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The Ultimate Boston Marathon Overview Part 2: The Training

16 April

Somewhere Mid-Course
Creative Commons License photo credit: ActiveSteve

Author’s Note: This is the second of three posts looking into the Boston Marathon (read Part One here). As a caveat, while I run Marathon Nation, I have run Boston four times ranging from a 3:01 to a 3:12:xx. I live local to the course and will be running again in 2014.

Training for the Boston Marathon is unique on three distinct levels. First, it’s typically your second marathon training cycle within a 12-month window. This brings some complications and opportunities that we’ll explore later in this article. Second, everyone wants to perform at their best (of course!). And finally, the bulk of your training will take place during your winter months, which can present some significant challenges.

A Secondary Marathon

While Boston might be your life-long dream, it almost always follows another marathon effort. This means that you have already done some quality training and had a great race. Assuming you allowed sufficient time to recover, and Boston is within six months, you won’t need as much training time to get race ready.
If your typical marathon training cycle is five months, taking you from Day One to Race Day, then your second marathon might only require four months. Maybe just three. Only you will know what’s truly right for you, but I encourage you to look beyond logging long miles as the critical element of your training. Instead, consider doing a two month speed block of 5k and 10k focused training and racing (with recovery!), then transition out of that with three months left to being ramping up the miles.

Being Your Best

The terrain and performance demands that you will place on yourself come race day means you’ll need significant high-end fitness…simply adding on long, steady runs will not have you ready to compete at your best. As mentioned above, some high-quality speed work will go a long way to building critical race specific fitness.
But don’t get caught in the bigger/harder/faster training mentality. In addition to the work of training, you’ll want to leave no stone unturned in terms of how you recover and process each session. A successful Boston training cycle means uninterrupted training with some quality volume at the end of a long season. In other words, it’s a big ask. Here are some other things you can do to improve your ability to recover:
  • Fuel each workout as if it were a race, making sure you never bonk.
  • Include a consistent 15-minute warm up at the start of each session.
  • Have recovery food/fuel in place that you can consume within 15 minutes of finishing a workout.
  • Stretch critical areas just 15 minutes a day, address any issues early on.
  • Do your best to get eight hours of sleep a night during your hardest weeks; otherwise target seven hours.

Preparation Races

The early-season nature of Boston will surely target your focus and resolve. You can alleviate this issue by scheduling in some races to help keep you motivated and on track. The simplest option is to target a half marathon. Even though it’s “only” 13.1 miles, a half marathon is just long enough to do some good hard running, test your pacing & nutrition, and get a quality workout in. This can be done anywhere in the window that falls between 14 and 8 weeks until race day, leaving you 8 pressure-free weeks to get in your long runs (and the required recovery!).
You can also compete in a few shorter distance events if they are available, just be prepared to add some warm up / warm down miles so that they count towards that particular week’s mileage goals.

The Longest Runs

A long run in this case is anything over 18 miles. This is close to the 2.5 hour mark (or much longer!) for most folks — it’s these runs that truly test your body and mind en route to race day. Given the challenging terrain of Boston, it’s best that you put your long runs on a similar course. At the same time don’t get too worried about the paces you see on the dial for the hills; run them at a good effort you can sustain for the whole workout. Instead, focus on running the flatter sections of these longer runs at a more quality effort. This will allow you to get some marathon paced running in without nuking your entire training week because you needed to prove something to yourself.
A good Boston cycle will have three, maybe four long runs depending on how much time you have to train and your ability to recover.
A typical three-long-run schedule might be 18 miles, 20 miles, 22 miles, with each of these efforts separated by a shorter run with more tempo effort (approximately 12 to 14 miles).
A more advanced four-long-run schedule mile alternate 18 miles, 20 miles, 18 miles, 22 miles. In this case, the advanced athlete can pair the 18/20 and 18/22 weekends, separating these two week blocks with just one shorter weekend run as outlined above.

The Boston Taper

We generally recommend that your last long run is about 21 days out from race day. This will give you ample time to recover and still fine tune your running. Since you ran on race-like terrain in your training, there’s no reason to start running hills in this final period. Instead, focus on your technique and making each individual run as good as possible.
The hard work of fitness building is done, it’s now time for recovery and consolidation. In addition to your regular weekday runs, you’ll have two more weekend runs before race day. After your 20 to 22 mile longest run, the next one can be about 2/3 of that longest run distance with a good portion of it at your goal marathon pace. The following weekend, just one before the race, should be about 1/2 your longest run effort. This time the run is mostly easy/steady with maybe a mile or two at your goal race effort.
The taper is also the time to begin doing some visualization. As you are training, begin envisioning yourself on the course at critical points in your day: the start, half way, mile 16, Heartbreak Hill, etc. There are plenty of places online to find pictures of the race to help you do this. But whether you know the course or not, you’ll want to walk yourself through the race a few times to make sure that you have all the bases covered before you line up in Hopkinton.

Running on Race Week

Due to the rolling nature of the course, your race week training should be simple yet include some similar terrain. Your goal is to enter every workout feeling rested and exit every session feeling invigorated. If you are feeling fatigue or have a nagging issue, then you had best spend your time resting and preparing for the rigors of race day. There is no extra speed to be had this week, only lost.
Here is a quick sample schedule:
Monday: Off / Yoga / Core
Tuesday: 45 minute run, including 4 to 6 repeats of 1 minute at 5k pace. Alternate 1 uphill, 1 downhill (not too steep!). Recover as much as needed.
Wednesday: Six mile run, with 2 x 10 minutes at goal marathon pace on rolling terrain.
Thursday: 45 minute run, including 4 to 6 repeats of 1 minute at 5k pace. Recover as much as needed.
Friday: Travel / OFF
Saturday: Easy 30 to 45 minute jog before you hit the Expo to get your bib number and check out the cool stuff.
Sunday: Short jog of 20 to 30 minutes, include 3 x 1 minute fast with plenty of recovery. Be safe in the city.
Monday: Race Day!

I’ll be back soon with Part Three: How to Pace the Boston Marathon. Remember that the first installment of this series is here: Boston Overview. If you haven’t check it out, here’s a video of the course taken in February of 2008. If you can ignore the cars, you’ll get a solid sense of how the race plays out! Boston Race Course Video on YouTube here.


You can download most of our free resources, include a Boston Marathon pace planner, for free, by registering to become a Marathon Nation Insider. Learn more and see what’s available here.