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Article By: Marco Ochoa

Running a marathon has always been a big challenge for many runners. Even if it is going for a fast time, trying to go for a personal best, or just to finish the race, runners are always looking for the best training program that will lead them to accomplish their goal. The individual runner will be faced with many questions concerning his or her training. Questions like; how many miles to run per week, the intensity and volume of the work-outs, recovery, long runs etc, etc. Well, first of all we need to understand that there is no specific answer to these questions because every individual runner is unique. But, a coach can prescribe a specific training program to the athlete according to his or her ability and goal for that specific marathon.

For the last ten years of my running career I have focused on the marathon. My experience running the marathon, together with my degree in exercise physiology, and the knowledge I gained from my coach, Dr. Joe I. Vigil, has helped me accomplish many of my goals. When developing a program we were also faced with the same questions that many runners are concerned about, but the 15 years of working together made it easier for us to learn what my needs were to obtain success. My objective here is to help coaches and athletes with some ideas on marathon training. I want to share my knowledge and experience hoping that it will bring success to you as it did to me.

In establishing a training plan that will be conducive to a positive result, the coach must be willing to research and understand some of the basic principles and components of training. The principles established to carry out the training plan are the foundation for the complete preparedness of the individual runner to achieve his or her goal. The coach must determine the athlete's training needs and maximize his or her abilities. Quite often coaches apply a completely unscientific approach in training by following training programs of successful runners, and more often than not, this approach will create failing results.


  1. Principle of active and conscientious participation in training: Active and conscientious participation in training is created by the communication channels created by the coach and athlete. Coach and athlete must participate together to elaborate training objectives, plan long and short-term training programs, and establish test and standards to check the level of performance.

  2. Principle of specialization: To achieve greater results from a specific sport or event the focus must be in specialization. This is not a one sided process but a complex one which is based on a strong foundation of multilateral development. From the early training lessons of the beginner to the mastery of the more mature athletes, the volume and intensity of the training and the amount of special exercises are increased progressively.

  3. Principle of Individualization: One of the main requirements in training is individualization. It simply means that each athlete, regardless of his or her level of performance, must be treated individually according to his or her abilities, potential, capacity and specificity of the sport. The coach should plan the loads in training accordingly.

  4. Principle of Assimilation: The objective of this principle is to imitate, or simulate, a race condition. The goal here is to incorporate only those means of training which are identical to the nature of the race or event. Through this type of training the coach plans to direct and organize training sessions in a way that the objectives, methods, and content are similar to those of a race. The coach should be careful when planning this type of sessions. The coach must pay close attention to many important factors like the athlete's psychological and physiological potential, facilities, social environment and the like. These sessions are an important part of the training program especially when done during the competitive phase.

  5. Principle of Progressive Increased of Load in Training: The rate at which one improves his or her performance depends directly on the rate and manner of which the load is increased in training. Because the organism reacts physiologically and psychologically to the demand of the increased training load, this load in training has to be increased gradually, in accordance with each individual's abilities. This must be done from the initiation stage up to the stage of world-class athlete. This principle is the basis for all planning of athletic training and should be followed regardless of the athlete's level of performance.

  6. Principle of Periodization: Periodization simply means the process of dividing the training program into smaller phases. This will allow a program to be set into more manageable segments, allowing the coach to conduct his or her program in a systematic manner and to ensure a correct peaking for the main competition of the year. The training cycle is normally divided into three phases: basic preparation, specific preparation, and transition or recovery. During the training cycle, it is very important to alternate phases of stressful activities with periods of recovery and regeneration, during which the athletes are exposed to much less pressure.


  1. The Volume of Training: Total volume, duration, distance, and number of repetitions. Training volume is simply the amount of training done during a specific time period. The volume of training incorporates the following parts: a) the time or the duration of training; b) distance covered per training session; and c) the number of repetitions of an exercise. As an athlete improves his or her performance, the overall volume of training becomes more important. The ability, experience, and maturity of the athlete will determine the amount of volume per week the athlete can do. The training phases should include low mileage weeks to allow for recovery from the hard weeks of training. This can be done by running two to three weeks at high volume, high intensity followed by a low volume, low intensity week.

  2. The Intensity of Training: Load, and velocity. It refers to the quality of completed work performed in a given time period. The intensity of an exercise varies, and this variation is dependent on the specifics of the event. Since the level of training intensity varies, it is advisable to establish and use varying degrees of intensity. As my coach used to tell me "the human body is the greatest machine ever created", and as we know, the organism will adapt to the level of intensity by increasing physiological functions to meet the task at hand.

  3. The Density of Training: The frequency of performance. The time in between the working phase and the recovery phase is referred as the density of training, also called rest or recovery period. It is important to prescribe the adequate density between the working and recovery phases to prevent the athlete from going into a state of critical fatigue or exhaustion.


