Marathon Training: What Worked For Me

I’m happy to dish out advice on plenty of things. In fact, I would like to write a book called How to Create the Perfect 16 Handles Concoction. (2 frozen yogurt flavors, heavy on the toppings, leave plenty of room in the cup for mixing.)

Good toppings include Oreo cookie crumbles, peanut butter cups and coconut, if you're into that sort of thing.

I will also give you advice about how to find great sales (outlets > malls) and other ways to save money (don’t get a haircut for at least two years at a time).

But giving advice about running?

That would be dumb. Because if there’s one thing marathon training taught me, it’s that I know pretty much nothing about this fun little sport…or activity…or hobby.

See? I don’t even know what to call it.

I wasn’t on the track team in high school and the closest I came to running in college was  bolting from my dorm room to the nearest box of wine (which was never very far away to begin with).

I will never tell you how to create a half marathon training plan and I will definitely not tell you what types of shoes you should be wearing.

But I did recently manage to complete a full marathon, and while it wasn’t in record time, I got to the start and finish lines injury free and with a giant, goofy-ass smile on my face.

See? Injury free + goofy smile.

So I will gladly share what worked for me during marathon training. None of this is science.

I ran five days per week. I know lots of runner/bloggers who swear that “‘running more than 3–4 times per week leads to injury.” I’m going to go ahead and say that’s not necessarily true. I became a better runner because I practiced running — not because I did lots of yoga or strength training. Those things are valuable, sure, but running was the bulk of my training.

Coach Cane’s plan for me involved five days of running every week, and I loved it. I also firmly believe that running five days — and giving each run a specific purpose — made me so much stronger.

Tuesday runs were speedwork, Wednesday runs were short and slow, Thursday runs were tempo runs, sometimes on hills, Saturday was long run day and Sunday was recovery run day.

We mixed it up constantly, and that kept me motivated. Every run had a challenge so it never got boring, and I was always utilizing different muscles in my now-extremely-thick legs.

The thicker my thighs, the longer I can run.

I foam rolled the crap out of my legs as often as I remembered. I probably didn’t do this enough, but whenever I went to the gym at night, I would foam roll my quads and IT bands. I also like sitting on the foam roller and rolling out my butt muscles. Try it if you haven’t. It’s a delightful feeling. My legs were tight almost every day during training, but foam rolling gave me good relief.

I still did core and arm work, but it wasn’t my priority. I do 200 crunches every morning. I don’t know that this does anything since roughly 8 million “fitness professionals” will tell me that crunches are ineffective. But I do planks, too, and I love doing tricep dips whenever I can. Sometimes at the end of a run I’d stop in the park and do 100 dips. I kept doing this things because they were part of my regular routine. Did they help my running? Probably not. But did maintaining my routine keep me sane? Definitely.

Triceps? They're in there. Promise.

I did spinning as cross training. I cross trained on Mondays (and, for a while, secretly added the occasional Wednesday night or Friday afternoon spin class). Spinning forced me to work different leg muscles than the overworked ones I was using to pound the pavement every morning, and it gave me a different adrenaline rush. Running will always be my first love, but I don’t mind dabbling in the occasional affair with the spin bike. And truthfully, during most spin classes, I didn’t turn the resistance up very high and I had a tendency to close my eyes and think about running.

I made myself my priority. My friends and family were all incredibly supportive during training, which made it easy on me. They knew my weekends would revolve around long runs. There were, of course, some people who didn’t understand, and I found myself distanced from those people during this time. But training for the Hamptons Marathon was so important to me, and if people didn’t get that, then fine.

See? They get it. They support marathon training and also sweat.

Some people like to try to fit everything in during training. That’s admirable and it’s fine, but since this was my first time training for the full 26.2 distance, I didn’t want to risk ruining a crucial long run due to lack of sleep or a hangover. It just wasn’t worth it to me.

I listened to my coach — not my friends. I know that I am very lucky and privileged to have been able to work with Coach Cane as I trained for this race. Without him, I would have been lost. I also probably would have been injured. I have lots of smart runner friends in my life, and I value them and what they’ve learned. But whenever I had a question or concern, I made the expert my go-to guy.

I’m sure he loved received 6 – 40 emails from me every. single. day.

Having a running coach is an expensive luxury. So while I said I wouldn’t dish out running advice, I will say this: Consult an expert when you can. Even if it’s not a coach, Runner’s World and other such forums are usually your most reliable resources.

