It happens every year, but somehow it always takes us by surprise. The long days of summer are over and fall is suddenly right around the corner. Fall is prime marathon season for many runners and early online registration allows us to commit to these races months in advance.
But the marathon that sounded like a good idea three months ago is fast approaching and between obligations and vacations, maybe your summer training didn’t go exactly as planned.
So what should you do?
If you are battling a significant injury or planning your first marathon, condensing your training into a short window of time is not recommended. If you have already paid your entry fee, defer until next year if you’re able, or select a new race that gives you at least 16-20 weeks of quality training.
But if you’re uninjured and reasonably fit (and this isn’t your first attempt at 26.2), you may still be able to make it to both the start and finish line of your fall marathon.
Below are four simple steps to help you make your event a success on limited time.
1. Revisit Your Goal & Set Your Priorities
Before you get any further into your training, you first need to revisit your goal. Did you originally have a time goal in mind? Or were you hoping for a Boston qualifier? It’s important to be realistic from the beginning. If you haven’t been following a training plan or doing all of the workouts to put you in position to reach your goal, it probably makes sense to re-evaluate a bit.
When you haven’t trained as thoroughly as intended, finishing healthy and happy can become an ideal goal. Make it a priority to enjoy the race, take in the sights, or run with a slower training partner. Setting realistic goals will make for a much more enjoyable experience and achieving success by those standards should motivate you to train thoroughly for your next race cycle.
Once you have re-established your goal, it’s time to set your priorities for the training time you have left. Above all else, don’t try to cram in too many miles, long runs or hard workouts. You can’t make up missed time and overtraining will probably lead to injury. It’s essential to stay healthy and injury-free in the weeks that remain.
If travel and schedule inconsistencies made summer training a challenge, now is the time to make it a priority. Put your training runs on your calendar and commit. Make sure your long runs become non-negotiable, as they are the most essential part of your training.
Overall, your training schedule should prioritize your long runs and easy miles, not speed sessions.
2. Run Long
In an ideal marathon training plan, your long runs will gradually build up to 20 or even 22 miles for more advanced runners. These might include miles at goal marathon pace if you have a specific time goal in mind.
But all of these ideals will need to be adjusted depending on where your training is starting from. When time is limited, always focus on increasing your distance before adding in faster paced miles.
Be careful not to make too big a jump in your weekly mileage. If you only got in about 15-20 miles per week over the summer, doubling that from one week to the next will likely cause trouble. If you have only been running 3-4 days each week, try to gradually add in another day of training to help increase your overall mileage.
Focus on increasing the mileage of your long runs while maintaining or very gradually lengthening your easy runs. Plan to increase your long runs by 1-2 miles each week (depending on how much time you have left to train) and schedule in at least one cutback week if time allows. Use all of your long runs as an opportunity to practice your fueling and hydration strategy.
3. Run (Mostly) Easy
Specificity is an important concept in any training plan. This means that your training should be specific to your upcoming race, especially in the final weeks before your taper.
Because of this, easy, endurance-focused runs should make up the bulk of your miles. Speed work is not a priority if you’re training for a marathon on a tight time schedule.
These workouts might have a place in a lengthier training plan or if you’re training for a short, fast race, but they are not as specific to the marathon. They also increase your risk of injury, so it’s best to avoid most hard efforts and instead focus on staying healthy with plenty of strength workouts.
But if you have previous experience with tempo runs and marathon pace runs, these can add some variety to your training plan. Running strides at the end of an easy or long run are also acceptable (and encouraged!).
A marathon will always be an aerobic effort—not anaerobic—so you want to train the system that will do the 99 percent of the work on race day—aside from that sprint across the finish line, of course!
4. Taper Efficiently
It may seem counterintuitive, but even runners on a compact training schedule need to include a taper period prior to race day. The longest run of your training cycle should come two or three weeks before race day. Two weeks out from the marathon, reduce your weekly mileage to about two-thirds of what it was during your highest week. Then decrease that by another third in the week leading up to the race. For example, if you maxed out at 45 miles per week, decrease to about 30 miles about two weeks out, then run about 15 miles total over the six days before race day.
Throughout your taper, pay attention to the “extras” like sleep and nutrition so you give yourself every possible benefit of getting to the starting line strong and healthy. Be sure to adjust your race expectations for unusually challenging weather conditions, especially heat and humidity.
Before you know it, your 26.2-mile adventure will be underway. Run smart, enjoy the experience, and know that crossing the finish line will become the starting point for your next marathon journey!