Blog by: Todd Gilmore, Ironman Coach
So you signed up for a marathon or endurance event! The reality has now set in, how to prepare. Questions may be racing through your mind, “I have never ran more than 21 km”! Or, you have completed a few marathons or IRONMAN 70.3’s and now your feeling, “I want to go faster”. What should the aspiring finisher do. The discussion below is for all, runners, triathletes or ultra runners.
If you signed up on a “whim” (late and a quick decision), but are not physically prepared, you could do yourself more harm than good. Our bodies are not instant like social media. Muscles adapt 2 – 3 times faster than our ligaments. Our internal systems (energy, digestion, immune, metabolic, etc.) can take significantly longer. Failure to understand this will undermine an athletes result or worse, their long-term health.
Training for any event is much more than training the muscles. A patient athlete is training their mind, muscles, ligaments and internal systems. They are giving their body time to adapt to the training stresses. These adaptations take time and critical to longevity. But those who do will be feeling a lot better at km 30 than others. After all the race begins at km 30. The rest was just a long warm up.
Dr. Phil Maffatones’s philosophy of base building in zone 2 is very applicable to patience. It is in this patience period that the groundwork of success is laid. Therefore the patient athlete will give a minimum of 6 – 10 months to prepare for a marathon or Ironman.
Complete Your Base Work
The marathon training preparation time is dependent on your current running volume (total time per week). If the athlete follows classical rules (10% volume increase per week), respects the process, and gives their body time to adapt, they will do well. These old rules still apply, our bodies are not like the last iPhone version and can not be upgraded to be more efficient on a whim. We have to teach it efficiency, with patience and time.
Even for very active athletes, it takes time to adapt to do well, i.e. 4 – 5 months. Build base, then peak in endurance prior to getting into race specific work. The sooner race specific work can occur the better the athlete will be prepared. In this respect, race day becomes a long training day at speed.
What is base? Base building is the long slow run or bike rides months before the race that no one knows you did. It is essential to the preparation. The athletes body is adapting for endurance. Biomechanical efficiency and strength is being gained. Most importantly, cardiovascular efficiency is being created. The athlete’s body is getting better at delivering oxygen to the muscles. This takes time and consistency in training.
Many Ways to Build Endurance
A typical running plan is 4 – 5 days a week running. The other days are rest. This is however too much rest if you are serious about getting fit. Remaining active daily will help your body become more efficient. However, running 6 or 7 days a week comes with risk, injury risk. The injury risk is ever present for those athletes who do not have patience and try to “cram” training into a compressed schedule pre-event.
Whether the marathoner is a first timer, elite or mature athlete, runners statistically have an injury every 3 years. Those who cross train have much less likelihood of injury. Cross training can be very helpful to a marathoner since cardiovascular efficiency and strength is the goal. Cardiovascular efficiency is achieved in zone 2, low heart rate zones at long durations. (This is not a discussion of zones, but note, base fitness is built on all activities where the athlete can pass the talk test. Meaning at all times they can hold a conversation).
Running only can accumulate a lot of fatigue and increase injury risk. The injury risk is greater with age and recent running inexperience. However, a rowing machine, bike or pool, are great cross training compliments to aid in a marathon goal. These activities will work different muscles, or the same running muscles in different ways, thereby adding to overall strength as well.
Triathletes know a bike becomes especially useful to build endurance, and this is even more for a mature athlete. “Adopting” a bike to ride early in the training program means a much longer training duration can be undertaken than running training alone. This mitigates injury risk and better prepares the body for what is to come.
A rowing machine is a total body workout. It offers a boost in strength and cardiovascular fitness. Most importantly for running and swimming, a rowing machine targets the core upper back and legs. In addition to the cardio work these are tremendous fitness benefits.
For non-triathletes, swimming is about cardiovascular efficiency and recovery. Recovery is the often over looked aspect in any training program. Too many people go too fast, too often and do not focus on recovery as a daily habit. A bike, if correctly used, is a great form of recovery a well.
Incorporating 2 – 3 sessions per week of these suggested “cross training” activities will make every marathoner a better runner. More importantly, the runner is likely to have a longer running career. The runner may also enjoy fitness training more through the variety of this cross training approach. This is often something that draws athletes to triathlon.
A final cross training workout is strength workouts. These, to have any significant benefit, need to be specific. For example, boosting your squat “value” in the gym is of little value to running or cycling power. This movement is not specific to either. The large muscle groups of the leg get strong but the stability muscles and calf, as an example, do little in that movement in the case of running. In addition to this, the speed of the squat, slow and controlled, which does not translate to either discipline with respect to speed.