I planned my long runs around where bathrooms were located and what time they opened. This is normal. And I was never caught in the middle of nowhere, desperate for a pit stop. I discovered fantastic new bathrooms in Central Park (at the northwest end of the Bridle Path next to the tennis courts, and by Columbus Circle), and I memorized what time each bathroom in the park opens. I should have made a spreadsheet or something. That would have been cool and handy. I could have laminated it…

I ran no matter what. I’ll never forget my first attempt at 16 miles on that 100-degree day in NYC. It was brutal, but I did it. There were also many training runs that I did during intense humidity or torrential downpours. I never skipped a training run because of the weather.

Then, when I thought rain was in the forecast for Marathon Day, I was annoyed, but I wasn’t nervous. The conditions weren’t looking to be ideal, but I had run plenty of times in rain, so I knew I was capable of it.

I ran with friends, but I also ran alone. The solo runs may not have been as much fun, but they were the ones that really boosted my confidence. My two favorite training runs were my 15.5 miler with running buddies and my 20-miler by myself.

Happy after a delicious 20-mile breakfast

Running with friends was great for me because it helped keep my pace solid and usually the miles flew by. But those long runs I did alone came in handy at the marathon when there were long stretches of time during which I was surrounded by no one. It was a small field of runners, so I didn’t have company. The 20 mile run I did at the very end of training made me feel so confident. I knew I could run for 3 hours without anyone pushing me, encouraging me or getting sprayed by my forearm sweat.

I ate what worked for me. Yeah yeah yeah, you all love your toast with peanut butter and banana. I tried it, too.

Oh barf. Is there a dislike button for this photo?

And I freaking hated it. I just don’t like banana, and that breakfast — though it’s the perfect combination for some people — was way too much for my stomach to handle at 5 am. I wanted to like it, I really did. So many people swear by this pre-run breakfast.

But for me, two Entenmann’s “Granola Bars” are the ideal mix of chocolate chip-cookie taste and pure sugar.

Yes, I did basically eat two chocolate chip cookies for my pre-marathon breakfast.

Yes, please!

I stopped racing for a while. Marathon training slowed me down big time. I was logging lots of miles and short, fast distances weren’t my focus. It took several frustrating races — and several tears shed over failed new PRs — that I realized an important lesson.

I wasn’t training for 4-mile or half marathon PRs. I was training to run 26.2 miles. I spent the spring months working toward my New York Road Runners 9+1 credit to get into next year’s New York City Marathon. As much as I wanted to complete my requirements by the time the marathon came, it was too discouraging for me to keep racing without success.

How much did I hate running the Mini 10K? SO MUCH. How much did I love getting hammered afterward? OH SO MUCH.

So I didn’t register for summer races and focused all my time and energy on one goal: the Hamptons Marathon on September 24. It was humbling for me, but it was necessary to refocus and re-prioritize.

I finally gave in to rest days. Blech. I used to hate them. But then on that fateful day, Mrs. Coach Cane told me that if I “didn’t like rest days, it’s because I wasn’t working hard enough.” I love her and her tough love. Eventually I started actually resting on Fridays, like Coach Cane told me to, and I pretty much always felt better during my Saturday long runs.

Now back to writing my 16 Handles book…

TELL ME: If you’re up for sharing, let me know what works for you during marathon training.



0 Responses

  1. I’m running a marathon TOMORROW!!! AHHH!!! So excited. My training for this marathon was much more enjoyable than my first. I think the difference is that I have excepted (and accepted) that there will be bad runs. And I looked at my long runs as a fun way to explore the city in a new way!

  2. Ok, so clearly i have no reason to comment on anything marathon related so I’m bypassing your question, but, I’m sorry, Ali, you missed one CRUCIAL step for your 16 handles book- and that is layering. base layer of froyo, mid layer of toppings, next layer of froyo, final (top) layer of toppings , ofcourse leaving room for mixing. [only works when there isn’t a hugeee line- but so worth it] I’ll be happy to help with that chapter 😉

  3. Ali, this post shows you know more about running than you give yourself credit.

    To run well you have to run a lot – you did it! Just like anything else the more you practice the better you become. The secret to being a better runner is… Well there is no secret the more you run (smart) the better you are.

    You maneuvered around injuries with massage aka foam roller – Just getting to the starting line (and moreso finishing) healthy is a success.

