How to Run Back-to-Back Marathons

So you say you had a rough day. After months of training and careful preparation, the marathon you were targeting went poorly. Perhaps it was the weather; maybe you made some mistakes with your fueling or you just had one of "those" days. Whatever the reason, you find yourself with your tail slightly between your legs, wondering where to go and how to proceed.

The standard procedure for most runners and their coaches after any marathon—good or bad—is to rest and avoid racing. For the more motivated, an unconventional alternative might be to tackle another marathon in the next 5 to 6 weeks.

More: Marathon Recovery

For most runners, the thought of another marathon immediately after a rough one is about as appealing as a vacation in Baghdad. However, if approached the right way, the fitness and experience gained training for and racing in the first marathon can be beneficial in the second. If this uncommon approach is something you're interested in pursuing or learning more about, then follow along.

Step #1—Recovery

Following your first marathon, it's critical that you take the time to recover as effectively as possible in a short-time window. While taking the more "active" recovery approach with another marathon on the horizon, rest is nevertheless the key goal for the first 9 to 10 days. Each runner has different recovery needs. However, you won't lose any fitness in the first 9 to 10 days after a marathon. The overwhelming majority of marathoners actually see a significant fitness boost as a result of racing the initial marathon—regardless of the outcome. My recommendation for the first 10 days is a standard "active rest" cycle, alternating off days with days of 35 to 45 minutes of relaxed easy running, followed by a day of complete rest. For those compulsive folks who struggle with days completely off, try a long walk on the "off" days.

Step #2—Ramping Back In

After the initial 10 days of getting your legs back under you, take an additional 4 to 5 days of simple aerobic mileage with some post-run accelerations every other day. Accelerations (aka strides, striders, zips) after an easy run are an excellent way to maintain and improve biomechanical efficiency and work on prime mover muscle recruitment. Additionally, post-run accelerations used in transition serve as an effective recovery tool.

More: Run Faster with Strides

Assuming we are looking at a 5- to 6-week window between your first and second marathons, you are now at the 15- to 16-day mark or roughly 2 to 3 weeks out from marathon #2; it's time for a "normal" final 3 weeks with a couple of exceptions. Between 2.5 and 3 weeks out from marathon 2, and 2 weeks removed from the first, runners can look at a longer run of 16 to 18 miles. If you've done a good job of recovering in the first 10 days, your legs will feel refreshed enough at this stage to get in the one long run you'll need between the two marathons.
Execute one standard 18- to 22-mile run in the narrow midway window between the two marathons. However, do so at a controlled clip, roughly 45 seconds to 1 minute per mile slower than your target race pace. There's no need to do a marathon specific "harder" long run in the narrow 4- to 6-week window between marathons. The exceptions include the need for shorter runs in between days.

Learning from Jones

American Marathoner Kim Jones may very well be the master of close proximity marathons. On numerous occasions, Jones, one of the best marathoners in American history, ran multiple marathons in an 8- to 10-week window—most famously her second place at the 1989 NYC Marathon in a PR of 2:27, just 4 weeks to the day after winning the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:31.

Jones stresses the need for recovery first and foremost and having your legs under you as you approach the second race.
"I felt pretty good after Twin Cities, but I was only running every day 4 to 5 miles," said Jones. After later dealing with some delayed onset soreness, Jones began to feel like her normal self in just a couple of weeks. "About two weeks before NYC, I felt great and did a 20-miler two weeks before New York." One of the secrets to both recovering well between two "close proximity" marathons and being primed and ready for the second is to make alternating training days short, as Jones did. For example, if you typically average 7 to 8 miles on non-specific training days, pull those days back to shorter runs such as 3 to 5 miles.

More: Recovery Runs

Preparation for 2nd Marathon Predicated on Fitness for the First

One concept virtually all coaches and experienced runners agree on is the need for overall fitness entering any marathon, let alone targeting excellence for a second race in a short window. Contesting two marathon races in a narrow timespan demands background and a solid block of consistent healthy training. This back-to-back approach can be successful if done properly. However, it's a strategy by and large meant for those with a significant background of training and experience.

What to do after your second marathon? Jones has advice for effective recovery coming off this rarely-seen double, or simply for those looking to rest properly after a normal "one and done" scenario.

"Take a month off. Go on vacation. Put your running aside for a while. If after two weeks you feel good, run maybe 10 minutes."

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About the Author

Pete Rea

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok-sponsored non-profit facility that supports post-collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state-of-the-art weight room, exercise science lab for testing, and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include 2-time Olympic trials qualifier Zika Rea, 2007 USATF National XC Champion Ryan Warrenburg, and head coach Pete Rea. For more information, go to zapfitness.com or call 828-295-6198.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok-sponsored non-profit facility that supports post-collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state-of-the-art weight room, exercise science lab for testing, and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include 2-time Olympic trials qualifier Zika Rea, 2007 USATF National XC Champion Ryan Warrenburg, and head coach Pete Rea. For more information, go to zapfitness.com or call 828-295-6198.

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