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by Guy Avery

Two of the most important keys to marathon success are training within your ability and lifestyle and setting a realistic and motivating goal based on your training level.

Last year, our 2005 Marathon Training Group averaged an impressive 17-minute improvement per runner versus their previous marathon time – with two thirds of them running an all-time PR (personal record) time. Our 2006 Fall Marathon training group for this year’s Chicago Marathon slightly bettered that by averaging a similarly impressive 18-minute improvement per runner over their previous marathon time -- with two-thirds of them also running an all-time PR.

These improvements were achieved in cold and very windy conditions this year by good runners who already had significant experience.
This feat was even more impressive when you consider that this group already had an average of 15 years of running experience -- as well as an average of 12 marathons under their belts. In addition, this group entered Chicago with marathon times that would have already placed them, on average, in the top 5% of their age-gender group in just about any marathon in the country. Add to this, the fact that this group only used a 14-week period to train – averaging only about 40-45 miles per week for the group as a whole -- and you can see how impressively these runners performed. In fact, 18 of the 22 runners in this marathon group are Boston Qualifiers. Finally, there were an equal number of men and women in the group and they averaged 39 years of age.

If you are like most goal-oriented runners, you are probably curious how these runners managed to improve so much considering their already high level of established marathon performances. on relatively low marathon training mileage in such a short training period.

Anyone can improve their current marathon performances and times – regardless of age or ability – and have fun doing it. Unfortunately, all too often, runners train very hard for long periods for marathons only to experience frustrating results. This does not have to be the case – especially when all it takes is a little knowledge and some wise coaching guidance about some basic training and racing principles. Training can be stimulating, manageable and fun – while still producing gradual and sustainable progress. You just need to do it correctly.

I have successfully coached hundreds of runners using some basic marathon success principles. When runners understand and follow these basic principles, they have a very high probability of reaching realistic short-term goals -- as well as sustaining continuous, long-term improvements in their marathon performances. The first step is to find your own ideal marathon training and racing “zone” for any given marathon training period.

In training, your personal marathon “zone” is an overall feeling of clear intention and confidence that you are making gradual and sustainable performance progress that is both stimulating and manageable for you. In racing, your personal marathon “zone” is when you are relaxed, focused and “in the present moment” in allowing your best possible race performance to unfold on that particular day.

Each runner has an optimal training and racing balance -- or “zone” -- that will work most effectively for them. Ignoring the training and racing balance that is best for you will usually result in frustration and sub-par performances. However, honoring your realistic training and racing abilities will enable you to achieve your short-term goals within the context of fun, fulfilling and sustainable long-term improvement in the marathon.

Finding your own personal marathon training and racing “zone” is absolutely essential to success. This entails balancing many factors such as (1) selecting a manageable weekly mileage level with the optimal frequency of key training sessions each week, (2) following a weekly running schedule that fits within your work and family commitments and schedule, (3) setting a realistic and achievable marathon goal time, and (4) developing clarity of intention and patience in training. The intention of this article is to keep these concepts simple, practical and flexible for you.

The Marathon Training Process is a Metaphor for the Marathon Race & Vice-Versa

It is often helpful for runners to see the marathon training process as a metaphor for how you will want to run the marathon race. Racing your best marathon means staying patient and within your ability in the early going while gradually running near the edge of your potential in the latter stages of the race.
Similarly, you will also want your training process to start slowly and conservatively and to gradually reach and maintain an optimal and balanced training level (that is both challenging and stimulating without going overboard), before sharpening and fine-tuning your fitness so you are fresh and fully ready for your best marathon performance on race day.

Selecting a Manageable Training Commitment

Two of the most important factors in establishing initial balance and finding your own personal marathon “zone,” is (1) to determine your realistic training commitment (given your lifestyle, ability and ambition), and then (2) to set a realistic goal based on that, which will be fulfilling for you and even challenging -- but does not feel burdensome or overwhelming in any way.

