Free-Basing to Maintain Marathon-Level Fitness

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Photo credit little runner by Flickr user Paul Duke, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

After wrapping up a pretty successful 2010 race season with the Cleveland Fall Classic Half-Marathon over a week ago, I toyed with the idea of turning things back on again to run the Austin Marathon in February.  While the idea of having a big goal with a shorter time frame and being able to join (and maybe push, or probably be pushed by) Joe Maruchella of Joe Runs for Dom fame, and meet other Dailymile friends such as Jeni Henrickson, Brian Adkins, Erin Ruyle and others (plus, staying with my brother, who I haven’t seen in a few years) holds a lot of appeal, I’m leaning against doing it.  I was kind of looking forward to over a month of free running to experiment with different approaches, while reading Daniels’ Running Formula and Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning to plot a new training approach for the Cleveland Marathon in 2011.  Additionally, with the annual family vacation to Marco Island planned over the New Year’s holiday and my wife traveling to Boston for a conference for 11 straight days in January, plus the impending Cleveland winter, ramping up for a late February marathon to deliver the type of performance I’d want to (in other words, sub-3:00) just doesn’t seem feasible.

That being said, I’d really like to continue the momentum and not lose much of the fitness I’ve built through this year in the period before my formal marathon training begins after my wife’s trip.  More than that, there are a few weaknesses that I’d like to work on while I have the opportunity to do so:

  • Speed:  Yes, I know this may sound silly when you can turn out 800’s in sub-3:00 on a regular basis.  But the reality is I feel that I’ve hit a bit of a plateau on speed work results, with additional effort at 800’s, 1600’s, and long hill intervals not yielding much in the way of further gains.
  • Pace sense and discipline:  I’ve become very reliant on my Garmin to tell me how fast I am going and have lost (or never really built) a good intrinsic sense of pace.  You can argue this isn’t really that important, but being able to judge the effort relative to pace is still a helpful skill to be able to make quick adjustments during a race or training run.
  • Finishing strong: I still tend to hit a wall in marathons or when I do long training runs and push the pace.  While this may be related to calorie intake (which is something I should experiment with as well), I feel that it can’t hurt to get better at pushing the pace on tired legs and with a weary mind.

With improvements in these areas in mind, here are the types of runs I’m going to do more of during these seven (or so) weeks, doing less (or no) 800 or 1600 or long hill intervals.  I’m also going to attempt to be more unstructured in these runs, hitting them when the time, energy, and mood allow – there will be no printed schedule.  Yes, my bias will still be towards a rest day on Sunday and speed work on Monday, and my schedule makes getting to the Rec Center for strength training easier on some days, but I’ll still seek the opportunities to shake the routine up where possible, also mixing in more lunch or postdusk runs (also to help catch up on some sleep during this period).

  • 100m and 200m strides and intervals – I’d like to really focus on form and outright speed during these workouts, doing them on the track whenever possible.  Since the track is roughly 3 miles from my home, this makes for a good total run of 8-10 miles, in which I can also focus on finishing strong on fatigued legs with some marathon-pace work.
  • Short hill sprints – to help build leg strength without overtaxing aerobic capacity, I’d like to shift to shorter (10 seconds or so) sprints up steep hills.
  • “Rhythm” runs – as opposed to doing strict marathon- or half-marathon-paced work, I’d like to mix in some runs of 6-10 miles where I start at an easy pace and finish at 5K pace with a steady progression on mile splits.  This can help with finishing strong as well as getting a better feel for pacing.
  • Lydiard-style running by feel – while I’m still not a fan of running naked (sans Garmin), I have taken to hiding it under my sleeve on some runs and trying to guess my pace by feel (as well as hold it steady, not including the impact of hills).  I’d like to do some of my long runs (2 hours or so) this way, as well as mix in some 60- or 90-minute runs.  One challenge I have to figure out with this approach is dealing with the fact that “fast” feels very different at 4:30AM than it does at lunch or 9:00PM.

