How to Train for the Boston Marathon

Author's Note: This is the second of three articles looking at the Boston Marathon. As a caveat, while I run Marathon Nation, I have only run Boston twice, both times hitting 3:12:xx when aiming for a sub-3:10 finish. I live local to the course and will be running again in 2011, this time aiming for a sub-3 finish if all goes according to plan.

Understanding how to train 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 lifelong 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 ramp up the miles.

Being Your Best

The terrain and performance demands that you'll 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 and 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.
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