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All of your marathon training questions answered by 100-time marathoner Hal Higdon

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow
We were all beginners at one some point.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It may only be July, but as many runners know, this is prime time to beginning marathon training. Fall marathons are less than four months away, including the New York City marathon, the world’s largest with more than 50,000 participants, scheduled for Nov. 6.

There are many training programs and apps for runners to choose from. Mostly range from 16 to 20 weeks, including some specifically designed for new runners. But for those of us who are running a marathon for the first time, there are questions that can’t simply be answered by putting one foot in front of the other. Is it better to run longer or run faster? Is walking OK? How do you choose the right shoes?

Quartz sought out some answers from Hal Higdon, who has completed well over 100 marathons and authored several training plans and books (the latest is Hal Higdon’s Half Marathon Training), including of one of the most popular for beginners. Runner’s World named him one of the world’s most influential running gurus and anyone who’s ever Googled “marathon training” has come across his name.

These are excerpt from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Can anyone run a marathon?

That might be a little bit strong but yeah, theoretically somebody who’s healthy should be able to run a marathon. We have had examples of people running a marathon on crutches or a wheelchair. There’s some marvelous success stories over the years that I have been part of, so try: there’s risk of failure but sometimes you have to accept that risk. If you are afraid to take a risk then you don’t deserve to win.

How important is it follow a training program meticulously?

The secret is there is no magic recipe to success, but if there was a single word that is going to make you a successful, it certainly would be consistency. Moving a workout back and forth is really not a problem, a program could be manipulated—even the mileage for me is not that important. I don’t even look at miles, as much as I do the quality and quantity of what runners do.

Is it OK to walk?

Walking certainly is permitted: if it helps, certainly do it. I would rather have runners walk from the beginning of the workout, even take a 30 second walking break every mile, than come town to mile 8 or 10 and suddenly being forced to walk.

How long is the ideal walking break?

That depends. I would say most runners going through an aid station should have time to grab the water, drink it, and maybe even relax a second and let it go through—so anywhere between 30 to 60 seconds. If they need more then so be it, though in today’s marathon events there are almost more aid station that we really need, if you drink at every station you can almost drown.

I always bring up the fact that I ran a 2 hour 29 minute marathon walking through every aid station, and my son Kevin qualified for the Olympic trials with the same strategy, running a 2 hour 18 minute marathon. Even if you walk for a short period of time you don’t really lose that much time.

Let’s talk about pace. Most programs are built with the assumption that a runner knows their marathon pace, but what about a new who runner only has two speed modes, on and off?

Well there is no pill that you would buy at the drug store that would immediately tell you what your pace is going to be. New runners don’t have a race pace, because they have never ran a race before. I suggest especially to beginner runners train much more slowly that they otherwise may think.

If you’re a runner who’s ran five marathons, 10 marathons, you’ll have an idea of what your race pace would be, and you can design your training off of that. But still, for the long runs I usually recommend that runners do them from 30 to 90 seconds or more slower than their marathon pace. I don’t really care how long it takes as long as they get through the distance.

What about the other runs?

For the midweek runs, the shorter runs, I don’t really care how fast they are. The designation is to run at a comfortable pace. If you’re coming out to run on a Tuesday, and you have your day off on a Monday, then your comfortable pace may actually be faster than race pace. But then if you come out on Thursday, after having run on Tuesday, and a semi-long run on Wednesday, you may come up with some fatigue, and easy for you might be slower than race day, even if it’s a short distance. So it really varies day to day, depending on what you’ve been doing the day before and not only merely in running but in life away from running.

What is more important: covering longer distances or running faster?

For first timers, I would take the word speed out of your vocabulary, because it’s not going to do any good. What you need to do is be able to get to the finish line, and the thing that you need to do to ensure that is to work on your endurance. This means long runs are much more important than the speed training that I might recommend for intermediate or advanced runners.

The whole purpose for a first timer is to just have a comfortable first race, have a lot of fun doing it, and not come in dragging on hands and knees on the last couple of miles. I usually feel it’s an advantage if you run your first marathon slower than your ability, because that guarantees that you will get to the finish line with a big smile on your face and not feel too uncomfortable. If you ran really slowly then you’re almost guaranteed a personal record when you run your second marathon.

So, the slower you run the first marathon actually the better. It should be a comfortable run rather than an uncomfortable run, with the obvious realization that there is no way to run 26 miles without getting somewhat out of your comfort zone.