On top of this, I’d like to hit the Rec Center for strength and core training twice per week (I’d love to do it three times per week, but it’s just not feasible given our morning schedule), make drills during my cool-down a more regular routine, and still do some tempo runs, particularly at lunch. There will be no written schedule, no weekly mileage goals – the only mileage goal is to pass 2000 for the year, which is likely to happen by mid-December anyway.  I’m not going to get concerned if my miles dip down to 30 in a given week, or panic if I push over 50 when I’m feeling good and have a favorable schedule and weather conditions.  Heck, I may even experiment with the heart rate monitor for my Garmin. And I’m going to enjoy the process of simultaneously adding variety while working on some relative areas of weakness.  When our vacation or my wife’s travel limits the time I have to run, I’ll treat it as a great opportunity to practice some of the mini-workouts suggested by online running coach Jason Fitzgerald.

Oh, and as Ann Brennan reminded me in her post on holiday resolutions, I’m going to focus on keeping my diet under control during the holidays too.  Limited amounts of Christmas Ale, as few sweets as possible, and avoid, especially, the vending machines at work (which I have been quite good at for months).  And no more snarfing down Jelly Belly’s before beds.  They are not the fuel that I convince myself they are.

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  • Vera

    A very well thought out plan. With the addition of the training group starting this week and the added mileage that comes with it, I’m definitely looking for a couple of shorter workouts I can do during the week to add quality, not necessarily quantity. I like the short hill sprints. I’ve got one or two in mind I can use already! :-) Can’t wait to watch your progress Greg!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Vera, though I’d like to emphasize the focus is more on goals and elements than on a formal plan. But no worries, I’ll be back to writing detailed plans early next year!

  • Vera

    Something just occurred to me – if the plan is to not have a plan, isn’t that a plan in itself? lol ;-)

  • Kiwi

    I’m a ‘newbe’ … but already signed up for the NY Marathon for 2011 … so I’ve made the commitment, now I have to do the training … so I’m looking forward to reading more of your ‘veteran’ advice!!! I’m not a spring chicken, so I’m guessing the work is going to take longer! I have been running for the last 6 months and done a handful of 5ks, but now I’m beginning to look ahead and would appreciate ANY advice you have!! Thanks, and thanks for your blog!

  • Jason Fitzgerald

    Great post Greg! When I don’t have a clear goal with a particular block of training, what helped me was sticking to an aggressive long run. This helps you maintain (and even build) your aerobic capacity even if your weekly volume is low due to schedules, etc. Focusing on a long run and making it hard by including a progression or fartlek at the end will help with your speed and ability to close fast. And have fun with the hill sprints!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Kiwi, appreciate your visit and comments. You certainly have plenty of time to prepare for New York, so I’d focus on just building the mileage base for a few months (getting comfortable with 30+ miles / week) before considering any type of focused speed or hill work, if you have a specific target time in mind (though definitely include some hills in your regular running routes, if possible). You may want to consider the novice plans from Hal Higdon or others, who offer both base-building and ramp-up advice – that’s where I started when targeting my first marathon back in 2001, and it led to a 3:34 result. Good luck!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Fitz, great suggestion, thanks, what I may do is add some strides on the track or fartleks at the end of longer runs, as you suggest, not just in the “maintenance” period but during the marathon ramp too. And you are correct that, in many ways, the rest of the week is largely window dressing around a quality long run. As much as I will add variety to my schedule, I think that long run will continue to mostly be the Saturday morning routine.

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  • Jeff

    Great post! Having just finished my big goal of a first marathon, I’m faced with what to plan for next. It is great to see your thought process for your own training and to consider what/how to incorporate new things. I just finished a 23 week training schedule, which was preceded by an 18 week schedule leading to my first failed marathon attempt (injury). It is great to be “free” of the plan! Through all this time, I’ve never focused much on speed work and am therefore slow. I too must now figure out how to keep things fresh, yet continue to move forward in strength and speed. Thanks for the detailed explanation of your plans. It is very helpful.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks again Jeff. The first step is to be motivated to do something more, and it sounds like you are. Glad you find the explanations helpful, I always find it useful to get a range of inputs to find inspiration for new training ideas, so long as they are consistent with your goals and capabilities.

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