Coaching a first time marathoner

I opened the Whatsapp message which she’d sent after finishing. “Tbh the whole thing felt easy” it read. It had taken 4hr35 to run the cobbled streets of Rome and not only was it her first marathon, she only started training in November and never ran further than 17½ miles (28km). Yet reaching that distance on race day she opened the jets and picked up her pace, running the final kilometres quicker than a 4hr15 marathoner and throwing in a 5:37 kilometre to the finish line. That is not how most marathoners, especially at the slower end of the field get through their first marathon.

Last September my daughter asked me whether she had enough time to train for Rome marathon. I said “Yes” and wrote her a training plan. She responded by not following it and barely doing any running! After six weeks her biggest week had only covered 12miles and a longest run of 1hr16. It was not a great start. It was the arrival of a new flatmate, with whom she could go running, which kickstarted things; I rewrote the plan and from there on she trained diligently for 4½ months to experience a great marathon and finish in the top half of women finishers.

When she signed up, she was barely running, just thirty miles in the preceding six months. In the past she had done occasional morning runs, pushing all-out to achieve around a 27-min 5K, but this needed a different approach. The training plan I gave her built up to running five times per week and peaking at 35 miles and needing a commitment of up to six hours. Apart from when it was raining, I never heard any complaints or desire for training to be over. All in all, I’m really pleased that my coaching and her hard work resulted in a successful first marathon.

With so little running done prior to starting I knew there were some challenges regarding how to prioritise training. There were a number of things needing to be done.

– Get her used to do high volumes of weekly running – I wanted her to run five days per week and train for 5-6 hours. After all if you can’t run five hours in a week, how can you expect to run it in one race?

– There was the all-important question of how to train a slower runner for the distance on the day? As I wrote in The 20-mile myth beginners are wedded to the idea that because committed runners of the past always trained to reach twenty miles they have to as well. Yet the training benefits are highly questionable and I’ve met many of these slower runners whose marathon training becomes a slog because they spend consecutive cold, wet Sundays in February out for four hours or more. On race day they end up walking anyway and taking five hours.

My decision was I would train her by time and the longest run would be 3hr15. But some of these long runs were to be preceded by a run the day before. This would take the total time spent running on a weekend to four hours and closer to her expected race time. It would have to be enough.

– Ideally I wanted to improve her speed because that would then trickle down to her other paces. It’s obvious if you can run a faster easy pace then the long run will cover more ground.

– The last three weeks of training would be taken up by a taper. By necessity this would cut into the weeks available to make progress through training.

– The final factor to account for was the non-running parts of her life. We had Christmas and New Year coming up and currently being based in Italy she was going to do some travelling as well as university exams. I managed to accommodate these around the training with only a few things moved around.

Once training began properly we built the base in November and December. By New Year I was satisfied she could do 5+ hours running every week without injury or illness coming up. To this point, every run had been at an easy pace of 11 minute miles or slower. She didn’t particularly like it as she prefers going out quickly but did what was asked.

Her first two hour long run was reached at the start of December and we built on from there in small manageable chunks so that by mid-January, she was able to do her first three hour run. This was followed by three more runs of three hours including a 3hr15 run which was the longest at 17½ miles, or two-thirds of the marathon distance.

With the base built, I introduced faster midweek runs lasting up to an hour. Initially at a 10:30/mile pace, as the weeks went by the runs quickened up to be as fast as 9:30/mile. These steady runs continued up until the taper began.

In late January I took her to Christchurch 10K – her first official race. I wanted her to get an idea of what a race is like. How much standing around there is, what it’s like to run with other people. Given her best 5K was around 27 minutes, I expected her to run 57-58 minutes. I was amazed when she finished in under 55 minutes – an 8:45/mile pace which was much faster than anything she’d been training at. It was a great result and informed me of the paces required for the rest of her training. With two months to go to race day it was now all about building stamina and endurance for the big day.

On race day, she was aiming to break 4hr30. To keep it simple, I gave instructions to pace at 6:20/km which is running three kilometres every nineteen minutes – nice simple maths. This would bring her in for a time of 4hr27. From the 10K race I knew this was within her capabilities, probably even faster. She was accompanied by her flatmate and they paced themselves consistently except they used a phone to measure the distance rather than going with the race markers. Consequently they were running 10-15sec/km too slow and went through halfway on pace for a 4hr40 marathon. Soon after her flatmate’s leg began to hurt so they separated at 28km and my daughter sped up running to the end at the pace of a 4hr18 marathoner. Not bad considering she’d never run past 28km in training!! Her flatmate, reportedly a 38-min 10K runner but who hadn’t followed any of my training plan, limped home in over five hours.

Later another Whatsapp said “The whole time I could talk easily and the time went very quickly. At no point did it feel long”.

Not many first time marathoners have as an experience as good as this. It all comes down to well-structured training, putting in the miles and running at the right paces. The postrace Whatsapp stated “Didn’t feel hard. Harder training sessions”. And there’s no doubt she put together some good training sessions. Come marathon day, after the taper, it all came together.

The highest volume of training came in January and February where it was eight consecutive weeks averaging around six hours. The monthly mileage was September 10miles, October 30miles, November 76miles, December 109miles, January 132miles, February 133miles and March 81miles including the marathon. Those figures in the middle may sound big and they are, but when carefully built up to and interspersed with lots of easy miles they accumulate without wearing you down. That was a focus of my coaching to maintain motivation and never let it feel like it was becoming too much.

There is no way to run a decent, comfortable marathon without doing the training. I’ve tried and it didn’t go well. Equally it’s possible to do heaps of training and still run a poor one. What I offer to runners is the knowledge of how to structure training optimally to give them a good shot at success on race day.

If you would like me to coach you, either on an ongoing basis, for a specific race or simply to have a one-off training review where I make recommendations on how you can improve your training then please Contact me for a no obligation look at whether I can help you.