I DID IT.
I am still riding a very big high from my most recent personal record at the New Orleans Marathon. I trained smarter, treated my body better, wholeheartedly committed to my goal, and left it all on the course. I am in disbelief that I was able to walk away from that race with an official finishing time of 3:21:24. My best yet, by over 17 minutes, AND a boston qualifying time.
I am so excited to share my experience with you - the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Let’s get going.
3-Phase Training Approach
Since this marathon wasn’t my first rodeo, my training schedule was not as strictly structured as they have been before, but that is not an approach I would recommend for someone who is still learning what works best for their body in preparation for such a high-intensity endurance event. During my previous races, I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t. Since my first marathon in 2015, I’ve come to build a solid base of knowledge about myself, my prefered style of training, and my body’s limitations. So, for the New Orleans Marathon, I knew one thing for certain - to avoid injury and burnout, I needed to focus on quality versus quantity when it came to my long runs and maintenance runs.
Since I (foolishly) decided to sign up for a February race, which then forced me to train through the peak of winter, my approach this time around was a bit different. In the past, I’ve adhered to a pretty basic 3-phase training format: strength, speed, endurance. To break that down, let’s look at each phase a little deeper…
Phase 1: Strength (roughly 2-3 months)
My dad and I always call this the “legging up” phase, just like race horses do when preparing for a run. The focus here is building strength, establishing a cardiovascular base, and giving your body the time to gradually adapt to a higher training volume without risking injury. In a general sense, this phase will include 3-4 maintenance runs per week, in combination with 2-3 hypertrophy style strength training sessions. The rep schemes for these lifts will include sets of 6-12 reps with a focus on time under tension. In simple terms, this means that you want to slow down your repetitions, forcing your muscle to remain under the load for as long as you can. Mileage during this first phase will average about 15-20 miles per week for new runners, and gradually build to 30-40 miles per week over the course of the training. For more experienced runners, starting around 25-30 miles per week and gradually building to 45-50 miles per week over the course of the training would be more suitable for you.
Phase 2: Speed (roughly 1-2 months)
So many endurance athletes neglect this portion of training, but I cannot emphasize enough just how important it is when striving to drop your pace or hit a qualifying mark. For me, I incorpote 2 speed workouts into my weekly routine during this phase, in combination with 1 maintenance run and 1 long run. My strength training begins to taper a bit during phase 2 in order to begin shifting my focus to my runs, so I will typically include just 2 strength training sessions (about 45 minutes each) during this time with a similar rep scheme as mentioned above.
Phase 3: Endurance (roughly 2-3 months)
Peak mileage, baby! This is when it’s time to hit the pavement - hard. My approach has always been to get in my longest run about 4-6 weeks prior to race day, and then gradually taper from there. For this training cycle, I logged just over 150 miles for my peak mileage month. I did my longest run (20 miles) exactly 6 weeks out from race day, and then gradually decreased my mileage back down to 6.2 miles on the weekend before the marathon. During this stage, strength training becomes less frequent, only 1-2 sessions per week (about 30 minutes each), with a muscular endurance focus. This rep scheme will be roughly 12-15 repetitions with light loads. Also during these final 2-3 months of training, I’m still working to maintain my speed by incorporating 1 speed workout each week, with focus on agility and turnover.
Now, with all of that being said, this time around my coach and I decided to flip phase 2 and 3 in order to hit my peak mileage month before the FRIGID temperatures of January rolled around, and it was honestly one of the most beneficial decisions we made. I loved this approach and definitely will continue training this way for my future races.
Increasing and Tapering Mileage
First and foremost, follow the guideline of increasing weekly mileage volume by no more than 10 percent, and remain at that new mileage level for roughly 2-3 weeks before increasing again. If you’re a more experienced runner, these progressions may occur every 1-2 weeks, but this is completely dependant on each runner’s rate of recovery. Adding on miles in the warm up phase and/or the cooldown is a relatively easy, gentle way to increase your overall weekly mileage with minimal stress on your body, posing very little risk of injury. Once your body has adapted well to increased mileage before and after your runs, then you can consider increasing the distance of the workout portion. A great way to approach this is to do small, gradual half-mile incremental increases in order to allow time for adaptation.
