There Are No Shortcuts To Training For An Endurance Race

The story of how I successfully hacked training for a sub-3-hour marathon… on my third try.

Oh, the marathon. 42.2 kilometres or 26.2 miles wherever you are from. I have a love/hate relationship with it and have written about my attempts in the past to “Finish one feeling strong at the end”.
Most endurance “runners” love it and think of it as the holy grail of running events. I also believe it’s a great emotional, mental, and physical challenge but in that same breath, I think the marathon is overrated and for some people, not necessary.

But I’ve done it again. I’ve successfully said one thing to folks around me while doing another. I said marathons are lame and this post is about how I hacked training for one. Go figure, eh?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool to do it! And we live life to do things that feel cool, right? But it does come at a cost which I will get to.

Why it’s hard to hack training for long endurance events?

Most things in life can actually be “hacked”. Usually at the expense of doing it average to a somewhat kinda, meh well. There is a point where quality and cost intersect. I call this the “value zone”. An economist might call it the point of “Diminishing Returns”. You might call it where your return (output) is mostly on par with your investment (input).

Please know your own physical limits, ask yourself why the f*ck you’re trying to do it…

Without going too deep, I think the “hacking of training” method is possible in running races from the 5k to the Half Marathon. Depending on your history, genetics, and training, you can do less training than you think to see some decent results. This is not true with the full marathon and most endurance events over 2.5 hours.

Your energy system efficiency, running economics, and a whole slew of other biomechanical things needed for the intensity and time of these longer races mean you just have to put in the time on the road/trail/pool, etc. and actually train for it.

Back to hacking it because everyone loves getting shit on sale in life. You can possibly get the same health benefits from doing shorter events (5k — Half Marathon) most of the year and then jump up to longer events every now and then. The shorter events also give you a sense of accomplishment that rivals that of the longer ones.

With all things, I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet. Before doing anything from a 5k to a 100-mile race, please know your own physical limits, ask yourself why the f*ck you’re trying to do it, then consult with a medical professional to see if you are ready or need some base training to sort yourself out.

Why was the marathon is on my bucket list if I dislike it so much?

As with most things, I’ll start with a personal story so that you know that I’m practicing what I preach. Seven years ago at the start of my endurance career, I set out to do what I thought was only a pipe dream (run a sub-3-hour marathon) with not very much marathon specific training. I knew my body well enough and through testing, training, and research I wanted to give my hypothesis a run for its money.

Like most people, I got into endurance running a bit later in life. About mid-20s. I ran track throughout college (The 400-metre and 800-metre events) and fell in love with the Long Slow Distance (LSD) recovery runs that we did. I was fortunate enough to attend Susquehanna University which is a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania Dutch farmlands right off of the Susquehanna River. There were miles of unpopulated stretches of pavement and trails to run on that fed my need to unplug from the world like a hungry wolf.

After college, I wasn’t too interested in racing the 400m and 800m so the next evolutionary step was the 5k fun charity run! I completed a few of those, but they didn’t really interest me as far as training went. The training was too fast and hard for my ability at the time as I lacked aerobic fitness in the energy system that was needed for long sustained medium-fast type efforts.

Fast forward to June 2007 and the Baltimore Half Marathon was approaching. Even before I signed up for this, I had a romantic vision of training for a full marathon and easily running a 3 Hours 30 Minutes if I maintained a nice and “easy pace”. I wanted to plan for it and strategically execute my plan over a few months. The half marathon gave me the perfect opportunity to do this.

When people sign up for their first endurance bout they usually end up doing it wrong. I was no exception. I didn’t have a goal time, a weekly amount to train/run, or a pace I was aiming for during my runs or the race. The only thing I got right was my consistency of running twice per week on Tue/Thu and completing my Saturday long run while tacking on 1 mile per week.

Not having a goal time also made pacing the race and subsequently finishing the race more challenging. My time of 1 Hour 35 Minutes while impressive for a first timer, still gave me a somewhat “hollow” feeling. I was proud that I executed my plan and had a mostly good race, but I felt like I didn’t do something right. I knew the full marathon was something I had to do… in the far off future.

Fast forward again a few years and I’ve now completed a few triathlons and an Ironman Triathlon. I developed my aerobic base system and started to get a better sense on how to train and pace more running events. Based on a few running calculators and what I was doing on my long runs, it made sense to set my sights on the slightly ambitious sub-3-hour marathon time.

Is there a race or a time that you know you can do? If so, possibly look at doing something slightly shorter or slower and then build on that. I easily get motivated by seeing what I can do and then add 1% to that. Repeat.