Any sensible training program begins with a realistic training commitment and a realistic marathon goal pace. If you over-reach in training or attempt to force an arbitrary time goal that is too challenging for you, then you will naturally become gradually overwhelmed and/or discouraged, and your training will eventually become a frustrating undertaking. Injuries, early plateaus, staleness, performance decline, and/or burnout are all too often the result of unsuccessfully striving to maintain an unmanageable training level or pursuing an unrealistic goal in the context of your running background, abilities and current lifestyle. Having a realistic goal but ignoring basic training guidelines also results in sub-par performances relative to one’s potential.

If you commit to a training level (mileage and frequency of key quality sessions) that you can mentally and physically handle on a weekly basis -- as well as select a goal that feels realistic and achievable given the amount of training you are willing to undertake -- then you will most likely enjoy the process and achieve your marathon goal. A realistic training commitment and race goal will allow you to feel enthusiastic and “in balance” -- and you will much more likely discover your optimal marathon training “zone” -- as well as duplicate it on race day.

Unfortunately, many runners pick an arbitrary weekly mileage and/or marathon time goal that sets the stage for frustration and failure. Many runners rely on one of the many well-meaning goal-setting “calculators” that are so popular, but these can often be very misleading and counter-productive if they are not understood in their proper context.

Less than 5% of all runners have actually converted their “equivalent performances” from shorter race distances to the full marathon distance. With a balanced approach to training and racing, you can get the most out of your marathon potential by first setting a realistic short-term goal and determining a manageable level of training given your ability and lifestyle. In fact, it is my experience that more than 90% of all committed runners can actually run very close to – as well as meet or even exceed their shorter-distance “marathon equivalent” race performances within two to four optimal marathon training cycles – or within about 18-36 months of performing balanced and intelligent training within the context of one’s own personal marathon “zone.” The key is being realistic in the short-term so you can approach your full potential in the long-term.

Any good coach can help you determine a realistic marathon goal based on (1) how much you are willing and capable of sensibly and effectively training, and (2) by accurately interpreting the conservative trend-line between your shorter and longer race performances. In the absence of a coach, Table 1 will prove useful in helping you determine how much you are realistically willing to train, before setting a realistic marathon goal.

Table 1: Determining Your Marathon Training Level Commitment

Level Runs/Week Weekly Mileage Starting & Final Long Run Range Final Goal Pace Run Range Additional Workouts Other Than Weekly Goal Pace Or Long Run
#1 4–5/wk 35-45/wk 1:45 Up To 3:10 14–15 Miles 1 Other key quality sessions each week
#2 5–6/wk 45–50/wk 1:45 Up To 3:10 15–16 Miles 1 Other key quality sessions each week
#3 6–7/wk 55–60/wk 1:45 Up To 3:10 16–17 Miles 3 Other key quality sessions every 2 weeks
#4 7–12/wk 65–80/wk 1:45 Up To 3:10 17–18 Miles 2 Other key quality sessions every week

Table 1 lists four general training levels and their respective (a) days of running per week, (b) average weekly mileage in the second half of the program, (c) the starting long run and the maximum long run (which will be performed three times in training), (d) the range for the length of the longest goal pace run (that varies by goal time within each training level), and (e) the frequency of other key quality sessions (in addition to a weekend long run or goal pace run).

When reviewing your options in Table 1, it is important to be completely realistic and honest with yourself. Look through your training log and calculate your average weekly mileage for the past six months. Then determine, as objectively as possible, how many days you can manage to train each week, along with how much weekly mileage you can realistically handle within your larger life schedule and other broader personal considerations. Finally, what is the current length of your longest weekly run? Use all of this information to make a better decision. Suspend any pre-conceived training notions and lean towards being a little conservative. You want tobe absolutely certain you can handle the training.

One general guideline for the athletes I coach, is to first look at your current training level (weekly mileage) or below, if at all possible. The goal is to do as little as possible to get the results you want. In fact, I might begin half of the new runners I coach at a lower training volume than they had recently been running! This usually consists of lowering their weekly mileage by 15-30%, with invariably beneficial results. Runners begin to feel better immediately and see significant results of some type usually within 8-12 weeks, so their initial resistance to this change is offset fairly quickly.