But with that being said, it’s important to keep in mind that your mileage takes a backseat to the consistency of your training. Running an extra 5 or 10 miles next week isn’t meaningful unless it is done on a recurring basis. Instead of always trying to do more, try to run more consistently over the course of months and years - that’s where positive change is made.
As I mentioned, I’ve found that I perform my best on race day when I begin my tapering about 6 weeks out. Some runners prefer to hit 22 miles for their maximum mileage run, but 20 miles has always been my sweet spot. Again, this knowledge came through experience, so don’t be afraid to play around a bit during your training. Testing the waters is the only way to learn!
When it comes to my weekly long run, this is my tapering process…
6 weeks out: 20 miles
5 weeks out: 15 miles
4 weeks out: 13.1 miles (HALF)
3 weeks out: 10 miles
2 weeks out: 8 miles
1 week out: 6.2 miles (10K)
In addition to that weekly long run, my maintenance runs are also coming down in mileage. For the last month of my training, my weekly mileage stays below 30 miles per week. It’s the rest more than the work that makes you strong during this final leg of your training, so this step is extremely crucial. In addition to that, a review of 50 studies on tapering, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, shows that levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones—all depleted by high mileage—return to optimal ranges during a taper. The muscle damage that occurs during sustained training is also repaired.
Speed forces you to run efficiently - knee drive, quick turnover, powerful arm stroke. That form helps you conserve energy, prevent injury from wasted movements, and breathe properly when your body is stressed - just like the way your body is feeling at the end of 26.2 miles.
In addition to that, the stress your body is under when it’s forced to run fast also helps to establish a higher lactate tolerance. You know when your muscles feel like they’ve been set on fire after an intense run or lift? That’s the one we’re trying to avoid on race day. By increasing your body’s lactate tolerance, you’ll be much more equipped to go further and faster without that burn.
Here are the types of speed workouts I incorporated into my most recent training cycle:
Example: 5 x 1 mile repeats with 4-5 minutes of rest between each
More info, click here!
Example: 6-8 x 800 meters at 10K pace; jog 200 meters for recovery
During the Endurance phase of my training, I’m incorporating 1 of these sessions into my weekly routine, to compliment my longer mileage runs. During the Speed phase, I’m averaging about 2 of these sessions each week in order to improve on efficiency and sharpness.
What is Hypertrophy?
The goal of hypertrophy style strength training is simple - muscle growth. This is so important during the first few months of training because endurance events are unfortunately very grueling on the body’s musculature, meaning that it’s hard to maintain muscle mass during marathon prep due to the high mileage/high energy expenditure required to train.
The reason for focusing on hypertrophy in the beginning of the training cycle is to set our bodies up for success by developing strong, sturdy frames. In basic terms, this is what will protect us from injury as we continue to increase our mileage. As we get closer to race day, we will have to shift the majority of our focus away from strength and onto cardiovascular endurance, so dedicating a few weeks to building ourselves up before that happens is crucial crucial crucial.
Sample Hypertrophy Style Workout
All exercises should be completed with loads that are roughly 60% of your 1 Rep Max
Movement Prep (Striders, Broad Jumps, Agility Ladder)
Superset #1 - 3 sets
8 Barbell Back Squats
8 Barbell Deadlifts
Superset #2 - 3 sets
8 Seated Shoulder Press
8 Seated Cable Rows
Superset #3 - 3 sets
8 Horizontal Cable Woodchops
30-second Anti-Rotation Cable Hold
Sled Push x 5
What is Muscular Endurance?
Switching gears, the goal of muscular endurance style strength training is to increase the amount of time your muscles can sustain exercise. It is the combination of strength and endurance - exactly what marathoners are striving for.
As you get closer to race day, hypertrophy style strength training is no longer beneficial, and can actually prove to be detrimental. The amount of time it takes for our muscles to repair and recover from these higher-intensity lifts is too great, which will interfere with the mileage you are aiming to get in each week. Not to mention the fact that overloading your muscles during this time is a recipe for disaster - hello injury!
