Marathon webchat with coach Sam Murphy

Catch up with the highlights of our recent marathon Q&A with coach Sam Murphy



ASICS Pro Team coach Sam Murphy joined us recently for a Q&A webchat about marathon training. Catch up with the highlights.

Sam is one of the UK's leading fitness experts, and a keen runner. She has completed 15 marathons (with a PB of 3:22) and the Himalayan 100 Mile Race among numerous others.In addition to her first class degree in Sport and Exercise Science, Sam is a level 2 UKA running coach and a tutor for England Athletics.

Sam has written seven books which have been published internationally, including Run for Life: The Real Woman's Guide to Running, and Marathon and Half Marathon: From Start to Finish.

Q1. I'm doing a marathon on March 17th and another one on April 28th. What long runs should I be doing inbetween? How much recovery after the first and taper before the second should I allow? – marathon molly

A1. I’d take a full week of recovery after the first marathon (with some non-impact cross training) with no long run, then do a week with your usual training sessions (maintaining the intensity but perhaps reducing volume a little compared to normal). Depending on how you are feeling, you could then do a long-ish run 4 weeks out from your second marathon of no more than 18 miles or 2 hrs 45 (whichever is the lesser). If not feeling sufficiently recovered, then do another moderate week and place this run 3 weeks out. No more long runs (beyond 2 hours) after that – so a three week taper. But remember to keep that intensity in there – lower the volume of hard stuff, don’t eliminate it. Good luck!

Q2. I'm running London as my first marathon and I'm confused about what pace to aim for. My long runs, over half marathon distance, have been 14, 16, 18 and 20 and I've one more 20 or 22 to go. My pace for my last two long runs has been about 10:25 min/mile and I've finished feeling like I have a few more miles left. I ran a half marathon in 1:59 in February.

Part of me would like to go for sub 4:30 but I am terrified of going out too fast and suffering badly for it. Would I be better to aim for something more conservative and enjoy my first marathon experience or am I capable of coming in under 4:30? – wiggly worm

A2. I would say that sub 4.30 is definitely within your capabilities. You've been running at not far off that pace in your long runs without the benefit of a) crowd support b) adrenaline/race rush c) a taper! And your half marathon time puts you at around 4.06 ish. 

Why not start off with the 4.30 pacer, to stop yourself going off too fast? You could then stick with them as long as you feel you want to - and if feeling good, take off to come in sub 4.30? 

Q3. I'm running a half marathon this Sunday and had two more long runs before I taper for the London marathon - does that sound right or should I be tapering earlier? I'm a novice runner (started last year) and currently up to half marathon distance on 11min miles. – Tracy Newman

A3. If 13 is the furthest you've run and you are doing 13 (in the half) this weekend, then would probably suggest you do 15-16 the following week and leave it at that. (You could do a 12-13 the week after). otherwise you'll be doing your longest ever run, the week after your second longest ever run, 3 weeks before the longest run of your life! When you look at it like that, it doesn't make much sense! Programmes are often scheduled this way, however. If I've misunderstood you, and you've run further than 13, give me a shout and I'll amend my advice accordingly!

Q4. London will be my eigth marathon and I'm aiming to run sub 3 hours (although I've missed a bit of training through illness, I think I've got enough long runs and quality sessions in). I always do a 3 week taper and don't usually race any later than 5 weeks to go, but this time I'm wondering about racing either a half 2 weeks prior to the marathon or a 10k 1 week before. I'm not sure whether I'd take too much out of myself (I would definitely race them at full effort), or whether, being shorter distances, they'd work as nice "sharpeners" to keep a little speed in the legs. Do you have any advice? - Caf

A4. My advice is definitely don't run a half 2 weeks prior to the marathon - it's not enough time to recover from a full-effort race. I'd be a bit worried about a 10K 1 week before, too. I think they wouldn't act as dulleners, not sharpeners. A 5km, yes (1 or 2 weeks out). Or a 10km 2 weeks out. 

Trust in your training and keep the intensity of your quality sessions going during your taper - just reduce the volume overall, and the volume of higher intensity stuff. Good luck!

Q5. I’m running London as my first marathon.  Training was going well up until two weeks ago.  I was doing 4 or 5 run s a week and had got up to 20 miles...but then I got the virus that’s going around. Feeling ok in myself now but just been given antibiotics as I have a chest infection.  So last two weeks (and the next week) will have done next to nothing.

Really confused as to what to do in last month of training. I am thinking I should try to get two hard weeks in and then taper for two. If I just run the last week in March and then normal 3 week taper, I’m concerned that wont be enough for the day.

Help? What should I do, assuming I am ok to run again from Monday 18th?

Focus on speed work? Longer runs? and when should I taper? – adam kinsley

A5. Your first week back after this time off needs to be easy. Go in too hard, and you risk injury or extreme fatigue/relapse. Just run on alternate days, steady pace, nothing longer than an hour. This will lay the foundation for a tougher week w/c 25th when you can re-introduce some tougher sessions/speed work and do a long run on Easter weekend. If you take it slow, aim for somewhere between 18 and 20. And then you have a 3-week taper. During the first week, you could cut volume only by a small amount (say 25 %) and maintain your intensity. Then taper more steeply for following 2 weeks. PLEASE don't do a long run 2 weeks out. Nothing more than 2 hours. Get lots of rest, eat well and wish you speedy recovery.

