Marathon training Q&A with coach Steve Smythe

Running coach Steve Smythe joined us recently for a live webchat on the RW forum to discuss marathon training - with particular focus on what you should be doing in January to make sure you're marathon fit for the spring.

Steve is the author of our marathon schedules here on RW and is currently coaching two of our Target 26.2-ers - Alex and Sarah - to success in our marathon project, ASICS Target 26.2. He has run more than 60 marathons himself with a PB of 2:29, and as a coach has helped marathon runners to British senior international level, British age group records and London Marathon age group wins.

Q1) I have a question regarding the Long Slow Run. In the past, my longest one had been about 2 hours 50 but I have been reading that there is no real benefit to go over 2:30.

My reason for this long run is that I am going to be on the road for nearly 3 hours (less if possible) so I thought it would be useful to test the body over that period of time (but maybe it isn't). – Denis Duret

A1) I disagree that there is little benefit of going over 2:30. It may be a case of diminishing returns, but I have found most of my best marathons have been achieved when I have done long slow runs of three hours and over. You have to be careful not to run them too fast or recovery is difficult and you potentially do lose more than you gain as training is difficult for the following week. But long slow runs built up gradually together with faster shorter runs should benefit you and best to do more than one very long one in the build up. I aim for 3 of 21-23 and maybe 2 or 3 others 20s.

Q2) How would you suggest someone trains who hates training plans? Basically I just go out running as far or not as I feel like at the time and resent structure. And my dog comes too, so we sprint when we see a squirrel and we stop when we need a drink from a muddy puddle.

However, in opposition to that I'm pretty competitive when it comes to racing and do quite well, except in the marathon. My best half time is 1.28, yet my best marathon time is 3.25. I really want to crack sub 3.15 this year and am going for the long run with my club when I'm able to. How can I still make my other runs beneficial without them seeming structured? – ghost of kittenkat

A2) I think non structure can work for distances up to half marathon but you do need to tick certain boxes for marathons to prepare properly.

If you don’t like to follow a day-by-day schedule then try and do certain sessions during the week as to when you feel fit. Eg, do at least one long slow run of two hours or more but do it when you want, and one sustained run with at least half an hour of marathon pace or faster, and one structured speed session. You can decide about 15 minutes into each session which run to do and as long as you don’t run hard two days running and do the basics, it doesn’t matter if you do your unstructured sessions on the other days and which day you do.

Q3) I've been running 8 years and my PB in the mara is 2.47.44 at Amsterdam in 2011 after many close calls. I did this following the Pfitzinger & Douglas training strategy & plans. I subsequently got under 1.23 in half mara, 38mins at 10k in March & April respectively last year so thought I was a stick on to go under 3hr at London but in that race I faded in the last few miles and came in at 3hr 13secs. Since then things have taken a real downturn and times have gone up and up, culminating in a disaster at Cologne marathon in October where I hit the wall at mile 18 and had a death march the last 8 finishing in 3hr 15min.

I just need to know where to go from here as feel my pace has suddenly gone and thought I'd found the 'magic' formula with P&D - I'm 45 years old and ran 2,500 miles, and 3 marathons in 2012 - think I've maybe overdone the mileage or do you think there's any other reason for my demise? – Neil Mac

A3) It’s possible you have just overdone the miles. The last time I trained very high mileage a few years ago I picked up a virus and went down a level and it took me six months to get vaguely back to where I was before. I would suggest sticking to just one marathon a year in future and have a break from the mileage and focus on getting your speed back with increased shorter pace work and put some strides into some longer runs. Give your body a rest from the miles and  aim for a 10km time. Marathons are great but they take a lot of you. I used to do up to 4 or 5 but now can only cope with one a year.

Q4) I'm training for the VLM which will be my first one. Been running for almost 2 years and have PB of 44m 40s for 10k and 1h 13m for 10m (not yet done HM race). I'm a 41 year-old female. I have three questions:

1. I am following a schedule but was already running 14-16 miles on my LSR before starting so I am a bit ahead of schedule for my LSRs. I did 20m last week. What should I do now for my LSRs - do 20/22 every other week and shorter in between? Is there any merit in doing more than 22 or as a beginner will I burn out (think I know the answer!)

2. In terms of deciding my marathon pace, McMillan suggests 7m55s based on my other times. Should I err on the conservative side for this first marathon and start with 8m 15 or 8m30? (I did my 20m at 8m 24 pace and felt ok but I know I should have trained slower). Am doing HM in feb so I guess this will help decide.

