Marathon training without the long runs

Our massage therapist, Emily, is so dedicated to her work on this blog that she entered a night time offroad marathon to prove a point! Here’s her story:

It’s cold, dark, wet and icy outside. You’re feeling tired or maybe you’re recovering from an injury. Perhaps you have a marathon booked in a few months. Should you grin and bear it and stick with the mileage written in the training plan? Should you listen to your body and rest?

Your answer may be interval training, cross training and pushing weights in the warmth of a gym.

At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Emil Zátopek became the first person to win the 5k, 10K and the marathon in the same Olympics. Before then he had never run a marathon, not in training, nor in a race. His secret? Interval training.

Combustion Triangle

The “combustion triangle” of sports training consists of:

  1. Cardiovascular fitness
  2. Strength & conditioning and
  3. Technique.

Using just one activity to train for these components is not uncommon; many runners only run. However, this can be time consuming and risky considering the amount of impact and the time it takes to recover from running.

My Marathon Training Experiment

I wanted to experience how effective cross training and interval training could be for this blog post, so I signed up for a marathon as an experiment. Apart from a very slow Ironman in 2014 (with a 5hr run split), I had never run a marathon before. While I’m used to high volume swimming and cycling, I don’t run more than 10km at a time.

My average week of “no long run” marathon training consisted of:

  • 1 x interval run / hill repeats of up to an hour
  • 2 x strength and conditioning sessions combining a mixture of “6 rep max” pushing heavy weights and explosive plyometric exercises such as box jumps and high skips
  • 2 x 1hr club swim sessions of high intensity intervals
  • 1 x long bike ride of up to 4 hours

I tend to use “dead times” such as standing on escalators / sitting at desk to stretch and commuting by bike as active recovery.

Emily Chong Marathon

The race I entered was an off road night marathon with 1000ft of elevation gained. Armed with a head torch and dressed as Spiderman for Halloween, I waited at the start line fresh and niggle free. Did I hit a wall at mile 20? Even top athletes do, but I had enough muscle strength to hold on to good technique and was sensible enough to stop and stretch when needed. Overall I felt light and quick, I even beat the entire (small) field to the finish line!

Of course, without a certain amount of volume in the same discipline as you race, you’re unlikely to break any records, but if you’re carrying an injury that doesn’t let you run five times a week or if long runs are not for you, consider training differently.

My top three tips for marathon training without the long runs:

  1. Interval training using low impact activities such as swimming, cycling or an elliptical machine is a much less risky way to train your cardiovascular fitness.
  2. Use weight training, yoga or pilates to safely build muscular strength for your race.
  3. Get your running technique checked out by a coach and keep practicing drills, pacing, fuelling.

Words and images by Emily Chong.

Sarah Lawson

Sarah had wanted to be a physiotherapist from the age of 15, and she realised her dream after qualifying in 1992. She went on to gain a postgraduate qualification in Sport Medicine in 1997, and later became the Outpatient and Sports Injury Manager at the Wellington Hospital. 

When she found herself spending more time on paperwork than patients (her clinic at the Wellington was owned by an American corporation), she went into private practice – first helping a small physio clinic get back on its feet, and then setting up Physio Remedies in 2005. 

Physio Remedies has come on a long way since its inception (which consisted of just Sarah on her own, in a converted broom cupboard at the Lansdowne Club): with top physios from around the country, state-of-the-art facilities, and relationships with renowned surgeons and sports organisations, it’s one of the most highly regarded physio practices in the country.