You have been accumulating mileage in your legs. You’re getting faster and faster, hitting PBs from 5k to the marathon. You’ve been using the same method of training that has been working pretty well so far, easy runs, track intervals once a week and the weekend LSD (Long Slow Distance = Running slow for a long long time). You’re dreaming of becoming a sub3, a BQ (Boston Qualifier) or any other specific time that would allow you to qualify to a particular event. But…
during every marathons recently, the wheels start to come off between 25k and 30k, and from 35k it is the survival mode. The clock is ticking down. You were on pace but now, your watch is faster than you. You feel powerless, your legs just can’t move any faster. Each step is becoming painful, yet, your speed is going down. The 2:59:59 is becoming merely a dream, now you just try to stay alive. You cross the finish line. All your friends congratulate you. “Omedeto! Great run ! Good job ! ” etc But…
Deep inside you, even though you’ve just run 42.2km and you’re smiling to your friends and family, your watch is showing 3:03:xx, a feeling of disappointment puts a shadow on your accomplishment. It is your third, fourth (maybe more) attempt and yet just like each time, you’re so close to be a sub 3 and like every single time, the wheels come off. Your 5k to HM time prediction chart line up with a sub 3 but… heck ! you just can’t do it every time !! why?
- Something has to change
If your time doesn’t improve, it probably means your training is not adequate. Ok I hear you “but I have increased my mileage, now I run 100k per week !”. It’s not only about mileage, it’s about stress adaptation. If you’ve been following the same pattern of training: easy runs during weekdays, one track session and one LSD on Sundays… over and over. Then it means you have adapted to this type of training and you need to increase the stress and training load and go to the next level as your current training is not challenging anymore, it is no longer training you. I’m not going to explain how to run a sub-3, that would be quite pretentious, but rather try to give you some guidelines.
- The Specificity principle
The body only knows what you’ve put it through. If you want to be good at “something”, you have to practice that “something” under similar conditions. Suppose you are a racing car pilot and on race day you need to drive at 220km/h. But during your training, all you did was to drive from home to your office at a max speed of 100km/h. Do you really think that you’ll be able to drive at 220km/h on race day just like that? just by magic? I doubt it. This is to illustrate the specificity principle. If you have to run at 4:15min/k pace for 42.2km, does a “Yamanote” run, or a LSD run at 5:15min/k pace (one minute slower !!) for 40k with tons of traffic lights is going to help you to reach a sub 3?? NO
I am not saying LSD is useless, I’m saying that if you can run 35k at 1min slower than your goal pace, if 35km for you is not difficult anymore, if the distance is not a problem… then something has to change. Getting your legs used to your target pace is crucial. If you don’t practice your goal pace, there won’t be any miracles. You cannot cheat the marathon. You can do as many LSD as you want, 200km per week of LSD, you will not run a sub-3, period !
You do LSD either if you’re a beginner (when distance is a real challenge) or if your race is far out (like more than 12 weeks out) and need to get back into distance and mileage. But if you’re a veteran runner, aspire truly to run a PB, and your race is in less than 8 weeks or so, STOP the LSD now.
“But I run on the track every Wednesday night, I do 6x1000m at 3:30 pace, I run fast on the track !!!”
Ok you can run fast on the track. So what? It is the specificity principle again. You can drive a car at 250km/h for 5min on a straight line, can you drive at 230km/h for 3 hours on a technical circuit? not so sure… When you run a Marathon, do you stop every 1k to take a 3min break? Do you even run at 3:30 pace if you’re aiming a 2:59:59? Not even close. Even though raw speed is very important and cannot be neglected, as your A-race is approaching, you should do less interval work and shift into more goal pace runs. Running 60 minutes @ 4:15 pace is different than running 6x1000m at 3:30…. very different. Your training should follow a Periodization principle. When you start your training block (say 16 weeks), you start with very general training, nothing specific. High base mileage, hill repeats, fast intervals, LSD etc… You do things that are at the extremities of the speed spectrum: long and slow, short and super fast. As race day approaches you will do more tempo work, less intervals, start some marathon pace runs, you are becoming more and more specific, you are trying to mimic race condition as much as possible. Then during say the final 8 weeks of your training block, you no longer do LSD. All of your long runs must have some goal pace in there. For example 20k easy + 10k at goal pace with no break and no traffic lights. If you cannot do that, chances are that you’re not ready. If it sounds daunting and you’re afraid of this type of long run, then stop dreaming about a sub-3. This is the biggest change I have made to go from a 3:06 marathon to a 2:48 (yes I did a 18min PB !) . I stopped doing LSD only, and did lots of runs at Marathon pace. I built up my long runs from 100% LSD to 26k at Marathon pace. If you want to race fast, you need to train fast.
- Take your time
Adaptation does not happen overnight. It takes weeks, months and even years if you’re near your potential. I ran Nagano Marathon back in April 2010 and finished in 3:06. I wanted to do a sub-3. Everything was ok until 26k, from there I would lose a few seconds every kilometer, the last 5k was torture and death march. When I crossed the finish line, I told myself “I will train very hard, I will not run any other marathon until I am sure I can run a sub-3, no matter how long the training takes, my 3rd marathon will be a sub-3”. It took me… 22 months. Almost two years with zero marathon, but it paid well, in February 2012 I ran Tokyo Marathon in 2:48. I ran even split.
My point is that your body needs time to change. It really needs a long time. You have to respect and listen to your body. You have to allow the time to adapt. If you race a marathon all-out too often (like every month), you will not let your body the chance to recover fully and to train at 100%. To progress and make a PB you need to train hard, at 110%. To train hard you need to be rested and healthy. To be healthy you cannot race a marathon every month. If you fall into this category, stop now. You need to build a proper training block. Not just one month, but ideally 16 weeks (4 months). In these 16 weeks you will periodize your training, let your body adapt to different kind of stress (mileage and intensity) and most importantly let your body recover from very hard workouts. After a marathon, you need at least 2 or 3 weeks of easy running. Then if your next marathon is already in 2 weeks, what can you do? nothing constructive.
In a nutshell
If your current training is working for you and you are still making progress, keep going. If not, you might want to consider changing things a bit and doing faster long runs. Your body adapts to the training you do but it needs time. It is not going to make the bridge between a LSD and a PB by just hoping something magic happens on race day. Allow yourself enough time to make a proper build-up, a good training block. Dedication, consistency and patience are keys, eventually it will pay off !
The secret in Iten is that, when you see everybody running a lot of mileage, 400 athletes on track, very fast long runs, and you discover this is the normal life of these champions, that are very normal persons, you start to think it’s possible running fast for you, too. The secret is to make in your mind possible what was not possible before. The secret is to make easy what was difficult, instead to make difficult what really is easy.