3. Was thinking of doing 20m race 4 weeks before marathon. Should I race this or use it as training run? - Slowkoala

A4) Question 1 – if you are up to 20 now then you are well ahead of where you need to be. A 20 once every three weeks is probably sufficient but I don’t see a problem in one of those being a 22 or 23. On other weeks I would suggest a 18 and a brisker 15 – or at least some at marathon pace within it ie last 4 or 5 miles.

Question 2- if you are running 8:24s in training now then 8:30 should be a doddle come the marathon. I agree 7:55 may be a bit too fast for your first marathon but 8:15s should be very doable and agree a half-marathon time may give you a better idea.

Question 3: Four weeks before is too close to race it. You may recover but many don’t and it’s not worth the risk. You could probably just about get away with the first half at slower than marathon pace and the second half at goal marathon pace based on your HM time.

Q5) I'm 58 and have been running for five years with the following PBs: 5K - 19.35, 10K - 40.25, half - 1.35, marathon - 4.17. My VO2 max and lung capacity have always been 'top of the scale' when tested, yet I'm unable to attain the half marathon time x2 +10% when running marathons. I weigh 65 kgs. This time for VLM I've taken advice to work more in the gym on strength and power for my legs - squats, lunges, kettle bells etc plus hip flexor exercises. I'm still doing the necessary SLR's but have cut back about 50% on hill work and speed work on the basis that the gym programme (2x1hr weekly) will compensate whilst enabling strength improvement with less pounding on the joints. Any thoughts on this kind of approach? – Bob Depledge

A5) Your marathon time is obviously way below your capabilities based on your other times. Gym work may help in building leg strength but fundamentally if you have a weakness it appears to be your endurance though you say you are still doing the necessary SLR’s and I presume you are doing plenty of two to three hour runs.

I wouldn’t totally reduce the hills and speed work too much and maybe one area of running that may assist you is the sustained faster longer run so you get used to running fast while tired. I.e. 13 miles slow then run marathon pace for five miles.

Q6) Question about long runs and pace. I'm targeting a sub 3:15 marathon this year at VLM. My previous time being 3:17. I keep reading long runs should be slow... around a minute slower than race pace. In my last training for 2010 marathon, I went this pace or maybe slower for majority of run, but then tried to run at race pace for the last 4 miles of a long run. Is this method OK? Or should I be trying to run nearer to race pace the whole way. I need to be that little bit faster to get the time I want. And also - weights? I do a weekly weights session of 15 or so reps of various exercises: bench press, squats, lunges, dead lifts, plyometrics, etc. Is a session like this OK to continue with during the 16 week build up? – C E Messenger

A6) Certainly most of your long runs should be reasonably relaxed at a good minute a mile slower than race pace. Some of my recent ones have been nearer two! However you need to do some faster long runs which is why regular races are good and your method of putting a fast 4 or 5 while tired towards the end of run is a good one. To do much more than that is very hard without the stimulus of a race. it can then take an awful lot out of you and then you are really struggling for a week or so and your training sessions in the following week suffer and ultimately you can lose more than you gain.

Weights won’t make as much difference as long runs but they will make you stronger overall and if you have the time, then it can only do you good.

Q7) I was lucky enough to be one of the ASICS Bootcampers in November.  Having never done a marathon before it was news to me that I should be doing long slow runs - however I'm still not sure that I understand why they're beneficial.

Also, what should I be aiming to take with me (energy and fluid wise) on 12+ mile runs? –Helen Hardy 2

A7) Yes, you need long slow runs whatever the distance – even the world’s best 1,500m runners do long slow runs during the winter to build endurance and even half marathon competitors should be doing runs of 12 miles plus.

Personally I don’t take too much with me for long slow runs of less than 15 miles, I just make sure I have some fuel inside me from a sensible breakfast (cereals/toast) and am well hydrated beforehand. In hot weather you need to make contingency plans re getting extra drink. Sometimes I carry some money and buy one if I am feeling extra thirsty rather than carry it, though they may not be practical if out in the country. I occasionally takes gels on training runs but prefer to keep the effect for races and key long runs rather than all the time, though things like jelly beans are worth carrying with you if you run out of energy.

It is best to rely on good training to get you through the harder runs and races rather than sweets and gels but I have found them essential in marathon races over the second half in recent years and wish they had been around when I was first marathoning 35 years ago.

