When you look at our schedules in either Hansons Marathon Method or Half Marathon Method, the schedules are 18 weeks. Looking at other schedules, I’ve seen anything from 18 through 32 weeks! I personally have schedules that range from 12 to 20 weeks for our longer race distances. Why the big variations across programs? Well, there’s a lot of reasoning and the answer will probably change as you grow as a runner. With this I hope to describe to you some of the reasoning, but why having a training program that’s too long is just as detrimental of having one that is too short.
How long does it take to adapt to training?
I knew you were going to ask that! The extremely general answer would be that the newer you are to running, the faster the improvements occur. Like with most things in life, our learning curves are steep and running is no different.
How fast you adapt to training
First off, let’s approach the questions regarding the schedules in the book. The primary differences between the beginner and the advanced schedule and the beginner schedule in the book is the first few weeks. In the beginner program we don’t do any Something of Substance (SOS) days for the first few weeks. With the Advanced schedule, we jump right into SOS days after the first week. We know that it takes 4-6 weeks to fully adapt to a training stress. When I say training stress, I am referring to one of the variables of FITT.
F- Frequency (How often we are exercising)
I- Intensity (The intensity of exercise)
T- Time (The amount of time we are exercising per session)
T- Type (The type of exercise we are engaging in)
In general we know three things about training adaptation. The first is that it is individual, so we either have to work directly with each individual athlete or make some generalizations. The second is that the first generalization is that it takes roughly 10 days to experience full benefit from a single workout. This in general, as things like neuromuscular aspects of training can be experienced in a couple days, but that’s for another day. Finally, we know that in general it takes 4-6 weeks of exposure to a specific training stress to maximize the effect of that training stress.
For the Beginner plan we are making several of assumptions at the start. These are that 1) you are running low mileage 2) Are running less than 6 days per week, 3) That you aren’t running very long per session, and 4) that you aren’t running any workouts. As we look back at FITT, we see that our assumptions involve three of the four variables in increasing fitness. Gaining fitness through training adaptation is a balance between stress and recovery. Let’s say you are attempting to start a beginning plan and are just running easy a few days per week.
For most people, that is a recipe for injury and/or overtraining.
You start the program and it calls for 5 days per week with a long run and a workout (or two) in the first week. If we were to do that, we have now altered three current variables in your training. For most people, that is a recipe for injury and/or overtraining. Making it through a training program of this nature typically ends up being more about survival than gaining fitness.
Now, if you look at our schedule with the same person, we are still adding a new stress, but we limit it to frequency and time. The intensity is left the same and the type of exercise is really a controlled variable for us. By taking that one variable away (for now), provides the beginner to establish a base fitness over the next month and in all actuality, improve their base fitness. Then from there, they have established the foundation to take the next step in training.
Now, what does this have to do with how fast we adapt to training? For the beginner, fitness will actually come pretty fast in terms of physiological fitness- VO2max, endurance, etc will all increase rapidly. Where we typically have problems is structural, like with bones and tendons. Think of it this way, when you started running (or someone you know), what was the first real thing they complained about hurting? Chances are, it was shin splints, or knee pain. It wasn’t that their lung capacity stopped them from exercise. Or another way to look at it, why not focus first on the two variables that beginners will get most bang from your buck from? Focus on foundation first and the rest comes easier. So, by focusing on these variables first (frequency and time), we set the stage for the body to gain fitness without breaking down and setting the stage for other adaptations to take place.
So, as you look at the beginner training plan, you essentially have 4 weeks of building base, fitness, followed by about 6 weeks of speed, then 6 weeks of strength, wrapped up with a roughly 2 week taper. Now, does that mean you will maximize your fitness in 18 weeks? Absolutely not. We will maximize your current fitness level. Also, looking at it from a practical standpoint, putting your emphasis on one goal race for 4 ½ months is an awful long time. In short, 18 weeks is a good blend of science and practicality to for a marathon training segment.
I should note one last thing about the FITT principle. If you exercise three days a week, you will certainly gain fitness across a period time. Now, if you can safely exercise five times per week, you certainly make those same gains in a shorter amount of time. That’s why you will see some variations in plans, because at some point we are assuming that gains in fitness will take longer to come by if the exposure to the training stress is less.
For the advanced marathon plan there are also some assumptions to be made. The first is that you have experience in the marathon. Secondly, you have been running consistently leading up to the beginning of the plan. Third, that your mileage is higher than someone who is starting the beginner plan.