Systems challenged:

Anaerobic Capacity training:
Physiological adaptations are speed and strength, ST and FT fiber development, increased neurological recruitment, improved blood-buffering ability, tolerance to stress of acidosis.

Short interval repetitions: 30 seconds to 2 minutes

Training in this zone is very intense, and it can be done anywhere from 100% to 130% of VO2 max pace and at 95% or more of maximum (all-out) pace. Running at faster than VO2 max pace will improve the anaerobic capacity and develop a high tolerance for lactic acid. In anaerobic capacity training the distances covered are short, from about 200m to 800m, and are performed at a fast pace.

Aerobic Capacity training:

Physiological adaptations are speed, ST and FT fiber development, some increase in neurological recruitment, some increase in blood buffering ability, increased glycolytic enzymes.

Long interval: 2 minutes to 8 minutes

The maximum aerobic capabilities are challenged through the aerobic capacity training. The training paces during these sessions are similar to the pace run during race distances of 3K to half marathon. The longer runs will be more similar to half marathon or 10K race pace, and the shorter runs more similar to 5K or 3K race pace. The intensity is about 90% to 100% of VO2 max pace. Do to the fast running; the interval cannot be too long where it will create excessive fatigue. Running time for the interval should not exceed 6 to 9 minutes; with the pace being faster or slower depending upon time run and the recovery or rest should not be longer than the length of the run. Proper recovery or rest between running intervals is important to permit restoration of blood acidity to near resting levels. As fitness improves, the pace should not be increased beyond 100% VO2 max intensity because the main purpose here is to increase the aerobic capacity without going into the anaerobic component. Instead, the length of the running interval should be increased.

Anaerobic Conditioning:

Physiological adaptations are stamina, ST (slow twitch) and some FT (fast twitch) type IIa fiber development, increased heart chamber size, increased stroke volume, increased oxidative/glycolytic enzymes, and increased blood volume.

Tempo training: 8 minutes to 20 minutes - Up to 1 hour

The type of training in this zone is one of the toughest, and the reason is because the intensity of the run combine with the length can make it a very stressful workout. The most ideal pace for this training session is to run from just slower than marathon pace to a little beyond lactate/ ventilatory threshold pace. If the pace for the specific distance is to fast, and goes far beyond the lactate/ ventilatory threshold line, blood lactic acid will begin to accumulate at a fast rate. The increased lactic acid build-up will cause the athlete to slow down drastically or stop the workout completely. This being the reason why is important to carefully select the distance and running pace that is appropriate for the athlete. The goal here is to master a faster sustainable marathon pace.

Aerobic Conditioning:

The physiological adaptations are endurance, development of slow twitch fiber, increased blood volume, increased connective tissue development, increased muscle fuel storage, increased oxidative/ glycolytic enzymes, increased capillarization.

Over distance running: 20 minutes up to 2 hours and 30 minutes

Aerobic conditioning is also referred to as base work. This represents the greatest portion of a distance runner's training program and more time will be spent here. Training sessions consist of very high volumes of continuos, longer distance running at below race pace. The pace for these sessions should be run at 70% to 80% of the athlete's maximum heart rate. The intensity of the pace is low enough that the athletes can have a conversation while running. The main benefits from these sessions are greater endurance and an improvement in running economy. These benefits are the result of the increased blood volume and increased capillarization among other physiological adaptations.

The most important part of any training program is designing its detail to match the needs and abilities of each athlete. Once the coach understands and incorporates the basic principles and components of training, he or she will be ready to develop a successful training program regardless of the athlete's ability. The following training format will show the way I incorporate these factors just described above into my training program.

The following sample will describe the weekly format using the terminology, and then using numbers to described mileage and workouts.








Anaerobic Capacity

5K-10K Pace30-60 sec rest
Aerobic Conditioning

10 mi.

15 mi. Hills
Aerobic Capacity

4X3K @ Or 6X1mi.@10K Pace 2-3 min. rest

10 mi.

10 mi. Tempo Run MarathonPace

20 mi.

The above example shows how the training zones of performance are distributed during the week. This can be considered an overload week of training because it covers all the training zones and it is done during a peak mileage week.

The periodization includes two marathon plans a year. The plans are about six months each broken into mesocycles of 4 to 12 weeks. A mesocycle is then divided into weekly microcycles. Do to the demands of the high volume combined with the intensity during marathon training; it is very difficult to run more than two quality marathons a year. When athletes try to do it they face the risk of getting injured or suffer from over-training. Each of the plans contains three phases: regeneration or recovery, basic preparation, and specific preparation.

Training Phase Weeks Mi./Wk Type of Training
Regeneration 1-3


Active rest- Swimming- Biking- Walking- Easy running with progressive build-up.
Basic Preparation 1-4




Aerobic conditioning- progressive build-up, easy running- Emphasis is on endurance with long continuous runs to build a base.Anaerobic conditioning- implementation of Tempo Runs once a week to improve stamina.
Specific Preparation 1-2






Aerobic conditioning- Very long runs for endurance.Anaerobic conditioning- Tempo runs for stamina and strength.
Aerobic capacity- Long intervals for strength and pace work.Anaerobic capacity- Short intervals for speed and lactic acid tolerance.