Finding endurance speed through VO2 max training

To sum it up — I just started running faster at my VO2max pace/maximal oxygen consumption for long periods of time. I was under the false assumption that you needed to run slow all of the time to run fast. While that is half the story, everyone’s body adapts differently to different training.

Race Week Fuel — Beet Root Juice Shake (Actually tastes damn good!)

The very specific, sharp and focused fast training at V02 max pace, gave my system the stress is needed to then adapt for the longer (tempo) type running I would be doing during my half and full marathon race. 

I thought you needed to run slow slow slow then fast, but I actually needed slow (base), then fast, then race specific.

Ask yourself what distances you are good at and what paces. Then look at possibly changing up your training approach if whatever you were doing before isn’t working anymore.

Peaking & Aerobic Endurance Limits

At this point, you may ask, “Hey, Daren. You seem methodical in your training and race approach. Why did you feel the need to rush the marathon?” Great question. I was at around 14 or 15 weeks in my “speed” training phase and I knew my body was starting to break down. Small aches and nagging pains things started lingering for way too long and I was feeling a sense of “burnout”.

I felt that all I needed was a proper week of rest and some marathon specific workouts and I “should” be ready.

I also completed the Yasso 800 workout marathon test and nailed it. My results said that at my fitness level, I should be able to run a 2 Hour 54 Minute marathon effort. Obviously adjusted a few mins for me not putting in the proper marathon training, but that still had me at around three hours. Very doable!

Time Trial Race Day

I highly recommend not doing this unless you know your body well. I definitely didn’t have the long and fast marathon paced runs under my legs as I should have. But this was a test to see how my body would react and I was okay with any consequences.

  • The day was actually really good for running. High teens Celsius (mid-60s Fahrenheit), overcast, low winds, no rain, and average humidity
  • My race day morning prep and routine was spot on from my rehearsals over the previous months.
  • In the first 10k split, I came through a bit fast and then slowed down a touch by the halfway split 21.1km (13.1 mi).
  • My heart rate was consistent throughout and did the natural rise from the time of running at high aerobic/tempo pace.
  • My strategy for fluids, electrolytes, and nutrition were working well.
  • While I am usually against “banking time in the beginning of the race” this strategy actually helped me towards the end.
  • Around 30km (18mi) is when the freshness wore off but I dug in and focused on holding 4:16 min/km (6:51 min/mi) pacing.
  • At 35km my lack of long-distance training showed it’s nasty and I hit the wall.
  • From 35k and on, it just got hard mentally and physically. I was fighting general fatigue, muscle spasms/cramps in both legs, and knee pain from a nagging ache from the previous weeks. I find it interesting and funny that most marathoners say all the shit hits the fan at this point and it really did. From what I’ve read, if you haven’t done this speed training or distance (or both) then the muscle cramping/spasms are your bodies saying “Nope, sorry dude, do not pass go”.
  • At 5km (3.1 mi) left I knew I was still on track to do sub 3 hours with about 1–2 mins to spare.
  • At 1k (.6 mi), I knew I was pretty good but had to try very to run 20–30 seconds slower than my planned pacing.
  • At the 42.2 km (26.2 mi) mark, Garmin hit 2 hours 59 minutes and 57 seconds.. Too close for comfort, but I did it (play Mario end of level music). Yay.
  • I beat my previous time by 1 hour (25%). Yay.

I am now in the Sub-3-hour Marathon club and I proved my theory correct. More Yay.

Hawthorne Parade Park, Sydney, Australia

The Take Home

This is the 3rd marathon that I’ve attempted to run and I’m pretty good with not running one again for a while. I know that for some people, the marathon is like their running Christmas. They wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m not hating on them, I just don’t subscribe to it.

I’m glad I finally achieved my objective. I’m very proud that I actually had the foresight to predict something and dig in and see it through. Yeah, there was a bit of suffering to get there, but what isn’t worth something without a proper grind?

Non-runners are even to blame for the marathon romance. They default to serious running as a marathon and say “The 5k’s are for kids”. To that person, I say “Yeah okay buddy, try running a 15min paced 5k with me and see if you are still saying “This shit is for kids” then.

Your Turn

Have you picked an objective that is slightly stretching you but is something you can work at and see gains over the next few years? Do you disagree with my approach and philosophy and run 20 marathons a year and are injury free? Either way, please share it with me below and thanks for reading.

Huge thank you to all my family and friends that helped me (some who knew and some who didn’t) before, during and after the day!

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