With that, the immediate difference is in the second week of the program. Since we aren’t going to adjust frequency, time, or duration very much, then we can adjust the intensity. Now, one could argue that we should shorten the training segment down, which is an argument I would listen to. Since this is a general program, we can go into another generalization of training adaptation (Iied!) and that is the idea that over time, a runner needs more stress to elicit a response. Think of it this way. When you first began running, a 3 mile run might have been your primary goal- maybe to run a 5k without stopping. Now, if you were running that same 3 mile run at the same pace, is it hard or is it much easier?
For most of you it is a cakewalk, meaning you need more of a stress to elicit an adaptation in training.
With this, we have two options, either make the speed work faster or simply do more of it. With this, you might naturally be faster since your last marathon segment- meaning have run faster races of shorter distances. Your workouts will already be naturally a little faster, but we don’t necessarily know that. The one thing we can account for is the length of the speed segment. We can add more weeks to that part of the segment to elicit that increased training response. Along with that, since going too fast early in a training segment can be detrimental to the rest of the segment (dig too much of a fatigue hole), it makes more sense to not adjust the pace more, but to control the number of weeks. Once past the speed portion of the training the segment looks much the same as the beginner and the reasoning is that this is already the higher mileage and really a grinding several weeks, so there is no need to make even more difficult.
A note about tempo runs for both schedules: As you probably noticed, I didn’t discuss tempo runs for either schedule. The reason is twofold. The first is that we are gradually ratcheting up throughout the schedule so we are regularly adjusting the duration while keeping the frequency and the intensity the same. Now, the effort might feel different, but the intensity should be the same. The second is that just that- I don’t necessarily want these to get harder, in terms of pace. When we start a training plan we usually have a goal in mind. Let’s say that goal is 4 hours. So, you run your tempo runs at that goal pace. I don’t want to get to the point where you feel comfortable at a pace and then decide, you know 4 hours is easily doable, so let’s ratchet it up to 3:45. By the time you get to the 9 and 10 mile tempo runs, you’ve changed your goal pace to 3:30. Now this might or might not be doable, but ask yourself this-
If my original goal was 4 hours, do I want to risk overestimating my ability from the tempo runs, only to crash and burn at 20 miles and limp in with a 4:15?
I would rather have you develop a laser focus on what that original goal pace feels like and develop confidence in your ability to nail that goal while setting yourself up for success.
Consistency/Ease of Maintenance
The first is that consistent training makes it “easier” to reach peak fitness.
To tie this into the idea into having shorter schedules and more spaced out workouts, but still being in top fitness, I have to bring out two last generalizations of training adaptation. The first is that consistent training makes it “easier” to reach peak fitness. The second is the rule of “ease of maintenance.” This is the idea that you had the goal of breaking 20:00 in the 5k and you trained all summer. By the end of summer you poured your heart and soul into months of training and ran 19:50. Then you maintained a pretty high level of base fitness, did a few workouts and then ran 19:45 at the Turkey Trot in November. Now you’re left eating a drumstick, wondering how the heck you pulled that off! The point is, that it is much harder to reach a new level of fitness (and perform at that level) than it is to maintain it. The second part of that is once you establish that new level and just keep training at a decent level you make the time and work needed to reach that new level of fitness less. That’s why I say with consistent and moderate training levels you are never more than a couple months away from a PR in any race distance. Put it this way, say you slacked off before your first training segment and were at about 50% of peak fitness. You needed every day of that 18 weeks to reach 100% peak fitness. Afterwards you took your recovery, started running and kept your mileage higher and did maintenance workouts weekly. Then you decide to run another marathon. This time you are starting at 70% of your peak fitness (even though your peak fitness is higher than the first go round). We don’t need to force a long segment because we are already closer to peak fitness than we were the first time.
That is why you see the schedules I offer on Final Surge have a wide variance in weekly mileage, spacing of workouts, and number of weeks. The more experienced you become, the more you learn about your own needs and abilities. I tried to take those into account across the board. That way, you can still follow the philosophy that the classic Beginner and Advanced schedules provide, but grow with the system as you do.
Next time, I want to talk about a couple other components to this topic, but this has already gotten pretty long! These additions would be:
- What happens when you try to rush the process
- What happens you treat every single workouts like it’s the most important
- What individual characteristics would affect your ability to adapt to training