Top 10 Marathon Training Mistakes

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The bitter taste of failure. Photo by mzacha.

I've split this list of the marathon of mistakes into those made on the race itself and those made in training. I focused on mistakes that a specific to the marathon distance, though there is obviously some overlap to other types of racing and running. The prioritization is based on the severity of the mistake combined with the likelihood of it happening.

1 Top 10 Marathon Training Mistakes

  1. Short training plan
  2. Insufficient long runs
  3. Breaks in long runs
  4. Inability to fix injuries
  5. Ineffective Carbohydrate Loading
  6. No downhill training
  7. Too much body fat
  8. Lack of Race Simulation
  9. Taper mistakes
  10. Detraining between races
  11. Overtraining
  12. Unaccustomed Cross training
  13. Weight Training

(There are 13 mistakes in this list even though I've kept the title as 'top 10'.)

1.1 Training Mistake 1 - Short training plan

It takes long periods of time to build up endurance, and I believe that many training plans are not sufficiently long. A good training plan should be long enough to build up gradually to the point of running several runs longer than 20 miles. The right length of training plan will depend on the individual concerned. Someone who can run a sub-90 minute half marathon will need less training time than someone who has never run more than 5 miles. Likewise an experienced marathoner should not need as much time to build up their long runs, compared to a first-time marathon runner. I would generally recommend six-month training plans for first-time marathon runners over shorter plans. However, this is not a firm rule, but depends on the level of initial fitness. The key will be to have a training plan long enough that your long run can reach over 20 miles with a slow enough ramp-up to avoid injury or Overtraining.

1.2 Training Mistake 2 - Insufficient long runs

Many marathon runners have 20 miles as their longest training run, and often at a much slower pace than they intend to race at. A long run of 20 miles at ~30% slower (~2:00 min/mile) than marathon pace is about half the difficulty of the race itself. My VDOT Calculator has a chart of the relative difficulty of long runs of different lengths and paces. I have seen a strong correlation between the success of a marathon runner and the length/pace of their long training runs. This is backed up by statistical analysis that shows that not training past 20 miles is a risk factor for 'hitting the wall'. Based on the relative difficulty of long runs from VDOT Calculator I would suggest that new marathoners aim for longer runs of at around 60%. That 60% equates to around 16 miles at marathon pace, 24 miles at ~30% slower (~2:00 min/mile) than marathon pace, or something in between. More established marathon runners could aim for 70% or more, but care must be taken to avoid injury or Overtraining. (A long run that leaves you noticeably sore or hobbling is probably too long, and it is best to reduce the training load until your body has adapted.) A good training plan should provide a mixture of the shorter, faster long runs and the further, slower long runs. Some training plans, such as Jack Daniels Running Formula, mix up different paces within the same runs, such as a 22 mile run with 8 miles at tempo pace. These tougher long runs should be 4 weeks or more before the race. Many coaches don't recommend 20+ mile long runs because of the risk of injury, but the injury risk is related to the length of the training plan, as noted in mistake #1 above.

1.3 Training Mistake 3 - Breaks in long runs

The relative difficulty of long training runs is different between runs that are continuous and runs where there are breaks. Even relatively short Walking Breaks will allow for a surprising level of recovery, which is why ultramarathoners can cover such long distances. Unfortunately, many marathoners intended to race without any Walking Breaks, but do not train that way. I believe that Walking Breaks can be used as part of marathon training to extend the distance that can be covered on the longer long runs. However, allowances should be made when evaluating your training. A long run with plenty of breaks should not be equated to the same distance and pace run continuously. Also, some of the long runs should be is continuous as possible. Often it is impractical to avoid stopping completely; you will need to refuel, cross roads, or change clothes. With some planning, it should be possible to minimize these interruptions and to keep the run is continuous as possible (see Race Simulation below). When doing Race Simulation it is important not to pause your watch on any breaks that are taken, so you have a good evaluation of the training impact.

1.4 Training Mistake 4 - Inability to fix injuries

Nearly all runners who focus on the marathon will encounter some injury. In many cases these injuries can be fixed early, while they are still minor. This requires that you pay attention to how your body feels and to use techniques such as Massage to find trouble spots early. The most common problems tend to be muscular in origin; sometimes they manifest as a muscular problem and sometimes they manifest as a tendon problem. (I've found that most tendon issues are actually muscular in origin.) In my experience, the vast majority of muscular problems can be fixed remarkably quickly and easily with Massage and Ice. Of course, not all injuries can be easily fixed, but taking responsibility for learning about your injury and the healing process will invariably improve your outcome.