Sample Muscular Endurance Style Workout
All exercises should be completed with light loads - anywhere from bodyweight to roughly 25% of your 1 Rep Max
Movement Prep: Banded Glute Activation (Squats, Lateral Walk, Donkey Kicks) and Core Activation (Deadbugs, Planks)
Triset #1 - 3 sets
12 Alternating Reverse Lunges
15 Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
20 Squat Jumps
Triset #2 - 3 sets
12 Push Ups
15 Dumbbell Rows
20 Tricep Dips
Triset #3 - 3 sets
12 Leg Drops
15 Mountain Climbers
20 Flutter Kicks
Rower - 5-10 min @ 5 resistance
Check out this article to read more about the carb loading process!
For all of my races prior to New Orleans, I never properly carb loaded. I half-assed it and hoped for the best. I never realized just how much of a difference it made until this training cycle. I committed to the entire process, and let me tell you, it totally changed the game.
I personally chose to start my carb load 6 days out from the race. Monday and Tuesday of that week, I was consuming roughly 2.5 grams of carbs per pound of my bodyweight. On Wednesday, I increased to roughly 3 grams per pound, and Thursday I increased again to 4 grams per pound. Friday was my peak carb day (2 days out from the race), which meant that 85-90% of my intake was carbohydrates. I was aiming for roughly 5 grams of carbs per pound of my body weight...a lot of carbs.
My pro-tip is to stick to the basics when it comes to carb loading. Try to stay away from high-fiber foods, which often lead to indigestion/bloating, and stay in your comfort zone. This isn’t the time to start trying new foods that you haven’t tried before. Some of my go-to carb sources are brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, potatoes, cereal, oatmeal, and bananas.You will have to find what foods your body responds best to, but this is what I have found works best for me.
On race day, breakfast for me was an almond butter and banana sandwich. Simple. Quick. Easy.
Like I said, stick to the basics.
Rule of thumb - aim for roughly 150 grams of carbs about 3 hours before the run.
I ate about 2.5 hours beforehand, which gave me enough time to digest before heading to the start line. I always wake up at least 2 hours before the race to make sure I have enough time to eat, stretch, meditate for just a minute or two, and slowly make my way to the corral.
During the race, I chose to fuel with Honey Stinger Energy Chews. I experimented with gels during my training runs, but none of them settled well in my stomach. The chews were perfect for me - highly recommend.
I brought two bags of the chews with me on the course, but beforehand, I combined them into a Ziploc bag for easier access during the run. I ate a handful of chews around Mile 10, Mile 16, and Mile 22. I finished both bags throughout the race and felt like it was the perfect amount to keep me going without feeling weighed down.
Also, I tried running with a Camelbak hydration pack for the first time, and I don’t know why I didn’t try it sooner. I thought it was a trillion times better than any running belt I have ever run with, and obviously much more convenient than trying to stop at every hydration table along the course. I chose to fill my pack with water, and then supplemented my hydration with the gatorade offered along the course. I went through about 30 ounces of water (about 1 liter) during the run, in addition to 2-3 small cups of gatorade.
Besides the food and drinks, I will list the rest of my race day gear below:
To be honest, I have never felt as good after a race as I did after NOLA. That just proved to me how much of a difference the preparation makes - tapering, fueling, and resting prior to those 26.2 miles is crucial.
As soon as I crossed the finish line, I had about 8 ounces of gatorade, a banana, and a full bottle of water. My cool down looked pretty pathetic, but my goal was to simply bring my heart rate back down and try to avoid cramping. For me, that just meant trying to stay on my feet until my body calmed down a bit. After you run that far for that long, sitting down is the worst thing you can do. Believe me, I’ve been there! It’s a recipe for cramping. Even if that means grabbing onto someone to keep you up, try to stay standing.
Once I got my legs under me, I did some static stretching before heading back to the hotel. Most of these stretches were done standing up, but once I got back to the hotel, I had my sweet boyfriend help me through some assisted stretching. My left knee and left hamstring were my trouble spots, so we made sure to spend time working out the tightness in my hamstrings, hips, glutes, and calves.
Brunch was next, and let me tell you, nothing tastes better than buttery pancakes after 3.5 hours of running. My post-race meal was a veggie and goat cheese omelette, homemade biscuit with butter and jam, fresh fruit cup, 3 cinnamon swirl pancakes with butter and syrup, and a few strips of bacon. This girl can EAT.