    You did the small things aka ab work/spinning/cross training

    You made yourself a priority and that’s a good thing! My coach always says life will do anything it can to get in the way of a run. It’s up to you to get the run in anyway you can.

    Listened to the expert – So important to follow and trust one methodology

    Trained smart – around restrooms etc – Bill Rogers used to plant water bottles around Boston to use during his run.. it’s the same idea to be smart on training runs

    Ran no matter what – I always say that my legs, lungs and heart don’t care what the weather is and you just adapt your internal effort

    Sometimes you get to run with friends othertimes alone – HUGE, getting out there for a long run with just yourself is a confidence booster and makes you stronger mentally! Getting out there with friends is awesome too.

    Food – You ate when you where hungry and what your body wanted! It will tell you what you require when putting in big miles. You would be surprised by how much sugar I put into my coffee and oatmeal before I run into work everyday.

    Not over racing – Just grinding out the miles over a hot summer and saving that race effort.

    I was surprised when I read your post because you sound like a seasoned vet. There’s a novel called “Once a Runner” and you talk about many of the same topics in the book. You should check it out. Anyways good luck and keep running!


  4. For me, I actually loved cross training during marathon trainings. I did the elliptical a lot, and that helped tons! i PRed in under 4 hours (marathon distance), with a few runs, lots of elliptical, and several long runs. It was great 🙂

    I can’t wait to read that fro yo book….. hehe

  5. You’ve mentioned “foam rolling” on here a few times. Would that work for shin splints? I get really bad ones and stretching/icing/heat doesn’t work. Sometimes they get so bad I can barely walk.

    Any advice? Thanks!

  6. I think the best advice you have here is you listened to YOUR COACH and not your friends and you did what was right FOR YOU. And made yourself a priority (okay that was three!). Agree with these on the marathon front, on running generally, and on life itself!

  7. I am starting a new marathon training cycle right now (literally first long run tomorrow) after doing tri’s all summer. I am doing the Run Less, Run Faster 3 day a week trianing plan. I am in a routine of doing double workouts on the same day and only 1 day off a week. So after tri season, I am hoping to be better during marathon training with cross-training and lifting weights/yoga. I am usually not so good about that, but I really think it will help!

  8. I’m mid-way training for the NYCM right now. I do only run 3 days a week, although I also do yoga, core fusion, and maybe spinning or something else in there. I’m injury free from running (moving while wearing flip-flops is another story – hello shin splints!), but the one thing I would say that is never mentioned is running in all weather. Race day might pour. You’ll still be running. May as well be calm and confident with the conditions.

  9. It was confusing for me to realize that I wasn’t getting “faster” while I was training for my marathon. When I ran my 10K only a couple weeks post-marathon and only cut 30 seconds off my time I didn’t get it…..but now I do. I wasn’t training to qualify for Boston or anything…I was simply training to be able to cover that distance! Now I really want to work on my speed!!!
    Improvising worked for me for my marathon training. I have a weird schedule, and so I wasn’t able to always get in a long run on the weekend. I did a lot of my long runs on Wednesdays. When I was having knee problems, I would attempt my long run, but my knee pain would prevent me from finishing. I learned that I needed to rest and nurture my injuries, so that a few days later I would try again and actually complete the long runs!

  10. I have tried to eat peanut butter and banana toast before my runs and it just doesn’t work! I love it after my run, I love peanut butter and banana any other time but before. It just feels like it sits in my stomach like dead weight. The only thing I have found that really fuels me without hurting me is watermelon. It is full of sugar and water and digests quickly. I eat a bowlful before the run and then some energy bites during the run if I need it. But for some reason, watermelon does the trick and can get me through 8 miles no problem.

  11. I haven’t done a marathon yet, hoping for next year at Wineglass, but in my training so far I have definitely had to realize that sometimes you have to be flexible. There are times when my husband and I have had to move a run back a day because I have gotten sick or we were just way too busy. We always have gotten all of our runs done, it just may not have been on the exact day we were supposed to do it.

  12. LOVe the foam rolling tip to help stay injury free! Stretching and increasing your core strength will help keep injuries from creeping into your training as well. Great advice about the pre-run fuel – learn what YOUR body likes, not what your friends do. If a sugary concoction keeps your tummy happy then go for it. Both peanut butter and oats are difficult for your body to process therefore leaving several people battling GI distress during workouts/races.