1.5 Training Mistake 5 - Ineffective carbohydrate loading

Main article: Carbohydrate Loading

The nature of the marathon distance means that running out of Glycogen (carbohydrate) is a major issue. Glycogen depletion impairs performance and can reduce a runner to a shuffling walking. While most marathon runners are aware of this problem and attempt to carbohydrate load they rarely do so effectively. Simply eating more pasta the night before the race is not enough to properly carbohydrate load. Instead, you need to aim for 10 grams of carbohydrate per Kg body weight the day before the race. That's a huge amount of carbohydrate; for me at 130 pounds that's about 47 slices of bread! The best option is drinks containing Maltodextrin, as this has a high Glycemic Index and is easily digested. It's important to practice this for some of your long runs (see the 'lack of Race Simulation' mistake.)

1.6 Training Mistake 6 - No downhill training

Main article: Downhill Running

After a marathon race it is extremely common to have sore, weak muscles. In most cases, this muscle damage is consistent with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This muscle damage is predominantly due to eccentric exercise, which is where the muscle works to resist becoming longer. One example of eccentric exercise is where the quads lengthen to absorb the impact of landing. This eccentric exercise is more extreme with Downhill Running than running on the flat or uphill. While the soreness from DOMS is delay until after the race, the accompanying weakness is immediate. This is why your quads can feel so weak after a long fast downhill. The good news is that muscles adapt to eccentric exercise reasonably quickly, and develop a measure of resistance to the damage. This resistance to DOMS is useful even in flat races. Therefore, there is a lot of value to downhill training to build up this form of endurance.

1.7 Training Mistake 7 - Too much body fat

Main article: Weight Loss and Performance

As in any form of racing, the ratio between power and weight determines performance. Because running is a weight bearing sport, body fat has an even bigger impact on performance in sports like cycling or swimming. Many runners believe the because of their training they can eat whatever they like, but that is not the case for everyone. Even a small reduction in body fat can improve marathon performance, as well as reducing the impact on tendons and joints. Losing 5 pounds of body fat from 135 pound frame can shave 5 min. from a three hour marathon. For most recreational marathon runners losing body fat is probably the most effective way of improving performance, as this is a greater impact than Caffeine or Altitude Training. (I would highly recommend Altitude Training using AltoLab for anyone who wants to improve their marathon times.)

  • Of course it is possible to have too little body fat, and you should track your body fat. Reducing body fat too far can have serious health implications, so if you have any doubts have your body fat evaluated.
  • Losing weight too fast can also lead to problems such as Overtraining.
  • Even if your body weight is optimal, the idea that you don't have to worry about your diet is flawed. Your performance will depend on getting the right nutrients, especially Protein, Omega 3 oils, carbohydrates and vitamins.

1.8 Training Mistake 8 - Lack of race simulation

Main articles: Race Simulation

The Golden Rule of Racing is never do something in a race you have not practiced in training. To avoid breaking this rule, it is necessary to do some Race Simulation. One way of simulating the race is to run a half marathon sometime towards the end of your training program. This provides a way to simulate the race and evaluate your fitness at the same time. However, a half marathon can be a little too short for simulating the full marathon. For instance, refueling can become harder as the race progresses and these issues may not be seen until after the 13 mile point. For experienced marathon runners, it may be practical to run a full marathon at a slower pace as preparation and simulation. I know of other runners who use part of a full marathon, either joining after a few miles or dropping before the end. However, the easiest form of Race Simulation is to use long training runs. The simulation is not perfect, but with some forethought and effort it can be made reasonably close.

