If you are thinking about a spring marathon or have already signed up, then the next question you need to answer is when to start training. Given that training over the winter means grinding through some of the nastiest weather mother nature has to offer, and proper marathon training takes time, when to start training is critically important.
The answer, like many in running, is “it depends”. In order to be properly prepared to truly race a marathon, it’s not just about what you’ve done in that particular training segment. It’s about the cumulative effect of all the training you’ve done over the last year and really, over your whole running life.
The more cumulative miles you have on your legs, the quicker you can typically get yourself into shape. Those miles are always there…and that’s a good thing. Of course, you don’t want to get too fit too quickly and be in “hanging on” mode when race day rolls around. I’ve found 8 to 12 weeks is just about perfect for the experienced runner. Again, assuming you are starting with a good bit of general fitness, you can get up to 16 to 20 miles for your long run fairly quickly. Not only can you cover that distance, but those runs can be quality as well. After 4 to 6 quality long runs and about a half dozen other marathon-specific workouts, the experienced runner is usually feeling pretty darn good. When it comes to racing I like to strike while the iron is hot, not wait until it’s lukewarm.
For the less experienced runner, or for someone starting from scratch after a long layoff, it is going to take a while to safely get up toward that 16 to 20 mile long run. I’ve written training schedules where I have the athlete move up just one mile per week on the long run. Do the math. When your first long run is 6 miles, it’s going to take a while! Plus, it’s not just about the long run. The hard workouts, where you’re teaching the body to run and become comfortable at different paces that are often times much faster than race pace, take a while to get used to as well. The body needs time to absorb these workouts and adapt to the extra stress. It’s been my experience that 20 to 24 weeks ends up being a good time frame for this type of runner to become totally ready for a marathon in all phases.
Obviously, your exact starting date is relative to your exact race date. To get your best start date simply put it on your planning calendar and work backwards. For a quick example I’ll use the granddaddy of all spring marathons, the Boston Marathon. A 12-week segment for Boston, which is on April 20 next year, would begin on January 25, 2015.
Best of luck to anyone reading this as you get ready for your spring marathon. And if you do have to deal with a cold winter just remember it will only be that much sweeter when the temps begin to thaw, the flowers begin to bloom and you begin to taper.