The road to Enschede (and beyond)
I haven’t been very mysterious about the fact that the Enschede Marathon on April 19, 2020 is an important goal for me. This may seem a bit odd: the difference between a road marathon and an ultramarathon mountain race is huge! Nevertheless the explanation is very simple and relates to the first principle of my training philosophy:
Principle 1: “fitness trumps everything.”
Many aspects of the preparation for a long, slow mountain race are important, but the number one is fitness. And few things build fitness for long distance running the way a training block for a road marathon does. The race itself is the icing on the cake: it motivates to persist through the training and it is a measurement of the realized fitness. For a fast marathon all aspects of it are important: a high VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen my body can process per minute), a high lactate threshold (the tipping point at which my body stops being able to process the produced lactate fast enough) and a great endurance at the projected marathon pace. By challenging myself with the (ambitious, but realistic) goal of running the Enschede Marathon within 3 hours I will have to work hard on all of them.
Having trained for just over half a year now, I have a reasonable idea of how I can achieve this. Up until now I have trained all the above aspects in parallel, but this approach is losing its productivity. In order to make further progress, periodization of the training becomes important. And amidst all the chaos and confusion of actually planning this, the second principle of my training philosophy offers clarity:
Principle 2: “any training block starts with the training that is least specific to the race and ends with the training that is most specific.”
When training for the marathon it means this: start with VO2max. This is the maximum amount of oxygen my body can process per minute and corresponds to an intensity level that can be sustained for less than 10 minutes during a race. Not very marathon specific indeed… But having a high VO2max makes running at a much lower intensity easier to sustain as well. The paradox is that it isn’t trained at all when running at those lower intensities. Therefore I train it by doing 1 km intervals at very high intensity with short recovery breaks in between. The training effect is fast, but levels out quickly as well. This is why this is the shortest block of the training: 3 weeks.
After a recovery week to clear away the accumulated fatigue a training block focusing on the lactate threshold follows. It is the tipping point at which the body stops being able to process all the lactate in the muscles as fast as it is being produced. Above it the muscles acidify and it is reached at a lower intensity than VO2max. In a race this intensity can be sustained for a duration up to about an hour (provided being properly trained). So it is a bit more marathon specific, but obviously you want to stay away from lactate threshold intensity during a marathon race. So the higher it is, the better! I like to train this by running 3 to 5 km intervals at the right intensity, separated by 1 km at an easier pace. But in this subblock I will also perform a few interval trainings at VO2max intensity and the reason for this is found in the third principle of my training philosophy:
Principle 3: “anything you don’t maintain, you loose.”
That is a bit of a bummer, but there’s a tiny bit of good news as well: it takes much less training to maintain something than it takes to improve it. Which is why I hope to do enough maintenance with 3 VO2max trainings (compared to 9 lactate threshold trainings). During the entire marathon training block I’ll do weekly (slow) long runs to train the endurance to run strong for several hours. In this phase I’ll start adding in short bits at marathon pace, mostly at the end of the run to get comfortable with maintaining this pace in a fatigued state. Finally, I’m still contemplating signing up for a trail race in the Ardennes right at the start of this subblock.
In terms of recovery these are the toughest weeks leading up to the marathon. The consecutive recovery week will be indispensable! The third subblock is the most marathon specific and has the simple main goal of increasing my endurance at marathon pace. Not only will I increase the amount of marathon pace running during the long runs, but there will be two additional trainings with similar intervals each week. To maintain VO2max and the lactate threshold (principle 3!) I have planned 2 and 4 trainings respectively.
The training effect of this type of training is relatively slow and therefore this is the longest subblock with the largest volume. Although the trainings won’t be the toughest to complete (this rather dubious honour is without doubt held by the VO2max intervals), the gradually accumulated fatigue will be substantial. This makes the final phase before the race crucial: the taper.
The goal of the taper is as simple as it is logical: recover as much as possible before the race without getting injured and without losing fitness. The latter is mostly a mental problem: even if you spend two weeks on the couch, you won’t loose much fitness (for the not getting injured goal this may even be the best idea!). But losing confidence in ones fitness is something entirely different and can potentially ruin any race. A few shorts sessions with a highly reduced volume (without reduction of the intensity!) can help here. And if done well it maintains the fitness better than staying on the couch, of course. The effect is just relatively small. Another benefit is that it keeps the muscles loose and flexible. Discipline to refrain from doing anything more and confidence in the executed training will be the biggest challenges of the taper…
Right, are you still there? I do realize this is a long and dry story… Nevertheless most of the details are not even included! You can follow me from training to training on my Strave profile and I’ll try to post an update on the training progress on my Facebook page every once in a while. Without doubt you’ll notice that planning and realization won’t always agree. All the above is exactly that and nothing more: a planning. All kinds of circumstances (think illness, injuries, winter weather, you name it…) can throw a spanner in the works and I may respond differently to the training than expected. In any of those cases I’ll simply adjust the plan, always aiming for the best possible outcome. That’s life!
A final footnote: in my previous post I wrote about participating in a 71 km trail race on Tenerife in June. That is 7 weeks after the Enschede Marathon and that’s exactly long enough to fit a fourth block (plus taper) of training that is more specific to the slow pace, long duration and large amount of climbing of that race. Together with the training for the Enschede Marathon it constitutes a large training block for that nicely obeys the three training philosophy principles described above. An that’s important, because above all (the training for) the Enschede Marathon serves the greater purpose: building fitness for long mountain trail races and eventually the full Tenerife Blue Trail in June 2021.