The rest of the day I stayed off of my feet as much as possible. When I woke up on Monday, my knee and hamstring were still tight, and my legs were extremely stiff. It was a total rest day for me - my main focus being hydration and foam rolling. Tuesday morning, I woke up feeling about 80% back to normal. It was BEAUTIFUL. Typically, I am limping around for about 3 or 4 days, but this time was a totally different story. Even though I felt great, I took another full rest day.
Wednesday was my first time back into the gym for a workout, and I kept it light with an upper body focus. After foam rolling and a modified yoga flow, I spent about 30 minutes going through some basic upper push and pull exercises before cooling down on the elliptical for 10 minutes at a very low resistance. After that, I finished up on the foam roller to flush out my muscles.
For the rest of that week, I did 2 more workouts (Friday and Saturday), both of which were light full body circuits with 15-20 minutes of LISS cardio on the elliptical. The other days were active rest days, meaning I did either a 45-60 minute yoga flow or 30-minute recovery session on the mats doing core work, stretching, and correctives.
The recovery process after a marathon will look different for each runner. Experienced runners may recover more quickly than first-timers, or maybe you just ran your first race and you feel great! Either way, there is no right or wrong way to take care of yourself after you’ve accomplished those 26.2 miles. I highly highly highly recommend taking AT LEAST 48-72 hours of total rest before getting back into the gym. Dedicate that time to foam rolling, stretching, soaking your muscles, and HYDRATING.
I have just started slowly getting back into running this week. I am planning to average about 20 miles/week for the remainder of this month and next, and then take it from there. I don’t have a set “routine” that I am following at this point, but rather just waking up and gauging how my body is feeling that day. Right now, I am working out about 5 days a week - a combination of lifting, cardio, and yoga.
Follow a training plan - consistency is HUGE when it comes to marathon preparation, so having a calendar to guide your workouts will help more than you can imagine. Also, if you’ve never trained before, it’s so important to make sure that you’re approaching it with strategy. There are so many factors that go into preparing for an endurance event, so do yourself a favor and rely on the framework of a program to steer you in the right direction!
Prioritize your nutrition - cannot possibly stress this one enough. If you don’t put fuel in the tank, the car isn’t going to move. Same principle applies to our bodies! The process of finding which foods benefit you the most will be a learning curve, but believe me, it’s worth the time. The hardest hurdle for me was understanding that my body already requires a lot of fuel, even without such high mileage training, so when I add a marathon into the mix, I have to eat A LOT. More than almost everyone I spend time with. But, seeing the way this fuel translated into my runs helped to ease my anxiety. I was able to switch my perspective and see food as that “gas” in my tank. Without it, I wasn’t going to reach my goals. Don’t overthink it, just eat.
Don’t skip your speedwork - my speed workouts were some of my most difficult runs throughout my entire training, but without them, there is no chance I would’ve been able to improve my pace as much as I did. Don’t neglect these workouts. Distance running will help you to build your base, but the speed is how you will polish your skills.
Make a kickass playlist - no further explanation needed. Here’s my playlist if you need some inspiration!
Timing is everything - what I mean by that is make sure you are training for a race during a time when it’s feasible for you. Crazy work schedule? Classes are kicking your ass? You’re getting ready for a move? Switching jobs? All of these life events are not only stressful, but exhausting. If you’re in the middle of any of these, you don’t need to start training RIGHT NOW - there will always be races next month, next year, or 5 years down the road when it’s more convenient for you. Training requires a lot of time, and if that’s not something you can wholeheartedly commit to right now, don’t pressure yourself into rushing the process. Wait until the time is right.
Well...that turned into a novel. I truly hope my experience at the NOLA Marathon can help you in your training process, whether that’s right now or a few years down the road. The amount of support and love this community has offered to me throughout my training absolutely blew me away, so it’s my turn to give back to YOU by sharing my tips, tricks, and running hacks. If you have any other questions, comments, or experiences you’d like to share, leave a comment below. I am so grateful for each and every one of you.
Until next time, happy running.