Among marathon first-timers, a common and faulty belief is that distance and training volume is key. While it’s true to say that you need to do the miles, there are better ways to prepare for a marathon than just obsessing about adding distance every time you head out the door.
The danger of focusing purely on training volume is that you risk compromising the effectiveness of your exercise session. And the next step can take you into the dangerous territory of overtraining, when you prioritise quantity of training
over quality. The result can be demoralising – the more you do, the less you feel you’re making progress – and physically damaging your body.
It’s important to remember that, while training sessions are when you challenge your body and push the boundaries of your capabilities, it’s the period following those training sessions when your body grows fitter and stronger, as it adapts to the workload. Overtraining can rob you of the opportunity for this adaptive progress to take place.
As well as a feeling that your progress has slowed or halted, or, much worse, that you’re going backwards, the symptoms of overtraining include general fatigue, a loss of motivation to exercise and an increased susceptibility to colds, injuries,
aches and pains. Overall, what you’ll notice is impaired performance during training and a reduced ability to repair and recover between training sessions.
The easiest way to avoid overtraining is to follow a structured training plan – devised by yourself or an expert – and to keep a diary of training notes so that you can regularly monitor the results of that plan. Some people argue that the symptoms of overtraining emerge following too many long runs or taking on regular tough sessions back to back, with little recovery time in-between, but this pattern of training need not necessarily have negative consequences.
Indeed, training at a high volume or intensity can be a great way to improve your ability in a relatively short space of time. The most important thing is to keep sight of the fact that your recovery time should be directly related to your training workload. If you are planning to push yourself hard in training, make sure you plan at least two recovery days per week, and more if your regular progress review suggests that your body needs additional recovery time following a challenging training period.
Be realistic about the time it will take you to prepare for a marathon. When selecting your training plan, be honest about your running ability, allow yourself plenty of time to increase your mileage and do the necessary cross training, strength training and flexibility work that will keep you on the road. Then add a few weeks as a contingency for unforeseen work and/or family commitments that may get in the way of your training, or for time off required by any minor illnesses or niggles along the way. Provided you make this time, you’ll be able to offset some heavier training weeks with some lighter periods, and the variety in your weekly workload will ensure that you are able to take big steps forward with your running progress and still have time to recover properly.
Every session in your plan should have a structure and a specific purpose. If you take this approach, you won’t waste time on unnecessary extra training sessions or running for the sake of it and logging what are known as “junk miles” – when, owing to a lack of planning, you end up heading out yet again with no clear purpose. If you don’t know why you’re out there – hill session, interval session, a tempo run or easy jog – you may well be wasting an opportunity to rest.