    For my first marathon I followed my plan to a T and never skipped a workout. That was the ONLY big race I’ve trained for without skipping a workout (3 full marathons and 4 ironmans later). I think after one you learn more about your body, you push it harder during training and then sometimes you just can’t slog through a workout and have to call it a day early or not even start. Perhaps that is what Mrs. Coach Can meant when she said if you didn’t like rest days you probably weren’t working hard enough. But if I remember correctly i was so dang scared if I missed just one workout in my training that I wouldn’t be able to run 26.2 miles – ha! How naive I was. 🙂

    Regardless of my opinions I think you are GREAT and am THRILLED for you running your first marathon!!! It’s empowering, isn’t it?!? Keep that marathon high going!!

  13. In your post RFR life, if say you want to train for NYC Marathon next year, you can sign up to run with the Nike 26.2 Training Group — Coach Cane is the coach for the group. He runs with them and sets up the schedules for the training runs. They are evening runs, though.

    1. Yeah, but then again, Coach Cane advocates racing in dangerous conditions, and all of Ali’s training got her to a marathon that was probably 45 minutes slower than she should have been.

      1. My goal time for the marathon was 4 hours, so I definitely wasn’t 45 minutes slower than anticipated – I was 13 minutes slower than anticipated. I think Coach Cane and his plan did a great job preparing me for my first marathon. Hills have always been a weakness for me so I’ll definitely incorporate more hill training moving forward, but overall it was a solid plan for me. And in working with me, Coach Cane never advocated racing in dangerous conditions.

      2. Tia:

        I guess we all have different definitions of unsafe conditions and a successful race. Personally, I consider Ali’s marathon a success, and I am very proud of her. This was her first marathon, she stayed healthy and injury free, and was close to her goal time. Considering her PR’s and relative lack of experience, I fail to understand why you would have expected a sub 3:30 marathon or consider her race a disappointment.

        As for racing in unsafe conditions, you’ll have to be more specific. But if you’re referring to not skipping races just because it’s hot or cold or raining, I am guilty as charged.

        When you’ve coached athletes (from beginners through world champions and world record holders) for over 20 years, and have a masters degree in exercise science, please feel free to come back and question my methods. If/when you do so, please have the decency to use your full name when posting. Until then I’ll consider this matter closed.

  14. I think it’s safe to say we should be best friends. I’m 1/2-way through my first Marathon Training and I agree with everything you have up there! I run 5 days a week as well… and I’m sure other people don’t like to, but when you’re training to run for a really long time, I feel like the best way to do that is to run often… and then refuel with beer and wine.

    I do Pilates a couple times a week too because it keeps the core strong, and makes my jeans fit. Pilates doesn’t make you starving, but running sure as hell does! 🙂

    Love reading your blog!

  15. oooh! great 16 handles tips. i never remember to leave room to mix and hence precious candies and sprinkles usually fall to the floor….

    i have loved reading every post about your marathon training and am so happy to have met you through the blog/running world 🙂 NOW, what marathon is next?? I know you’re already plotting…

  16. I’m a big fan of “knowing where the nearest bathroom is” planning. I think foam rolling is an essential part too. It’s great that you were so good about it! I always forget to do it and end up super tight all week after my long run.

    I’m training for my first marathon right now and I have been not so good about my rest days. Though I typically never run Mondays, I do usually try to sneak in some crosstraining instead. I think it’s really necessary to take a FULL rest day every week (ie. sit on you ass and relax!). It’s something I’ve definitely had to work on!

  17. Running 6 days a week this training cycle has helped me. I really agree with you that you get better at running by *gasp* running 🙂 This also meant that I had to be sure to take some days really easy and really listen to my body and alter my schedule if necessary, but overall it was good. It was also the first time I did speedwork and tempo runs each week.

    I used to eat pb and banana toast. It now makes me gag1 ick! I literally stopped being able to choke it down. I have started to eat pasta before long runs and races and have loved it. I am a little worried how I am going to manage in Steamtown with no kitchen! 🙁

  18. I would LOVE to run 5x/week but my PT strongly urged me to stick with 3x/week(I”m coming off an IT band injury). I just supplement with lots of strength training/yoga/cross training. I always feel like I’m at a disadvantage only running 3 days but my pace and fitness level has really improved over the last 10 weeks so I guess it works! I hope my next marathon I can bump it up to 4-5 but it all comes down to what works for YOU. And I hear you on the no PR’s during marathon training…so frustrating! I just try to keep in mind that there is no taper for half marathon races during training like there normally would be so your legs are not as fresh. Thanks for all of your suggestions!