Bad runs tend to bring down confidence, especially for inexperienced runners. What can you do about that?

I have been watching the Olympics trials for the last several days on television. I guarantee that every runner that I watched finishing in the top three and making it to the Olympics had a lot of bad runs, days in which they come off the run feeling terrible.

You have these rough patches and bad runs and you just sort of move on, because the next day’s run will be much easier. Quite frequently the reason for a bad run is you had a good run the day before; maybe you had a six mile run on Wednesday, and you ran it at a fast pace because you were feeling great. I guarantee that you will come out on Thursday dragging because you’ve ran so hard the day before!

Experienced runners know this and know that they can live through it. There are a number of factors can cause the run to be “bad,” but there will be a lot more good days than bad days.

Does cross-training need to be aerobic or is something like yoga OK?

Different coaches will define cross-training in different ways. I want you doing something aerobic—ideally that would be swimming, or cycling, or even walking. Yoga is great exercise but it doesn’t really do what I want runners to do on their off days. You should try to do something that is near your running, but not exactly running, allowing your muscles to rest, in combination with long runs on a weekend.

People always write to me ‘I am going to be in Colorado next week, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get much running done,’ and I say ‘Fine, you know, climb a mountain as long as you come back refreshed physically as well as mentally.’ When you have an 18-week program you can allow a certain amount of deviation. If you get suddenly hit by cold or a flu or even worse an injury that might put you back a little bit, hopefully if you’re consistent with your training, you can overcome such problems.

Should runners eat during a marathon?

I think if there’s one thing I was missing when I was younger that would have improved my performance would have been the [energy] gels. You are best out carrying those; you can pin them to your shirt if it’s necessary.

Otherwise, for 26 miles and under, I think water plus sport drinks are good enough. We all learn the importance of water for cooling our body temperature and the sports drinks are good because they provide a little more energy that will allow us to get through the first tough miles.

In terms of taking out a full meal, I think that makes more sense for ultramarathoners. For runners who are only going to be out for three or four hours, what they pick up at the aid station is enough, while those who may be out five, six, seven hours may need solids.

Basically you need to determine during long runs and training what works best for you and stick to that. You’re going to make some mistakes, so the next time you get to the starting line of a marathon, that gives you something to improve on.

Do you recommend strength training?

If you have strength trained before you start your marathon training, fine, continue. But if you never have strength trained before, you do not want to show up at the gym on week one of your marathon training program.

Get through the 18 weeks, get through the marathon, and then afterwards see if you can balance yourself by learning how to strength train properly. Normally, I recommend low weights and high reps so that it’s sort of an endurance-based training rather than power-based, but everybody has a different approach.

What’s the best way to prevent injuries?

Gentle training, particularly for first timers, is the way to avoid injury. We all have certain weaknesses, but don’t go into any workout routine automatically assuming you are going to suffer because other runners you might have known have had those problems.

Although a lot of runners get injured, they often are minor injuries, and if you train properly you should be able to, if not avoid, at least lessen the impact of those injuries.

What’s better: running a certain distance or running for a set amount of time?

You can go either way. One of the advantages of a time-based program is that instead of doing a 10 mile on the road that might take you 90 minutes, you can get out in the woods with some uneven ground, hills, soft surfaces and run for 90 minutes and have the same advantages, even though the mileage might be slightly different.

Most of my programs are mile-based instead of time-based because it’s a little bit easier for new runners to comprehend. But once you’re an experienced runner, you can shift.

Should the total mileage increase every week of training?

No. In my marathon training program we have what we call “step-back weeks”: every third week I cut the mileage, and specifically the long runs, which allows the runners to rest a little bit physically as well as psychologically.

Should a runner expect the training to become increasingly more difficult?

It’s like the old tale about Milo the wrestler at the ancient Olympics. Every day he would lift a calf over his shoulders until the calf grew into a bull, and by the time he was lifting the bull, he was the strongest wrestler in the arena.

The same theory pretty much applies to training for a marathon. The training becomes progressively stronger and stronger, and the runner becomes stronger and stronger, covering distances he or she had thought unimaginable in weeks before.

Training gets more and more tough, but you do too. If you train right you should be able to get to the finish line with a smile on your face, which is important because they are going to take a photo of you, which you are going to want to buy and hang on a wall in your office.

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