Marathon Training for the Rest of Us

This is for everyone who ever told me they’d like to one day run a marathon. Before I begin, I’ll level with you: a marathon is a grueling physical and psychological challenge. That said, you don’t have to be super-human to run one.

Fauja ‘The Turbaned Tornado” Singh, age 100, finishes the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon

To put the marathon in perspective, consider the following (based on statistics recorded by in 2010, the most recent year available):        Over 500,000 runners finished a marathon in 2010

        Almost 50,000 runners finished in six hours or more

        Over 90,000 runners were over the age of fifty; over 20,000 of those were over the age of sixty

Consider the US represents roughly five percent of the world population, and the number of runners who finished a marathon worldwide conservatively swells into the millions. To think there are that many super-humans in the world is absurd. Elite runners–those who finish a marathon in less than three hours–are extraordinary, but only about six per cent of the field at the Boston Marathon finishes in less than three hours. The rest of the marathoners are people like you and me—carpenters, cops, welders, mailmen, physical therapists, realtors, ceramic tile salespersons, nurses, firefighters, etc.

The first thing you need to do is evaluate your goal. If your goal is to place for an award or set a personal record, you may want to refer to Runner’s World or Running Times. If your objective is to experience running 26.2 miles with a community of like-minded recreational athletes, keep reading.

The marathon requires commitment, focus and stamina, but so does earning a degree, raising kids or writing a book. Each of these commitments requires a tremendous amount of work. The difference is that the work required to prepare for the marathon is endurance training and putting in the miles. If you keep yourself in relatively good physical condition and have average endurance from other activities, whether cycling, hiking, other sports or physical labor, you are ahead of the game, but marathon season is here and it’s imperative you add miles to your exercise routine.

I learned the hard way that you have to do the work to run a marathon in The Untrained Marathon, and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, said the marathon was the hardest physical challenge he’d ever done after he retired from cycling and ran the 2007 New York Marathon. Conversely, it’s important not to over-train, something I’d done in my early running days when I always seemed to be recovering from nagging injuries. Alberto Salazar, the three-time New York City Marathon, told Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker that he never thought over-training could ruin his career. He estimated he ran an average of one hundred and five miles per week between the age of seventeen and twenty-four and said, “In hindsight, it was foolishness.”

The solution that works best for me lies somewhere between the two extremes. If you cycle, don’t stop. If you play basketball, keep going. If you are a landscaper or work another job that requires physical endurance, good for you. Now it’s time to add miles to your routine. My fitness goal to prepare for a marathon has changed over the years. Rather than run fifty-plus miles per week to climax at the sacrosanct twenty-mile run, I build endurance in a variety of ways—mostly cycling and manual labor—and work my way up to a three-hour run. I plan the three-hour run two weeks before the marathon, and then start to taper to allow my body to recover and rest.

You can check out some free training programs at Cool Running and Marathon Pal as mileage guides. So get going, and stay tuned. More advice will appear in future posts.

Card I received from my brother Jack on my fiftieth birthday. Inside read, “Aging hasn’t slowed you down a bit. It’s amazing what a little laxative can do!”

If you’d like to read more about alternate marathon training, see KISS Marathon Training and how to train for a marathon without killing yourself.

Disclosure: My advice is based on forty years of running experience, thirteen marathons and too many mid and long-distance races to remember. I am not a coach, trainer or doctor.


About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
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