  19. I definitely agree! I found that 4-5 running days works best for me along with yoga 2x a week, which I’ve really been neglecting lately.
    I eat a banana and a mini clif bar before I run. The thought of eating peanut butter that early in the morning makes me gag!
    I run with a group and I’ve realized the hard way that I really have to stick to my own training plan because no one else is going to run my race for me!

  20. Ha that is the same reason I am so lazy about strength training. I can run fast with scrawny arms! Even though I’m sure lifting would do me a little bit of good…

    Running five days a week works for me, too. My training plan has actually had me doing six days this year and I’m happy to report that I’m injury-free (knock on wood). I, too, am curious about 3x-week training plans. I’m no expert either, but if you’re doing that little and not supplementing with another form of cardio, I would think THAT would be asking for injury on Race Day…

    I’ve always been meh on PB and bananas. My pre-long run breakfast is usually Nutella toast. 🙂
    For races, I’ve found that downing Gatorade before and after the run works best for me. I stick to straight water if I need to hydrate mid-run– anything else makes me queasy.

  21. OMG. Ali, I devour those Entenmann’s Multigrain bars. Breakfast, mid-bike ride, morning snack, afternoon snack, pre-workout snack, you name it. The problem is that they are difficult to find down here in DC, so I am forced to use the product finder on the Entenmann’s website. Sad, but true.

    Congrats on your marathon!!

  22. No marathon here yet, but I do listen to my friends for sure. I really dislike the canned training plans on the internet, and my friends’ advice has gotten me very close to my McMillan predicted times.

  23. I think it’s very inspiring how you made your own way to the marathon, of course you had a very good base to start with (Coach’s Cane plan) but adding your spinning classes and eating what felt right for you, I’m sure helped a lot on the motivation towards the race. Again, very well done, Ali. 🙂

  24. I have no marathon tips. I just walked a half marathon, and that’s as much as I’ve done so far. However, after that I did run towards the closest frozen yogurt place (which just opened up in town)! YES!!! My lactose intolerance gets in the way of making the perfect concoction though!

  25. No marathon here *yet* but I will say this – I’m with you on doing what works for you in the eats department but also the running department. For me, I’m happiest when I’m training according to my own plan vs. someone else’s and my knees are happiest with four (maybe five) runs per week. It really does depend though, some weeks I’m itching for more than four and I’ll go for five, and other weeks I’m exhausted and my legs tell me that four is my max that week. I think the biggest thing with running is to always do what’s best by YOU, not by anyone else’s rules.

  26. I do not like the banana + peanut butter + toast combination either. Too heavy! I prefer a plain banana, coffee and a little energy gel.

    Also, I would be interested on info on the bathroom by the tennis courts. I’ve got everything else scoped out pretty well but the one by the tennis courts is always so far away and seems to confusing that I haven’t tried to figure it out yet.

    One thing that really worked for me I found was to carbo load 2 nights before and the lunch the day before instead of dinner the night before. I couldn’t handle the heavy dinners and an early 20 miler. (it took me a few attempts at 20 miles to figure this one out).

    1. That bathroom is great because it opens SUPER early in the morning. If you’re running on the Bridle Path, it’s on the northwest end. If you’re on the main road in Central Park, you can get to it from the west side, I think around 90th Street. It’s delightful. I promise.

  27. I only run 3 times a week with my plan, which is ideal for me with my injury issues. And I highly value rest days, and take many more than I originally planned! I do need to stretch and foam roll much, much more. For me I think that might mean getting myself to yoga.

  28. I would say listening to your body… wow how insightful, I know. But when I was training for Boston I ran the Martha’s Vineyard 20-miler… and then proceeded to run the next 3 days even though my butt hurt (enter, bursitis here). Sooo then I had to take 2 weeks off of training all together. Sad face. This time around I hope to be smarter…. I like your plan and your coach and hope to steal some ideas.

    Also, peanut butter fro yo + coconut fro yo + reeses pieces + cookie crumbs should be a chapter in your book… just saying

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about ali

I’m the creator of the Ali on the Run blog and the host of the Ali on the Run Show podcast. I’m also a freelance writer and editor, a race announcer, a runner and marathoner, a mom, and a huge fan of Peanut M&Ms, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (way better than the first one!), and reliving my glory days as a competition dancer in the early 2000s. I’m really happy you’re here.
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