Tapering starts about two weeks before the race. Plenty of rest, proper nutrition, and mental preparedness are the key elements during these final two weeks.
This is an example of a marathon plan for an elite runner

The regeneration or recovery phase is simply the period of time taken to recover from a major marathon. It takes about 6-8 weeks, and it is done with very little running or no running at all for the first couple of weeks. Activities such as walking, biking, or swimming can be performing during this time. It is important to pay attention to this phase because full recovery must take place before starting the next phase. After couple of weeks of recovery the athlete can start jogging and feel if the body is responding to the recovery. If the body is responding well, then the athlete can start plans for the next phase.

The next phase of the periodization is the basic preparation period. This phase consists of a progressive build-up from the recovery phase. The weekly mileage must be increase in a progressive manner to insure proper adaptation to training and avoid injuries. This phase should be about 8-10 weeks long, and if there was a successful recovery, the weekly mileage can start with about 50% of the athlete's maximum volume and increase up to where by the tenth week the athlete has reached 100% volume. Towards the end of this phase the athlete can start introducing anaerobic conditioning sessions like tempo runs once a week and increase the intensity of the runs progressively. Interval workouts can start but the emphasis should be on high volume, low intensity sessions with plenty of rest.

The specific preparation phase is when the training sessions are more specific for the task at hand. The length of this phase is about 10-12 weeks. At this point, the athlete has reached an optimal level of fitness and is ready for the heavy loads of specific training. During this period, some of the microcycles will be very demanding because they will include every training component discussed earlier. This will include three, sometimes four, hard sessions a week on top of the very high mileage. Also along with this, the runner must schedule competitions ranging from 10K up to half marathon distances. This will serve as test points to evaluate the training done and make changes if necessary. Rest is of extreme importance, as well as nutrition and other means of recovery like massaging therapy, because it will prevent over-training and will keep the athlete sharp and focus. During this phase every training session is carefully planned to meet the demands of the marathon; short speed for speed and lactate tolerance, long intervals for strength, tempo runs to build stamina, and very long runs to improve endurance and running economy.

Tapering simply means resting or cutting down on the work performed during the last two weeks before the marathon race. Tapering usually takes place about 10 to 14 days before the marathon race. It must be carefully planned to insure proper recovery from training. It is important to cut down the total training volume but long runs for strength and intensity sessions for sharpness should be included during this phase. The intensity sessions are to maintain cardiovascular and muscle stimulation. The training pace stays the same but the number of repetitions is less. Proper warm-up and cool-down before and after an intensity session is important. The following sample illustrates the tapering period for an elite runner but like it was explain before, the coach must understand that the principles and concepts used are relative to the capability and capacity of each individual athlete. The athlete should feel not only physically rested but also mentally fresh. During this period, mental preparation should take place as well.








10 miles 3x 1mile @
10k pace
10 miles 10 miles Tempo Run
12 miles @ Slower than marathon pace
10 miles 13 miles
10 miles Tempo Run
6 miles @ Marathon race pace
45 min. easy 45 min. easy
10 x Strides
No running
30 min. easy
10 x Strides
Marathon Race
Sample of a two-week tapering period for an elite runner

Success in the marathon depends greatly on the amount of training the athlete can perform during the training period. The higher the volume of training the athlete can handle, within reasonable means, together with the intensity required, the greater the results will be. The weekly training volumes must be determined depending on the ability and capabilities of the athlete. Regardless of the athlete's level of running, the volumes of training are relative to what the athlete is able to perform. When planning the weekly mileage, the coach must determine the maximum amount of miles the athlete can handle per week without getting injured. This maximum training volume is considered the 100% volume the athlete can do in a specific training cycle. The training phase is then composed of high mileage weeks for overload work combined with low mileage weeks for recovery. The recovery weeks can include days off with no running to ensure complete rest, not only physical but also psychological. The high volume weeks sometimes will include up to four hard training sessions, and this being the main reason why it is of extreme importance to include low mileage weeks to ensure adequate recovery. The chart below illustrates a format of the weekly mileage during the specific preparation phase for an elite runner.

This weekly mileage is in the specific preparation phase for an elite runner

Training for the marathon can be a long and strenuous process, but it is all relative to the time, effort, and expectations applied by the athlete. The number one factor when developing a training program is the goal established by the athlete. No matter what the level of the athlete is, it is possible to establish a training program that will allow the achievement of that goal. To develop a well-planned training program, the coach must be willing to research and learn the basic training components and training principles that will help the athlete succeed, and the athlete must trust and work closely with the coach to ensure proper communication channels. There is no secret formula to develop the perfect plan but, with a little knowledge from the coach and the hard work from the athlete, many goals can be achieve.

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