Q6. I'm running my 2nd marathon (London) next month. Undertrained as usual because of work/laziness etc.. Did 15 miles last Saturday, and will push it further tomorrow (hopefully 17). My question is, I have my father in a care home 4 miles away, so it suits me to run the 4 miles, chat to dad for a couple of hours, then run back the other 4 miles. Is this just as good as one long 8 miler, or much worse (because of the rest). I do try and do interval training to mix everything up. – Piers Jenkins

A6. If you make your 17 tomorrow, you could probably do a shorter long run next weekend (or a half mara) and then squeeze in a final long run of 18-19 over Easter weekend (ideally Good Fri/Sat) and still get decent taper.

As to your question about splitting the 8-mile run: in terms of fitness development, it's absolutely fine. There's some evidence to suggest that the fitness benefits (in terms of adaptation, especially hormonal) are actually better from getting two hits rather than one. But of course, with mara training, endurance is the name of the game, so just make sure that you're getting SOME continuous runs in too. 

You could think about using one 'half' of your split run for a quality session. E.g. you could run hard on the way (after warm up) and use the homeward bit as recovery jog. Or run easy on the way to loosen up and then get progressively quicker on way back. Doing both ways as easy running probably not best use of your time. Good luck with last few weeks!

Q7. I know the standard taper is 3 weeks but is this written in stone for everyone? I’m following a training plan by Brad Hudson who says that 15 days is all that is needed. The plan has me running a steady 20 miles 15 days before the London Marathon. Is there empirical evidence to show that 21 days is the correct taper for a marathon? With a 3 week taper I always feel great with 1 week to go but a bit sluggish a day or two before the event. I’ve run 8 marathons but haven’t improved much over the last 3. - Badbark

A7. The answer is no, it is not written in stone and no, there is no empirical evidence to show that you must taper for 21 days. The reason being that everyone is different so it's not possible to categorically state a time in which people will recover and be in optimal shape for a race. The 21 days thing comes from studies looking at a whole range of different taper lengths/protocols - the study authors concluded that it was 'about the right length of time' for most people. Some will need less, others more.

This is where the 'art and science' of coaching comes in. So 'science' says that 3 weeks is about right for a taper. The 'art' comes from knowing yourself (or your client), how your body responds to training/how quickly it recovers, how you've fared with previous tapering experiences and so on. It sounds to me like you are quite interested in trying this shorter taper, after your previous experiences. And you say that you've not improved much - which brings the old 'always do what you've always done... always get what you've always got..' adage to mind.

HOWEVER! A word of warning. Brad's book, along with P&D (much mentioned on here) and other such books are generally aimed at pretty high level runners. The sort of runner who would be completing that 20 miler, 15 days before, in maybe 2 hours (6 min miling). It's a lot easier to recover from 2 hours on your feet than from 3 hours or more - so I think you need to factor in your own speed/ability when deciding whether to do this. For the record, I personally would not do a 20 miler 15 days before a marathon, nor recommend any of my clients to do it. But the ultimate decision is up to you. Good luck!

Q8. I am running a marathon on 28th April and aiming to break 4 hours. Up to last weekend the training was going swimmingly. Averaging 40 mile weeks, two 20 milers done, one at 9.14 m/miles and I raced a HM on Saturday in 1.49.  So I seem to be on target.

Unfortunately though since Monday I have a flu bug. It's not just a cold but proper flu, I can barely make it up the stairs. Realistically I am going to miss 2 weeks training, just at a point when I am meant to be stacking up the miles. I am very disheartened, but it can't be helped.

What advice can you give me to get back up to speed? And how much affect on my training do you think a two week break will have? - Suziewee

A8. Poor you Suzie! But the good news is that it was all going really well before this spanner in the works. You have 2 20 milers in the bag, and a great half marathon time. So I really wouldn't worry too much. Focus on getting better - plenty of rest, stay hydrated, eat well and try not to stress. DON'T run before you are ready. First week back in training, just run easy - alternate days, nothing too long. Just get your body back used to running again. And then you can re-introduce some speed work and quality training. It's much easier to maintain fitness than it is to get it in the first place. You will not have lost everything after 2 weeks! You could do a longish run the weekend after your first week back but I wouldn't worry about trying to do another 20 miler. Don't be tempted to do a long run 2 weeks out from the race - even 3 weeks out I would avoid doing as long as 20 miles - maybe 16 or so.

Q9. I am doing the Edinburgh Marathon in May. This will be my first marathon. Training has been going well. I have already reached up to 18 miles and I have a 20 mile race (treating as a training run) in a weeks time. I am planning to taper down 3 weeks before. I am also going to run a 10K race two weeks before.

Questions -

1. Is it a good idea to run a 10K hard 2 weeks before?

2. What distances do I need to run a week before?

3. What should be my food intake in the week leading up to my marathon? – mark bedford

A9. It's fine to do a 10k 2 weeks before. Assuming you're not also trying to do a long run that weekend!

A week before the race, no run you do is going to actually contribute to your fitness come race day. It's merely a matter of keeping things ticking over so it's important that you listen to your body. Recovery is the key aim by then, so if you don't feel like running, don't. The bigger temptation is normally to do too much. Again, don't! I normally run Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before a Sunday marathon. But all except Tuesday would be 20-30 mins easy with a few strides at the end. Tuesday I would do a small amount of race pace or faster - but still cap the session at 4-5 miles.

Food wise, you don't need to step up your calories to 'carbo load' because the reduction in training volume allows you to 'store' more. Make sure you have a good source of carbs in every meal or snack. The best thing to do to find out more is watch Ruth McKean's vodcast or visit her Q&A from a week or so back on this site on marathon nutrition.


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