Keep in mind, many goal-oriented runners are training too much or too hard for their lifestyle and ability level and they have become accustomed to being inconsistent and ‘hit-or-miss’ with their training and race results. In addition, they feel that they are capable of much better. As a result, a reduction in volume puts them a lot closer to their optimal training zone and the results quickly bear this out.

I want each athlete to improve their times by training smarter – not harder, at first. Once a runner shows that they can handle a certain level of smart, balanced training and are successful, then and only then, might I consider moving them to the next training level. However, if I feel they can still improve at the same training level, I have no problem keeping them at their current level either. Why take any undue risks when you can get the results you want without unnecessary risks? This also creates a “built-in” mechanism for continual, sustainable improvement. As each runner shows they have mastered each training level, they will not only adapt but be eager and fully ready for the next training level – which again, will create even better performances.

Setting a Realistic Goal Based on Your Training Level

In 95% of all cases, your most recent half-marathon will easily be the best predictor of a realistic marathon time goal. In order to simplify matters and not get overly technical, see Table 2 for some very basic goal-setting guidelines. You can also run a half-marathon and see where your general fitness level actually stands.

Table 2 aligns the different training levels with some of their respective goal-setting guidelines. As with just about everything I recommend, these guidelines are not ‘set in stone’ in any way. They are very flexible guidelines with lots of ‘gray areas’ just like any truly balanced training approach. You will notice that the guideline ranges overlap, as they are still dependent on many individual differences between runners, as well as factors other than training. As a result, they are not strict calculations in any way. You can equally trust and use your own inner knowing, gut instinct and intuition as much as any so-called “physiological” or “scientific” formulas in

Table 2: Setting your realistic Marathon “Zone” Goalderiving the goal time that feels right for you

Level Marathon Mileage Conservative-Realistic Marathon Goal-Setting Formula
#1 35–45 Miles/week Double your most recent half-marathon and add 13–22 minutes
#2 45–55 Miles/week Double your most recent half-marathon and add 9–18 minutes
#3 55–65 Miles/week Double your most recent half-marathon and add 7–14 minutes
#4 70–100 Miles/week Double your most recent half-marathon and add 5–11 minutes

Again, determining a manageable training commitment and selecting your goal time are the first two keys to marathon success -- and these steps are essential to finding your own personal marathon training and racing “zone.”

Use the higher end of the range (for how many minutes you add) listed in Table 2 if:
1. Your target marathon is on a more challenging course than your recent half-marathon.
2. Your target marathon will have more difficult weather than your recent half-marathon.
3. You feel you do not necessarily get better as the distance gets longer.
4. You trained more for your recent half-marathon than you plan to train for this marathon.

Use the lower end of the range (of how many minutes you add) listed in Table 2 if:
1. Your target marathon is on a less challenging course than your recent half-marathon.
2. Your target marathon will have less difficult weather than your recent half-marathon.
3. You feel that, in general, you get much better as the distance gets longer.
4. You trained far less for your recent half-marathon than you will train for this marathon.
5. You consider your most recent half-marathon to be ‘soft’ or significantly below your actual or current half-marathon potential.

Once you have selected a specific time goal, then add and subtract five minutes from the time, in order to establish a comfortable time goal range. For example, if your goal time is 3:40, then your goal time range will be 3:35 to 3:45. A wide goal range is far less imposing than one specific time. The range ought to serve the purpose of reducing mental pressure while giving you a best- and worst-case scenario you can be happy with.


Once you have decided on a realistic training level that fits your ability and lifestyle, and then selected a goal time range based on what that particular training level might realistically yield, you have taken the first steps toward putting yourself in your personal marathon training and racing zone. Calculating your goal pace (per mile) and selecting your target marathon race and date will then allow you to construct a reasonable training and racing plan that will give you a high probability for achieving your goal.

CONTRIBUTING WRITER GUY AVERY is a Nashville-based coach and runner. Guy coaches performance-oriented runners and leads local half-marathon and marathon training groups. His local athletes will begin targeting the 2007 Tom King Half-Marathon, Boston Marathon and Country Music Marathon and Half-Marathon. For more information on Guy’s coaching and/or half-marathon and marathon training groups, you can visit Guy can also be contacted at (615) 557-5243 or at


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