Welcome to Training Diaries, a new Lifehacker series about my journey to the 2023 TCS New York City Marathon. This series will cover all the ups, downs, and hill repeats on my journey to the biggest marathon in the world. Leading up to race day on Sunday, Nov. 5, we’ll go over proper fueling, injuries and setbacks, treadmill tips, wardrobe malfunctions, long run logic, and just generally reflect on what it takes to cross a marathon finish line. I’m guided by a mantra both corny and true: A marathon is actually hundreds of miles. Race day just happens to be the last 26 or so.
I’m looking forward to getting into the nitty gritty of marathon training. But first, we need to take a look at how a runner even picks a training program in the first place. And before that, a little about me as a runner, and why anyone should care about my two cents.
Take advice from me, an average runner
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New York will be my fifth marathon. All of my race times place me at the perfectly average marathon times for women in my age group. In other words, I’m consistently a middle- to back-of-pack runner. But what I lack in natural athleticism, I make up for in running mentality.
In the way that someone on a weight loss journey might focus on non-scale victories, I prefer a non-numbers approach to running. Unfortunately, to finish a marathon, the numbers game is unavoidable. (Namely, the number 26.2.)
Most importantly, I’m unable to center my life around running. It’s one of my great loves, but I know many runners like me simply can’t relate to running influencers who get to make training their top priority. My day job is 9 to 5, and I functionally have a second job doing stand-up comedy from 5 p.m. until, well…past the ideal bedtime. When my plate is full and it comes time to triage, I’m often forced to skip a training run. I have to choose writing, stand-up, relationships, and most of all, getting adequate sleep. On the bright side, this has given me a certain level of expertise. I know how to optimize a training plan and finish a marathon feeling strong and injury-free.
So, here’s what I can tell you about finding a marathon training plan perfectly suited to your lifestyle, running experience, job commitments, and race goals.
What to look for in a marathon training plan
Enough musing from me. Here are some concrete tips for choosing a marathon training program:
- Consider your goals. Are you looking to finish your first marathon or trying to qualify for Boston? Your goals will impact the type of program you choose. More aggressive programs have higher mileage and more intense workouts.
- Look at your current fitness level. If you’re new to running, choose a beginner program that builds up mileage gradually. If you already run regularly, opt for an intermediate or advanced plan.
- Pay attention to mileage. Long runs should max out at 18-22 miles for beginners and 20-24 miles for intermediates. Weekly mileage should peak at 30-40 miles for beginners and 40-60 miles for intermediates.
- Make sure to include speed work. Tempo runs, intervals, and fartleks help build strength and speed. Most plans include one to two speed sessions per week.
- Pick a reputable source. Good options include Runner’s World, Hal Higdon, Pfitzinger, Hanson’s, and Jack Daniels’ plans. Or consider a training group program like one from a local running store.
- Consider your schedule. Make sure the plan’s weekday runs and long run days fit with your life. Plans with only three to four runs per week are more flexible.
Tips to make the most of a marathon training plan
Even the most perfect of training plans aren’t immune to all the roadblocks that pop up in the 16 to 20 weeks leading up to race day. We’ll dive into those roadblocks in future posts, but for now, here are some things to keep in mind to make your training plan work for you.
- Be realistic and honest when you choose your ability level and goal mileage. Most plans have programs for beginners, intermediate, and advanced runners. For example, if you are running 20-25 miles per week (mpw) when training begins, do not choose a plan that kicks off with 40 mpw. Or if you are comfortable running three to four times per week, don’t jump into one that has six days of running.
- Work backwards. Mark your race on the calendar and work backwards to see when you will begin training. Put any obligations or events that may prevent you from completing an important run. This way you can plan ahead and switch things around.
- Allow proper recovery. Most programs include rest days and taper periods to avoid burnout and injury. This is key to staying healthy through marathon training. (We’ll definitely cover the infamous taper in an upcoming post.)
- Trust the plan. Don’t skip runs or add extra miles unless you’re prepared for that. Follow the plan as prescribed for the best results.
Above all else, be flexible. Illness, injury, surprise parties—life happens. When it does, don’t sweat it. Some guiding rules are to prioritize your weekly long runs, but avoid increasing your weekly mileage by more than 10% at a time. If you have to skip a long run, you may want to shuffle long runs around so you aren’t going from 14 to 18 miles (for example) on back-to-back weekends.
After picking a plan comes the easy part: Sticking to it. (Kidding.) (Sticking to your training plan is wildly difficult.) (For real, why does anyone sign up for a marathon?) (What are we running from?!)
More seriously, I’ll leave you with this: You can’t reverse engineer your training. Choosing the right training program is crucial to set yourself up for success.