longer workouts is much preferred.
So more specifically, I would recommend that my reader take about a month to transition from half-marathon to full marathon training. During this base training month, there should be about 4-5 runs a week (3 short runs during week with a longer run on weekend) with a total mileage goal of about half of what you expect peak mileage to be during training. Again, time and pace isn’t so important, so feel free to leave the watch at home. The goal is to set up a schedule of consistent runs during the week and allow the body a period of adjustment. The smoother this transition, the less chance of injury later on when the miles get longer, the pace gets quicker and the training in general gets tougher.
Hope this answers the question to some degree. The only caveat I’d throw out there is that I’m such a fan of the short distance race that I find myself not adhering to the “no racing during base training” rule, even though I know it somewhat defeats the purpose. Oh well, what can I say? Do as I say, not as I do? I’m just answering the question from the perspective of a newer runner who isn’t so comfortable with the marathon distance or the training. The rest of us who are more experienced will always have our own personal biases on how we like to train. Now, I know there are many other opinions on the importance of base mileage training, so feel free to chime in.