Writing your marathon training programme

I’ve been meaning to write this blog for ages, but just haven’t had the time. That’s ironic, because this is about making time to train; more specifically, structuring your running training programme toward the ultimate goal – race day. In this case, race day is going to be a marathon, because that’s what I’m looking towards, with my goal specifically being the Brighton Marathon and a sub three-hour run.

Whilst all runners run, all runners also run differently – and for different reasons! Because of this, the emphasis we put on our plans and the time we invest will vary immensely. That’s why I’ve come up with a load of questions for you to consider when writing your plan. Before I do that, though, here are some important pointers…

  • Work backwards
    Start on race day and count backwards in weeks. It may seem intuitive to start with week one, but trust me – backwards is easier.
  • Put in your races before your training runs
    Most marathon runners will have strategic races placed in their schedule as mini goals and ways of gauging progress. Put these in before all other runs, as you will then need to surround them by taper time and recovery time.
  • Have ‘easy’ weeks every 4-8 weeks
    This is where you can decrease the load and pressure on your body and your mind. It doesn’t mean have a week off, it means run less and don’t hammer yourself so much. Take that time to let your body recover.
  • Put in regular assessments
    Every few weeks, put in some sort of test to check your progress – to make sure you are getting fitter, stronger and faster. These could be a 10k time trial, for instance, or my favourite – a one hour time trial, which measures how far you can go in one hour. You’d hope it’d increase every time you do it.
  • Don’t run hard the day after your long run
    As time progresses, your long runs will get longer and your need for recovery time will become greater. The day after your long run (typically a Sunday) should be spent either not running, or doing a gentle recovery run. Focus the day after a long run on rehabilitation – stretching, movement and muscular development.


OK so on to the structuring of the plan. The best way to think about it, is to ask yourself a bunch of questions. The answers to these questions will form the basis of your training programme…

  • How much time can you invest in this process?
    When people start out, they’re over enthusiastic and assume they will be able to dedicate their lives to the marathon. Be realistic and be conservative. How many runs do you really want to do per week? You can get by on 2 (it won’t be pretty), or you can do nine (get a life!). Anywhere in between those figures is fine, with an average number being 3 or 4 depending on goals)
  •  What else do I want to do
    Some people just run. That’s all they do in their training – run. Those people are now becoming few and far between as people realise the benefits of strength and conditioning, cross training and flexibility work. The more you do, the busier your training schedule, of course.
  •  What is the goal?
    For some, it’s just finishing. For others, it’s a time. There are then the people who want to run the whole thing (harder than you think). If you’re a finisher, your training perhaps doesn’t have to be so structured and regular assessments and measurements aren’t as important. For time-chasers, though, it’s different. Those people need to consider the speed of their intervals or the time taken to cover each mile in their long run or threshold run. Those people should do quite intricate maths and make sure their sessions represent these goals. For instance, as someone gunning for a sub-3 marathon, I recently ran 10 miles, split into 3x5km efforts, with a 1km cool down. First 5k = tempo at 21 minutes. Second 5k = steady at 23 minutes. Final 5km = progress (each km quicker than the last) at 18.50.
  •  What sort of structure do I need?
    If you’re designing your own plan, you have two options with your structure. The first is to have it totally prescribed, with Monday to Friday covered. This requires a lot of foresight and suits people who have very structured lives. The other option is to simply have a list of sessions to cover each week, and to tick them off/cross them out as you do them each week.Similarly, people always consider their long runs to be in miles. Consider ‘time on feet’. This is where you prescribe a certain amount of time to be spent on your feet traveling at any speed – it really doesn’t matter. All you’re interested in here is enjoying moving and to mimic the stress of being upright for long periods of time.
  • How much recovery time do I need
    Everyone is different in how much recovery time they need. Some people can run hard sessions 3, 4 or 5 times per week. Others need time to get over it. If you have a history of injuries, consider plenty of rest – especially in the days after hard or long sessions.
  • How will I make sure I progress?
    The tough thing about training programmes is that generally speaking – especially with marathons – you need to invest more time into running as you get closer to race day. This accounts for increased mileage, which is usually taken up by the long run. However, you also need to consider, as you get fitter, pushing harder, for longer.There are always variables in your sessions and you need to consider how these will affect your progress. You may decide, for example, to make your intervals longer. You may progress from running 10x800m with 1minute rest between runs to running 10×1,000m with a minute’s rest. Conversely, you may decide to do more reps (going up to 12x800m, for example), or to reduce the rest between reps from one minute to 30seconds. Each has its benefits.There are variables associated with all your runs – threshold, tempo, time trial, pyramids, hills, fartlek, the lot. All need to get harder.
  • Now it’s written, is it realistic?
    Constantly assess your plan. Don’t write a 20 week programme and expect it to stay the same throughout. You need to regularly make changes to reflect problems in your training or unexpected progress. If you’ve gotten faster, change your goal and session structure. If you’ve been injured, account for changes that are needed to slow down progress and allow for rehabilitation time. It’s not like your session is written, signed off and set in stone. They’re dynamic and if done properly, will evolve over time.

 The next thing to do is to share it. Be accountable and tell people what you’re doing. If you need to be motivated, ask mates to check up on you (in a nice way, of course!). Write blogs, discuss your training progress and you’ll find that you’re more likely to get out there and pound the pavements.

Writing a training plan is not rocket science, but it is an art form. There’s no right or wrong way, but there are a great number of considerations. There are hundreds and hundreds of great free programmes out there, but they don’t take your life into consideration. If you have the money, talk to a coach or personal trainer (make sure they specialise in running!) about working together.

If you’d like pointing towards some places where you can download great free tools and templates, just shout. I also offer bespoke running training programmes for people who would like support.


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