Without a doubt, the #1 training error committed by marathoners is conducting their last long training run three weeks for before their race.
Research shows that even after three weeks, marathoners' leg muscles are not completely recovered from their last long run. Four weeks or even longer is required for full recovery.
During a long run, muscle fibres in your legs are damaged or destroyed. Leg muscles repair themselves during rest and recovery. Until the muscle tissue has repaired itself, the force that your leg muscles can apply is reduced, decreasing your ability to maintain running at race pace over long distance. We'll see that long runs result in far greater muscle fibre damage than speedwork.
A breakthrough Dutch research study found that two-thirds of marathoners already had significant amounts of muscular damage in their legs on race morning, even before they reached the starting line! They were not fully recovered from their last long run.
Many training programs call for running your last long run three weeks prior to your marathon. This is a glaring example of information in popular running media not reflecting what the research community already knows.
Running a personal best is challenging at any time. Running a personal best on legs that have not fully recovered from training is really tough.
This point is critically important for women runners over 40. Women over 40 require more recovery time than both men and younger women.
What to do?
Complete your last long run four weeks prior to your marathon. The four week gap would facilitate complete muscular recovery, toeing the starting line in peak condition and running your personal best.
But without a long run during the last four weeks, won't you lose fitness, compromising your ability to run the marathon at your true potential?
Don't worry! These four weeks provide the opportunity to continue high quality training. As you recover from your last long run, incorporate a variety of speed workouts (assuming they were part of your training program) that will result in improving other factors that will affect marathon performance, e.g. running economy, speed and VO2max (maximum capacity of an individual's body to transport and use oxygen during exercise).
Include a weekly intensity run of 40-60 minutes to improve your lactate threshold, the running speed at which lactate begins to accumulate in your bloodstream, a marker of muscle fatigue (that burning sensation in the legs we all know too well).
The same Dutch study quoted in the earlier article found that runs up to 15 kilometers (about 9.4 miles) produced little or no muscle damage. Runs exceeding this distance produced the greatest damage to muscle fibers. Therefore, no run during the last four weeks should exceed this distance.
Three weeks prior to the marathon, conduct a short easy run not exceeding 9.4 miles/15K. Two weeks before the marathon, run 15K (9.4 miles) at race pace.
During the last two weeks leading up to the race, there is very little that you can do to improve your preparedness for the race. However, there is much that runners can do to screw things up.
If you missed workouts during your training, resist the temptation to catch up by inserting extra distance or speed workouts (other than what your program calls for during your taper). This is a mistake that dramatically increases the chance of overtraining, fatigue and (worse) injury.
Following a training program that employs these strategies will help you arrive at the starting line in peak condition with an excellent chance of running your personal best marathon.
Marathoners, how much time do you leave between your last long run and race day?
© 2012 Savvy Runner Inc.
Bennett Cohen and Gail Gould are the Founders and Presidents of the International Association of Women Runners. For access to resources to help you reach your goals for running and racing, visit www.IAWR-Connect.com..