Which Marathon Training Option Suits You?


If you have ever trained for a marathon or know someone else who has, you probably understand the difficulty of the process. With many facets to consider, from the length of workouts to the possible risk of injury, seven running coaches offer their opinions on three issues frequently discussed by marathoners: the significance (or lack thereof) of running 20 milers while training, the impact of competing in races prior to marathons and whether or not high mileage during training will help you on race day.

Beginners – Are 20 milers actually efficient?

Novice marathoners need to run a 20 miler (or higher) as they train.

“It is only natural that new marathoners worry whether they can actually run 26.2 miles,” Greg McMillan, owner of McMillan Running, says. “Physiologically, they may not need to run a 20 miler to prepare for a marathon. Yet, psychologically, beginners often aspire to reach that milestone while training, so they are more confident they can cross the finish line on race day.”

While a runner may have the ability to complete a marathon without running a 20 miler, the distance does help a runner’s body learn how to handle the distance.

“One of the most challenging aspects of marathons is the amount of time runners spend on their feet and the toll its takes on their bodies,” Cristina Burack, a former Chicago Endurance Sports running coach, says. “Even if beginners run regularly, only long runs of 20 miles or more can simulate actual marathons and prepare them for the physical challenges they’ll encounter on race day.”

Together, the psychological and physical benefits of including a 20 miler during training can yield positive rewards for runners.

“Twenty milers really serve two purposes,” Chicago Endurance Sports running coach Lori McGee Koch says. “Not only do they help marathoners mentally handle the distance, but they also train their bodies to efficiently use energy while running longer distances.”

Beginners’ performances will not be affected if they don’t run a 20 miler.

For Seth Kopf, a USTAF certified running coach and the owner of Kopf Running, the risks of running 20 milers prior to race day outweigh the rewards, especially for beginners.

“The longer the distance, the more prone beginners are to be injured, and injuries are the number one reason beginners do not achieve their training goals,” he says.

Kopf believes beginners should be realistic. If they average 10 minutes per mile, they will need more than three hours to complete a 20-mile training run: a considerable amount of time.

“At this rate, runners’ muscles will likely break down, potentially jeopardizing whichever marathon-specific workouts they had planned for the future, and, even worse, could result in their withdrawal from the marathon,” Kopf says.

Michael Schaffner, a Chicago Endurance Sports running coach, agrees.

“Far too often, beginners perceive marathon training as a series of long runs, when, in reality, day-to-day training lays a foundation that allows their bodies to continually build strength and endurance over the course of the marathon season,” he says. “I have seen too many people hobble toward the end of their 20 miler just to see the number appear on their Garmin, resulting in injuries as well as a lack of confidence. Since marathon training is the sum of its parts and is not reliant on a single long run, cutting mileage is a better option.”

Intermediate Marathoners – To race or not to race while training for marathons – that is the question.

As intermediate marathoners train, they should run races, even during taper, to test their fitness levels.

At minimum, local running coach Bill Leach advises intermediate runners to race one to two times per month with distances ranging from 5Ks to 10Ks as they train for their marathons.

“These races should be perceived as training runs, as well as a contrast to the mundane daily grind of training, which may not include intermittent races,” he says.

Megan Sullivan, training program manager for the Chicago Area Runners Association, notes that racing provides social benefits that can help enhance marathon training.

“Running is a social sport and I think marathoners miss out if they don’t participate in any races while they train,” she says. “Plus, it’s fun to get out there and test your fitness in an organized fashion. Races are true indicators of where marathoners are at with their fitness.”

By gauging their fitness levels as they train, intermediate runners can predict their marathon times, establish realistic goals for their actual race days and adjust their training paces accordingly.

Marathoners can race during taper as well to test their fitness level, but Schaffner advises them to use caution, taking it easy, staying safe and focusing on their overall goal of the marathon rather than the race at hand.

Intermediate marathoners should save their legs for the marathon.

“Let’s face it. Marathon training is hard, mentally and physically,” McMillan says. “By participating in too many races while training, marathoners may become distracted from their overall goal: the marathon itself. And if a race doesn’t go well, they may even lose confidence in themselves. Not to mention, racing may put too much strain on their legs, especially if they are injury-prone. It’s just too much to risk.”

Koch says that races can have a negative influence on a runner’s body that could jeopardize their marathon, particularly due to the fact that marathon training wears down their bodies.

“Since marathoners’ immune, cellular, and skeletal systems will likely be comprised, it can take one to two weeks for them to recover from a race,” she says. “That recovery time may dramatically change the quality of their training methods and hinder their progress.”

Instead of participating in races, marathoners can increase their fitness levels by working out in the gym. They should also take time to relax, recharge and focus on other aspects of their lives aside from running.

“I often prescribe what I call ‘snow days’ for my runners,” Kopf says. “Similar to when school is cancelled because of snow, training ‘snow days’ require runners to step away from training and recover mentally and physically. By doing so, runners can save their legs and come back stronger so that they peak just in time for their marathons.”

Advanced Marathoners – Is high mileage appropriate?

Advanced marathoners have to run high mileage to become faster and more competitive.

As McMillan helps advanced runners prepare for marathons, he focuses on one premise in particular: the more they run, the faster they will race.

“Frequent, consistent running will provide them an opportunity to achieve optimal performance on their race days,” McMillan says. “As a result of higher mileage, when completed safely and wisely, I have personally witnessed an improvement in all of the physiological and psychological parameters that influence runners’ performances.”

Koch says a consistent mileage increase builds the foundation of every successful marathon training program. However, to succeed long term and avoid injury, advanced marathoners must know how to up their mileage properly.

“A good rule of thumb is to participate in one tempo run, one high- to mid-intensity speed workout and then one longer run,” she says. “In between those runs, marathoners should only participate in easy paced runs.”

As a result, advanced marathoners will maximize their recovery times, increase their self-confidence as their mileage consistently rises and maintain their focus on long term progress.

Advanced marathoners can increase their speed with lower mileage.

As mileage increases, so does the risk of injury. To reduce this risk, Kopf advises advanced marathoners to find their “sweet spots” in training.

“By focusing more on the quality of their mileage rather than the quantity, marathoners can become faster without even having to increase their mileage,” Kopf says. “The key is for them to understand which mileage baseline they are the most comfortable with.”

Rather than obsessing over mileage, Kopf suggests runners figure out what works best for them. If they stay healthier on lower mileage, they’ll have the ability to train hard to attain their goal of increasing speed without risking overuse injury.

By establishing a mileage baseline and remembering that the quality of their runs matters more than the quantity, advanced marathoners will steadily improve their endurance and speed, reduce their risk for injuries and adequately prepare for upcoming marathons.