When you make the decision that you want to run a marathon, you’ll quickly discover all sorts of elaborate training plans and schedules designed to get you to the finish line. Almost all of them require you to run at least four or five days per week with perhaps a day or two of cross-training thrown in.
But what if you simply don’t have the time to run five or six days a week because of work, school or family commitments? Or you flat out don’t want to run that much? Do you have to completely reassess your marathon goals?
It is certainly preferable to run 4-6 days a week, but it is entirely possible to complete a marathon (or half) on as little as three running workouts a week. You won’t set any world records, but you should be able to complete the full 26.2-mile distance if you are already fit and just do these three key workouts every week.
But since you’re only doing three workouts, none of these runs will be gentle, easy recovery runs. Because you’re only doing the three, you’ll have plenty of recovery time in between workouts so you can toss out the easy runs. You will have to get everything possible out of each of these workouts in order to maximize your limited training time.
These workouts will be tough, but they incorporate just about everything you will need in marathon training crammed into three days per week. Since they’re going to be hard, prepare yourself for some difficult, hard-to-do workouts.
You’ll need to do some quicker runs to build up your speed and efficiency. If you do a speed workout properly and consistently every week, it will build up your leg strength so they won’t feel heavy during quick running. This will not only make you faster, it will make the slower runs easier.
Workout: Warm up with easy running for 20 minutes on grass or a track. Then, run four repeats for five minutes (4 x 5) at the pace you think you could hold for a 5-kilometer race. This should be fast, heavy-breathing stuff. If you’re not breathing hard, you’re going to slow. After each five-minute interval, take at least two minutes of easy running before starting the next one. Try to maintain an even, steady pace. Once you get fitter and faster, you can try doing the fast running for as long as 10 minutes. Or vary the pace and length of the intervals. There are tons of speed workouts for marathoners; the important thing is to do one each and every week.
Hills are the cornerstone of every Austin runner’s training. In just about every direction, here are plenty of hills which is a good thing. Running uphills builds strength, endurance and mental tenacity you can’t get from any other workout. There are two ways to run hills: By running several repeats up the same hill or incorporating a few big climbs into a normal long run. Either way works. For best results, alternate the workouts week by week.
Workout 1: If you’re running repeats up the same hill, pick a climb which is tough, but manageable. It should take you anywhere from two to five minutes to climb the hill. Warm up by running 20 minutes to the base of the hill. Once there, power your way up the incline by using a steady effort which will bring you the top without faltering. Once at the top, either jog very slowly down or walk back to the starting point and repeat. Pump your arms, lift your knees and don’t rest until you top the hill.
Workout 2: The other type of hill workout is doing a long run with a few major climbs thrown in. When doing a long run in Austin, it’s just about impossible not to run into some major hills.
Plan your run well so the climbs are challenging, but not so tough that you can’t keep running once you have ascended the hill. The run should be a continuous effort. You should plan on running at least four major hills during the course of the run and give yourself plenty of time to recover between each major climb.
Some great long run hills in Austin include running north on Exposition or going south on Congress to Ben White (both key part of the Austin Marathon course), the Scenic hills, Duval, the Barton Hills, Lost Creek, Mount Bonnell, Ladera Norte, south on San Jacinto and plenty of others.
There is virtually no way you can complete a marathon without doing several long runs. Since you’ll only be running three days a week, it is absolutely essential to do a long run each every week. There’s no magic time or set distance for an effective long run, but for starters it should be at least an hour long. You will have to build that time up over the course of your training until you can run for as long as three hours—if not longer.
If you’re a beginner training for your first marathon on this limited schedule, even an hour might be a bit much at first. So build up gradually, increasing your long run by 10-15 minutes every week. Take it easy. You won’t be running nearly as fast or as hard as on the other two days. A long-run pace is relaxed and conversational. You should be able to converse with your training partners on the long run. If you need to take walk breaks, do so.
Workout: Start off with an hour long run. Begin slowly and gradually build the speed. But don’t go too fast. Your final 10 minutes should be just as fast as your middle miles. Plan your route before you go. Either carry water or know where drinking fountains are. As your long runs get longer, consider bringing energy gels with you.
Again, you’re only doing three workouts a week. What we’ve provided is a basic structure. Keep the major components the same—speed, hills and long run—but vary the workouts by intensity and distance.