1.9 Training Mistake 9 - Taper mistakes

Main articles: Practical Tapering, Tapering Tips, & The Science of Tapering

There are many mistakes that can be made during the taper, but the most common I see is a lack of intensity. Many marathon runners reduce both training volume and training intensity, but the science shows that it is important to maintain the training intensity while reducing the volume. Personally, I have found the most effective approach is to reduce training volume significantly, while aiming to run primarily at race pace. There is evidence that Running Economy improves most at the most common training pace, so training at marathon pace during the taper can help optimize for that pace. It also helps build a sense of the correct pace and establishes familiarity and comfort with the pace. The runs during the taper do not need to be particularly long, as endurance adaptation is believed to take several weeks. The other common taper mistake is around duration. The optimum taper appears to be about two weeks, and it may be that three weeks is a little long for many people. Occasionally, runners will cut the taper too short but this seems to be relatively rare. The timing of the last long run is covered in Practical Tapering. (I didn't see Taper Psychosis as a mistake, but just a natural part of racing.)

1.10 Training Mistake 10 - Detraining between races

I see a common pattern amongst recreational marathon runners where they take too much time off between races and so detrain. They then have to build up from a relatively low level of endurance and end up with only a few 20 mile long training runs. A typical pattern I've seen is to race every six months, with two months of downtime after a race followed by a four month training program. By contrast, the best marathon runners I know are doing 16+ mile training runs within a couple of weeks of the race. This allows them far more long runs, and much longer long runs in any given year. I believe that more marathon runners should capitalize on the endurance they've built up for one race by getting back to serious training as quickly as practical after a race.

1.11 Training Mistake 11 - Overtraining

The core principle of Supercompensation is that exercise does not make you fit, it's the rest that follows exercise that makes you fit. Many marathon runners do not grasp this principle, and so do not get sufficient rest. As a result of this Overtraining a runner can feel that their training is not effective, and so attempt to train harder. This can lead to a vicious cycle, with the Overtraining getting worse until something gives way, possibly resulting in Overtraining Syndrome. If you feel that your training is not working and you are becoming slower, then it's time to evaluate your training objectively. It's important to have a training log so that you can check if you've been skimping on your workouts, or skimping on your recovery. It's also important that your training is at the right intensity, and a VDOT Calculator can help set the right pace for the workouts. Another factor can be non-exercise stresses which can impair recovery, such as interrupted sleep, travel, emotional stress, etc. If you are beginning to suffer from Overtraining, you may need a greater period of rest than you expect.

1.12 Training Mistake 12 – Unaccustomed cross training

As a fit and well trained runner, it's easy to believe that you can perform another form of exercise at a similar level of intensity as you do when running. However, many runners are highly specialized in their sport, and can be easily injured by overenthusiastic cross training with an unfamiliar exercise. A friend of mine was traveling with work the week before his first half marathon, and when he found all the treadmills in the hotel gym busy he decided to try the elliptical trainer for the first time. He only used it for about 20 min., but that was long enough to damage his calves to the point where he could barely walk for the next few days. This simple mistake prevented him from even reaching the start line. So the moral of this tale is to be very careful when you take up a new form of cross training.

1.13 Training Mistake 13 – Weight training

The benefits of weight training and running are quite different, as can be seen from the body shapes of elite runners and bodybuilders shown below. Studies have shown that generally weight training and endurance exercise compromise each other rather than being synergistic. Weight training can be used to balance running to produce a better-rounded athlete, but it does generally improve runner ability. This is especially true of the typical approach that runners use with high repetitions of a low weight. There is however, evidence that doing maximum strength or power training can improve Running Economy. For instance, 3-5 sets of 3-6 repetitions using 85-90% of 1 Rep Max weight does not build much muscle mass, but it does improve strength. Another approach is to use plyometrics to improve power and maximum strength. Plyometrics are exercises such as jumping off a box and back up. This maximum strength and power training probably improves Running Economy by changing Muscle Recruitment.

A bodybuilder showing the classic large muscle mass associated with weight training.
Haile Gebrselassie, an elite marathon runner, showing the low muscle mass associated with endurance training.

1.14 Bonus Mistake – Inflexible race schedule

For some marathon runners their time goal is of paramount importance. The most common example is runners aiming to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but there are also those fast enough to have the opportunity to qualify for the Olympic trials. For these individuals I believe the complexity and expense of targeting multiple races is justified. Instead of signing up for just one marathon, they could sign up for two marathons on the same weekend in different locations to optimize the chance of having good weather in one of them. These races need to be far enough apart that they won't both have the same weather but still be practical to travel to either of them. Multiple races can also be selected to give flexibility in the taper period. Signing up for two races on subsequent weekends allows for a delay if there is a problem during the taper, in addition to providing a fallback for bad weather on the first race.