Why More Isn't Always Better for First-Time Marathon Training

You don't have to beat yourself up with high weekly mileage when you decide to go for your first marathon. More is not necessarily better, according to a study led by Forrest Dolgener, Ph.D., at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. One group of young women and men trained for their first marathon six days a week by running 23 miles and building to 48 miles a week.

Another group ran four days a week from 18 building to 39 miles a week at the same moderate pace, for a level of 20 percent less total mileage than the first group. Both groups went for a weekly long run beginning with an hour, building to two-and-a-half hours after 15 weeks of training.

At the end of this period, there were no differences between the two groups in oxygen uptake, heart rate, or blood lactate. After a two week taper they ran their marathons, and in both groups the women averaged about 4:50 and the men averaged about 4:15, although the spread in times was from about 40 minutes faster to about 40 minutes slower for both women and men. The extra miles put in on the additional two days a week made no apparent difference.

The appropriate goal for your first marathon should be to finish, and not worry about your time. Although there is a big spread in the marathon times, this study suggests that as long as you put in a regular long run, there is no advantage in running extra days to put in higher weekly miles. In fact, plenty of studies show that injury risk goes up with increased weekly mileage, which means since there is no performance advantage in running six days a week at moderate pace, why take the extra risk?

This leaves unanswered the 26.2-mile question, how often and how far should you go on your long runs? Some folks believe in a weekly long run, others prefer biweekly. Both schemes work. If you recover completely in one week that's fine, but if you feel like taking two weeks to recover, that's fine, too.

Some coaches follow the schedule of the Northern Iowa study and build long runs up to two-and-a-half hours, believing longer is more likely to lead to training injuries. Others, such as American Running advisor Jeff Galloway, urge that you build your long run by a couple of miles every two weeks until you run 26 miles, or longer, in training. As long as we're talking about just finishing, both schedules work, so it is really a matter of personal preference.

Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 1994, Vol. 65, No. 4, pp. 339-346

Copyright, The American Running Association

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