The recommended “runner” strength workout is any workout that uses the body weight plus lightweight. The light weight can be dumbbell, vest, backpack or specific garment like Lila Exogen. The body weight workouts should be a mix of dynamic and static movements focused on functional movements of the body related to running muscle groups. Such a workout is often highly complimentary to cycling as well.
Complete The Endurance
For an Ironman or marathon, completing 6 – 10 each 30+ km runs prior to a race is highly recommended. Even if the athlete used a bike to gain endurance, these long runs are essential to the body on a weekly basis. Some of these long runs ought to be dedicated to testing nutrition and pace, but will also continue the endurance journey.
Note, if an athlete planned 8 each weekly long runs (that is 8 weeks) at 30 km plus. Following the 10% rule above, it will take 3 – 5 months to reach this distance if that same athlete is currently running 10 km. As mentioned above, patience and good planning means some of these long runs become part of the base work.
Volume or time is more important than distance. This is especially so in the early phases of training (base). Training is not about distance, it is about physical adaptation in the body. Our bodies are getting accustomed to running stress, applying an exercise “tax” to our energy systems and the athlete is building mental strength through training. Athletes who follow a distance based plan may have a higher incidence of injuries. As such, a wise marathoner should be careful of what plan they follow.
Make your Easy Days EASY, HARD days Hard
Case History, Coach Todd
Kona ’18, feet issues ruined a 1:35 front half and pace to be sub 9:30. The feet were sorted, then eased back into running late November ’18 through to early January. About the 10th of January I twisted my ankle like never before. Five months later I could run!
It took another 5 months, of running every other day, max 4 x a week to get pain free. Much of this running went straight back to basics, 4:1. Meaning, 4 minutes easy run and 1 minute walk. And 4 minutes at times still had pushing z3 HR, so I had to slow down.
Finally in November, the ankle and body felt good to move to the next phase, longer runs. I did almost all Z2 running. One time a week, some short 1-minute efforts. Still running every other day but continuous, no walk breaks needed. Once a week I added some distance. I got up to 18 km on some runs.
December through to March I added a weekly HARD interval run coupled to the cycling volume I always do.
By the end of March, 9 months later the patience paid off. What was once 5:40 / km and Z2 is now 4:30 / km. Speed work is longer duration but still only once a week.
Todd Gilmore, P. Eng.
Todd is an IRONMAN Certified Coach and LILA WRT Master Trainer. Professionally he is registered Professional Engineer in his home country of Canada.
Todd has been involved in endurance sports since 2009. In his first triathlon he was nearly last out of the water. He found a passion plus a cycling and running enjoyment that carries through to all he does today. Todd is an adult who learned to swim efficiently. As a child swimming was not a priority. However, through repeated practice he now completes Ironman swims in under 1:05 with a goal to improve further. Todd’s cycling passion has lead him to cycle the length of Vietnam through the inland mountainous route. His running habit is fueled by bike fitness.
In 2016, Todd adopted a novel training plan with light weight resistance training, Lila. www.lilamovetech.com is a compression garment permitting all your workouts, regardless of sport, to be conducted under light loads. By conducting your training under light load, at your speed, you become stronger and faster.
Athletically in Triathlon, Todd has won 3 smaller Triathlons in Vietnam in 2012 and 2013. 2016 was by far his best year. It did not start that way however with a DNF at his first 70.3 of the year. Patience, a plan and experience to execute a good plan, resulted in 2 Age Group wins, an Age Group Podium and Personal Best Ironman time.
The first of the 2016 wins was the Ironman 2016 70.3 Asia Pacific Championship in Cebu where Todd won the 45-49 age group. He followed this up by winning the 45- 54 Age Group at Challenge Nha Trang (Half). The peak came in Hawaii at the 2016 Ironman World Championships. Todd smashed his personal best Ironman time by 38 minutes. This resulted in a finish time of 9:56:37, on a race 115th fastest 3:21:07 marathon. (A side benefit was that this run time also qualified Todd for the 2018 Boston Marathon, in an Ironman.) Five weeks later, with a goal to return to Kona in 2017, he started Ironman Malaysia in Langkawi. Fatigue was an issue, however Personal Best Swim and Bike times with a 3:32 marathon resulted in his second sub 10 Ironman at 9:58:35 and a 3rd place in his 45-49 Age Group.
These results were a product of continuous improvement coupled to a strong plan. Todd seeks to instill this consistency, planning, patience and work ethic into his clients. Making you a better you then a better athlete.