So, most of the folks who read this stuff know I'm still barely 5,000-meter road racing fit; my high-end training distance is in the 6-to-8-mile range, four-to-five times a week...with a dash of repeats at threshold (for now) thrown in for good measure. I didn't suspect it would be an issue at the beginning of the summer when I started laying out a plan for Angela, but who knew iliotibial band issues and strained hamstrings were going to happen?
Not this old guy, let me tell you.
Top the typical marathon training "embrace of the suck" with several months of physical and mental obstacles on her part, and you had a gal who was definitely long overdue for a really good day. This particular run was going to be the acid test - run well; I'd stay the course of training for the full. A bad day would mean recommending she drop to the half...live to fight another day.
I pulled my bicycle out of the car with expectation of a perfect training morning. We had scheduled two and a half hours to run up to 16 miles, taking a familiar and well-shaded out-and-back path.
Angela's first three miles had me a little concerned for what the next two hours were going to be like. The worst possible thing a coach can endure is watching an athlete who's proverbial "wheels" have fallen off. In that particular case, it's all about the coach. I've been the "wheel-less one" on a couple of occasions, usually solo; all you want to do after a solo run of several hours which goes south more closely resembles a well-oiled temper tantrum.
Or suicidal ideation.
Throughout the run I kept a close eye. After the turn-around point I asked the question, "How you feelin'?" I was enthused to hear Angela say she was having the first really good day since we started the marathon training. She then told me she wanted to modify her training plan for the next four weekends leading to the marathon, specifically to do 18, 20 and 22-milers over the next three weeks. I had a ten, another 2:30, an eight and another ten penciled in.
Sure, she needed to increase the training volume
Rather than immediately agree, I felt it was time to ask whether she had enough mileage in during the week. Three miles here, four miles there, another five miles there...and the long run? Yes, there's a need for more mileage, but it surely does not need to be part of a single run on the weekend. Wise men and coachly rules of thumb advise runners to make the long run no more than 25 percent of their weekly training volume. So why is it that the training plans used by most recreational marathoners will have a long run which approaches one half of the week's training distance?
To paraphrase the tail end of a radio message sent by a hapless radioman serving in the World War II-era fleet of Admiral William "Bull" Halsey..."the world wonders."
Well, this coach does, to say the least.
I get it; the first reaction of most runners is to add mileage to the long run on the weekend - whether that be on Saturday or Sunday - because that's where the "spare" time is. However, the concept flies in the face of physiological truths, namely the 2.5 hour tipping point. Physiologists and researchers, the guys with initials after their names, with names like Daniels, Costill, and Noakes, just to name a few. They found that the runner is more likely to do ill than good to themselves with a run lasting longer than 150 minutes.
Look at the overwhelming majority of training plans, with very few exceptions, and it's a guarantee the long training run is based on DISTANCE rather than time. So why twenty miles? And more?
My first reaction was to think that the coaches writing the plans followed the guidance of Hippocrates of Cos...that's the first doctor, the guy who said "first, do no harm." Considering that the most notable of training plans was written in the early 1980s, when at least half of male marathon participants ran 8:00/mile pace or faster, it's possible the 150-minute window of effect was still considered. But that would mean that as the marathon distance became more democratic, as evidenced by Running USA's yearly State of the Sport data, the median finishing times slowed by almost two minutes per mile over the course of last quarter century...which could represent the de-evolution of marathoning, or at least a failure of training plan writers to be aware of the zeitgeist.
The second possible reason is that the writer needed to find a nice round number which to recommend as the upper limit. To account for individual differences would make things a little bit, er, entertaining. You think I'm kidding? When one looks at training plans written for runners who live in the world of meters, liters and grams the longest run is 30 kilometers.
That's 18.65 miles for us English-measuring folk.
The runner who feels a need to tack-on mileage usually does it more for the benefit of the mind than of the body. While it's a given the marathoner in training is eventually going to have to do the entire distance, it's not necessary to risk injury or excessive fatigue by lots of training runs which go longer than 2.5 hours. Add-ons of up-to-five miles can be safely done the afternoon before a long run, or the afternoon after. What the runner loses in raw endurance they'll make up for in a different form, specifically the ability to run on legs that have accumulated fatigue.
Personally, I'd rather see an athlete accumulate fatigue over the course of several weekdays, topped off by a decent-length run at the weekend. Big runs on the weekend, with little training mileage during the week, place too much physical and emotional stress on the runner. One bad weekend run can do more damage to the runner's mental state than a series of hard runs during the weekday ever could.