Marathon Training Mistakes – Too Many Tune-up Races
The marathon is unlike any other race distance. To run to your potential, you need to ensure that your training plan is focused on the specific demands of the 26.2 mile distance, which includes elements such as fuel conservation and time on your feet. Attempting to accomplish too many secondary goals during your training segment, like racing too frequently, causes you to lose focus on these specific demands and limits your ability to maximize potential on race day.
The most frequent marathon training mistake
To illustrate how these discussions often proceed, I am going to highlight a conversation I recently had with a new runner named “Joe”:
Joe Runner: “I want more than anything to qualify for Boston at my next marathon. I am only 8 minutes away from the qualifying time”.
Me: “Great. We have four months to train and looking at the weaknesses in your prior training plan, I can definitely see 8 minutes of improvement.”
Joe: “Wow, I am excited! I also want to do two half marathons and shoot for a PR, two local 5k’s to beat my local rival, a 48 hour relay race, and pace my friend through his first marathon”
Me: “Whoa, wait, what? To drop 8 minutes from your marathon PR, we need to do everything right in this training block. Where are the long runs supposed to go? When can we do any marathon specific workouts if you’re always racing?”
Unfortunately, to run really well at the marathon, the required training is drastically different from any other commonly run distance, even the half marathon, and it necessitates a singular focus that is often detrimental to your short-term performance at shorter races.
Running well and enjoying your training is a delicate balance and, just like your available time during the day, you can’t add one thing without losing some from the other. That is to say that you have numerous racing opportunities in a marathon training segment. The more you choose to race or to participate in events that distract from your training, the less likely you are to succeed.
Running can be a cruel sport and if you’re looking to make a huge jump in your PR, or you’ve already made the jump and are looking to eek out that extra 5% in your fitness, you can’t afford to train less than perfect.
Why marathon training is not conducive to PR’s at shorter distances
In the marathon, the primary focus of training is developing your aerobic threshold (the fastest pace you can run while staying aerobic, which is often associated with marathon pace), increasing muscular endurance (how long you can run without your legs falling apart), and fuel efficiency (how efficient you can be at burning fat instead of carbohydrates while running at goal marathon pace). In no other race distance are these three training adaptations required to such an extent.
Furthermore, to accomplish many of the aforementioned training adaptations, you need to practice running on tired legs or with low energy levels. This philosophy is often called “accumulated fatigue“. Basically, this means that the fatigue from one workout to another accumulates and transfers from one workout to the next. In essence, you’re always starting your next workout or long run a little tired from your previous training.
While this can make for a weary marathon runner during training, it’s one of the best ways to train specifically for the last half of the race. To run well from miles 20 to 26.2, you need practice running when tired and when low on fuel.
Consequently, it’s very difficult to race well at other distances when training appropriately for the marathon. If you try to taper or reduce mileage to prepare for too many races in your training segment, you risk not preparing your best for the marathon itself. Likewise, if you remain steadfast to your marathon training, you’ll be too tired to record PR’s at shorter distances, unless of course you have outdated PR’s.
Understandably, you may begin to worry or doubt your training if your tune-up half marathon or your local 5k race didn’t produce a PR, even though you’re training at your very best. This is a common feeling, but more often than not, strong performances at 5k or 10k races during the specific portion of marathon training can indicate that your marathon training isn’t specific enough. If you’re training correctly for the marathon, you should be training and racing on tired legs and therefore not able to perform to your very best at tune-up races.
What you can do to avoid this mistake
It’s important to prioritize goals in your marathon training and understand the benefits, consequences, and philosophy behind your training plan. If you’re looking to maximize your potential at the marathon, choose only one or two tune-up races and make sure to understand where and how they fit in the context of your training.
Use tune-up races to practice pacing, taking in fluid and gels, and to get accustomed to racing. Don’t underestimate the accumulated fatigue of training and make sure to put your tune-up race time in perspective. Marathon training can be a weary 2 months with many highs and lows. Maintain your focus and stick with your plan for the best results.
If you’ve got questions on how to avoid this mistake in your training, leave a comment and we’ll answer all your questions.