The best marathon training plan I have seen is from Dr Michael Joyner: "Run a lot of miles. Some faster than your race pace. Rest once in a while." Within the broad strokes of that philosophy there are countless training plan iterations that specify a precise progression of weekly miles and a precise mix of speed, tempo, and easy workouts, but the actual training plan that will resonate with a runner is a deeply personal thing.and it's going to take a few cycles to get right. Luckily, apart from whatever structure a training plan takes, there are a few supplemental tips and tricks I've found to be really helpful in setting myself up for success on race day. Here they are:
When pressed for time, sacrifice miles to make room stretching, strength training, and recovery
Unless you're a professional athlete and can dedicate 24/7 to this, marathon training is going to have to fit into your already hectic schedule. The time needed to run all those miles every week really starts to add up, so it's expected that compromises will have to be made and corners will have to be cut. But while weekly miles are the highly visible vanity metric of marathon training that help your race day resilience, it's the 'little things' that help your body stay healthy through training and get to the start line in one piece. So if you only have an hour to squeeze in a run, instead of running for the full 60 minutes, dedicate 5 minutes to warming up properly, 45 for the run itself, and 10 for stretching. If you don't have time for a dedicated lifting session on top of your scheduled runs, repurpose one of your runs to include some circuits (burpees, squat jumps, pushups, planks. etc.) along the way. Those few minutes spent on strength and recovery will be way more beneficial to your training than the one or two miles you sacrificed.
Use your weekly long runs as race prep practice
By the time you get to the start line, everything from your pre-race ritual to your race kit to your fueling strategy should feel like second nature. Take the nothing new on race day mentality one step further and really put your race plan through its paces. On your weekly long runs, wear the exact kit you plan to wear on race day to find out if your tank starts to cause chafing after an hour, or if your socks/shoes cause blisters after 2 hours. Experiment with the energy gels you'll use and practice consuming them at the appropriate intervals and while running race pace. If possible, carry a water bottle and practice fluid intake at intervals where you know there will be water stations. Practice your pre-race routine and nutrition as close as possible. Know what time of day your race starts and what the elevation profile of the course will be like and see how close you can get your training runs to mirror those. There will always be the unexpected wrench thrown into your plans and there are no guarantees on race day, but eliminating as many variables as possible will maximize your chance for success.
Adopt an 'Adapt, Survive, and Advance' mentality for when the inevitable bad days arise
Over four months of training, you're guaranteed to have some bad days. Dealing with setbacks isn't something you need to do to get your training back on track; dealing with setbacks is a CORE PART of your training. Get your mind and body comfortable with the idea that some days it's just not in the cards to have the run your wanted. Change your plans if necessary and do what you can, recognize that you have lived to fight another day, and rest up to start getting ready for your next run. Adapt, survive, and advance. A few bad runs or missed runs throughout the course of your training won't have an impact, but the runs where you bounce back stronger absolutely will.
Carb loading is a week-long event
Eat A LOT of carbs and starch starting about a week out from race day. Go hard on rice, veggies, pasta, and bread. You should be sick of sweet potatoes by the time race day rolls around. The last 24-36 hours before the race should be back to a normal amount of food to give your body and bowels a chance to process everything. Keep on top of your hydration this week but don't go overboard here. For a little added placebo, do what the best marathoners in the world do and drink a lot of sugary Kenyan chai. Also get acquainted with Ethiopian cuisine and injera bread in particular. A dinner (or two) of Ethiopian is a race week ritual for me.
Find a mantra or two and know when to use 'em
The marathon is a mental test as much as a physical one, so the ability to help the mind focus when and where it needs to focus is a valuable arrow in the marathoner's quiver. Some runners I know have a motivational saying they'll repeat to themselves, and others will just sing songs to distract from the pain, but at the end of the day it's all about having some steps you can actively take to refocus your mind. For me, simple, repetitive counting 1-2-3-1-2-3- works to focus my mind on my cadence and stop focusing on other things that might be bothering me. 180 steps/minute is a little faster than is comfortable and sustainable for me, but it's close enough that I can ballpark counting 1-2-3 steps per second to try to get my cadence and pace back on track. I also use the 'head, shoulders, knees, and toes' song I learned in preschool as a reminder to keep my head down, relax my shoulders, keep lifting my knees, and to keep on my toes instead of sitting back on my heels. After a couple minutes of singing (in my head, for the sake of everyone around me) that refrain, I can usually get my form back on track. Plus, that song still absolutely slaps.
Read and re-read The Marathon Doesn't Owe You Anything by Peter Bromka
Hands down the best, most inspiring piece of writing I have found on the why of the marathon and the marathoner. Read it when you're starting your training. Read it when the taper tantrums set it, read it the night before your race, and generally keep it close in case you ever need a reminder of what this journey is all about.
Adopt a husky
Actually, I absolutely DO NOT recommend this at all. For 99.9% of the population this is a terrible idea. Frankly, it was a terrible idea for us, even with how much we now love this dog. Even for the active, sporting pet owner, a dog--especially a husky--is a lifestyle choice and commitment that will take precedence over your training plan. We adopted Tala in June, just as my training for Chicago was starting, and it was instantly apparent to me that my entire plan had gone out the window. Tala doesn't care that I'm supposed to run X miles this week or that her need to stalk squirrels on our morning outings is interfering with my running. I am training on Tala Time now. This is an intelligent, independent dog that just wants to play and will not care one bit whether I run a PR in this marathon or DNF. I'll get the same exciting, tail-wagging greeting when I get back from Chicago regardless. And if that's not some valuable perspective on the marathon, I don't know what is.