Q8) Is it sensible to be restricting food intake 18 weeks out from a marathon to shift a couple of kilos (if you're at what would be a "reasonably fit" weight in my life history), or should I forget about that and focus on having the energy to get the training load done.  If it's OK early in a training schedule, at what point would it be silly?

Second quick question if I may - I don't have a great deal of spare time with work and a young child, and enjoy cycling as well.  Which runs in a marathon training schedule would be least detrimental to drop in favour of a pedal on the pushbike, or to put it another way, which should be absolutely kept? - HomeBrew

A8) Hopefully if you were training hard, it should be coming down gradually anyway if you are unnaturally overweight but as long as you are sensible, it probably wouldn’t do you any harm at this stage to lose a few pounds.

Re: sessions, the key one is the long run followed by tempo and speedwork.

Certainly you could do a bike ride on recovery days. I quite like to add endurance by finding somewhere different to run and cycle there and back. Eg, last Sunday I did 2 hours plus running but also did 2 hours on bike getting to and from. Though later in schedule I would focus more on running as I sadly can’t use my bike in the marathon! I agree cycling is a good way to get extra endurance though without the same injury risks.

Q9) I'm 60 and have a best of 3.23 for VLM, 1.31 Wilmslow half and 42.11 for 10K, approximately 2 years ago, but since struggled with injuries and just about got fit and healthy again. Can your schedules get me a sub 3.15 or is that asking too much? Also, the Hanson way recommends no longer than 16 miles for the long run, what are your thoughts? – The broker

A9) Re: your target, yes it’s possible based on your shorter distance times if you can train close to you what you were doing two years ago and stay fit and healthy and avoid injury.

It may be possible to run a long run of just 16 miles and survive but personally I don’t think it’s worth the risk and the majority of schedules suggest you need to do a few 20s. I would be wary with a maximum of 16 about worrying what would happen when I get to 17 miles in a race and running faster than I normally do in training! I’m sure it may work for some though, but I suspect for most it wouldn’t.

Q10) I'm running VLM for charity and it is my first marathon, I've done a couple of halfs and the longest run I've done previously was 15 miles. I'm a bit concerned about the training plan I'm following, it is a 16 week plan and I am on week 3 (13 mile LSR) and has 20 milers at weeks 7, 9 & 11 and a 21 mile at week 13. Is this too much for a first time marathon or about right? I know friends have followed plans that have increased gradually with the longest run at 20 miles but just the one 20 mile. This may just be a confidence issue so I'm looking for reassurance from the expert. As the plan falls I am due to do the following LSRs over the next few weeks 13M, 15M, 13M, 17M should I go out and do what I can given the conditions and then contiunue with next week's 15 or rearrange the plan to be 13M, 15M, 17M, 20M, 13M - I'm unsure if the continuous build before a fall back distance will do more damage than good. - Carley

A10) For your first marathon, it may be best to be cautious and take some of those long runs out and replace with a shorter one. I would suggest going down in distance two of those weeks. The trouble is some schedules can be for first timers or experienced runners and if they are both aiming for the same time, then the schedule prescribed may be the same but the beginner may be better doing less until they are stronger and have more miles in the bank.

Q11) What are your thoughts on 20 mile races in the marathon build up? I've always under-performed in the marathon after a decent 20 mile race even though it's been 6-8 weeks out. Eg, 2.04, 2.05 & 2.07 then couldn't get near that in the marathon and never broke 3.10.

Last year I had a very comfortable 2.02 at Bramley, but the marathon 6 weeks later I struggled through 20 in 2.04 and finished in a disappointing 2.48. Should I just bin the 20 mile races, run them slower, or do something different between them and marathon day? – Dan A

A11) Yes a hard 20 takes more out and often means a worse marathon. I don't see a problem at slower than marathon pace or maybe just on marathon pace if you are experienced and very fit but I too went through a period of running very good 20 mile races and four to six weeks later some very underwhelming marathons.

I think they are useful training exercises for pacing and race simulation but maybe it's best for you to run around 2:10 and just target marathon pace for second half or last five.

Q12) how much slower than race pace should my speed be on long, slow runs? – Brenda Wasserman

A12) Brenda - most people prefer a minute a mile slower than their target marathon pace for long slow runs, but it can depend on the terrain and when it is in the schedule. Some runners like to do them 30-40 seconds slower and others it can be two minutes slower.