You Be the Coach: How Should Torsten Train Between Marathons?

Today is another installment of the popular “You be the Coach” series where I ask for your coaching advice.

The strength of the SR community (see what I did there?) is that collectively, we can help runners train smarter by making better decisions.

And one of the most important decisions a runner can make is long-term planning. Sure, day-to-day workouts are critical. But the daily training is directed by your long-term goals so before you get specific, you need to be general.

One of my favorite aspects of coaching is helping runners plan entire seasons with periods that focus on mileage, speed, racing, or simply rest. It’s often the big picture elements of training design that runners struggle with and it’s what I absolutely love.

Now it’s your turn.

How to Structure Pre-Marathon Training

Torsten struggles with off-season training – or the time between training plans. How much much is too much? Or too little? How often and at what intensity?

It can be tough to plan multiple training cycles, especially when they don’t line up very well.

Torsten ran the Chicago Marathon on October 13th of this year and his next goal is Boston on April 21, 2014. His typical “official” marathon training is about 16 weeks, which would put the start of his training plan sometime in December.

He has about 8 weeks until that period of marathon training starts. So until then, what should he do?

Here’s his background from an email he sent me:

I have been running on an advanced level for over five years, averaging 80 miles a week. My peak mileage can top 100 miles a week. I usually run 7 days a week with the day after a long run dedicated as a recovery day. I also take one day off every month.

I use cycling and swimming as cross training 1-2 times a week as well. I just ran the Chicago Marathon in a 2:47 PR and usually use 16-20 week training cycles. I typically do 2 marathons a year, multiple half marathons, 25k, 10mi, and shorter distances – perhaps 10-12 “real” races a year.

I run pretty much every kind of workout in the books – structured workouts, of course.

As for injuries, as you well know, running is a tough sport. Just this last year (I just turned 36) I started having some hip and knee issues, mostly the left leg. I have been experimenting with minimalist and zero drop shoes and believe the issues came from that – I don’t like them and won’t use them anymore. I run mostly Mizuno shoes, the Elixir being my daily trainer and the Ronin my race shoe.

What I am looking for is some advice on my 8 week off-season training. Every year I struggle with what workouts to do (variation), what pace, and what intensity. Unfortunately, I was pretty exhausted going into my spring 16-week spring marathon build, because I may have overdone it during the off-season.

Clearly, Torsten is an advanced, competitive athlete. At this level, training becomes more complex.

Given what you know about his background in the sport, injury history, past training, and upcoming goals – how would you structure the next 6-8 weeks of his running?

What should he focus on? What should he avoid?

Are there certain workouts that could be more beneficial for him (and some that may be more detrimental)?

Leave your reply in the comments! This weekend, I’ll also join in and provide my advice to Torsten in the comments below.

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  1. My advice is to bust out the heart rate monitor and do most/all runs in the aerobic zone for eight weeks. This will allow his body to recover while increasing his aerobic capacity. A reduction in mileage might be in order as well. I’m no where near the runner that Torsten is, so I don’t know how aerobic zone and recovery running applies to elite runners, but I do know it’s worked for me, having improved prs at every distance after long recovery periods when I’ve done solely aerobic training.

  2. During this 8-weeks (and possibly even a short way into the 16-week training cycle for Boston), Torsten should focus on those things that are difficult to focus on during a training cycle. Without more information, I would emphasize strength training with the goal of injury prevention. Leg, hips, and core in particular. With lower weekly mileage than during peak training, there is room for more strength and flexibility work. Things like body-weight squats, one-legged bridges, side bridges, etc. Some actual weight lifting is fine as well, but the focus should be on lower-weight higher-reps kinds of workouts, with full range of motion. Have a coach or trainer check to make sure you are using proper form so as not to injure yourself.

    These kinds of things should be part of any training plan/cycle. But during this in-between time, you can put more focus on the strength training without adversely affecting the quality of your training runs.

  3. Chuck Swanson says:

    I would say take it easy for a week with his swimming/biking to get the legs back. Use a foam roller and some dynamic stretching. Do some core work at the end of the week and you could ice bath a time or two. Recovery is first after the race. The subsequent weeks will start the running process again as long as everything feels good. Continue with the ancillary things for strengthening legs and staying healthy. If the first run goes good I would say wait a few days and increase the next run by a mile or 2. I would only run 3 times week 2 increasing the runs by 1 or 2 miles as long as you feel well. Ice baths are good for recovery of legs if you like. Week 3 would ramp things back up to about 50 percent of typical mileage. Break things out into short to medium length and do some strides toward the end of the week. Week 4 you could add some quicker running with a Fartlek workout and continue to add slowly. Keep up dynamic/strength stuff. By week 5 you are at about 60-70 percent of typical mileage. Long run is getting back to half marathon distance and now it’s just slowly adding things. By week 8 your training should be ready to continue with things for Boston buildup!

  4. My suggestion would be to see a specialist to have your running form evaluated and your balance checked, especially with the recent knee and hip issues on one side only. That sounds like it may be an imbalance or alignment issue rather than a shoe issue to me. From the analysis, you will have a better idea of what your off season approach can be. Use the time to heal, strengthen, cross train, and lose weight if you need to while maintaining your weekly mileage somewhere around 60% of previous (commenter above mentioned this, and I agree).

  5. Ken Walker says:

    The first thing I would suggest is to recover from the Chicago marathon and all the training building up to it! As mentioned, ‘running is a tough sport’, especially at the longer distances so recovering from the marathon should be the first target and I would suggest allowing around four weeks post marathon for optimal recovery.
    During this time, focusing on eating wholesome, nutritious foods and having plenty of quality sleep should be the main priority, as well as having some massages and doing light swimming or cycling for fun, without the pressure of structured training (leave the watch at home, and keep the sessions low intensity). This will allow you to fully recover so you don’t feel exhausted like last time.

    During this time it is also good to reflect on your previous training and race result and analyse your performance:
    Did you achieve your goal? If not, what what went wrong? Was it something under your control (training, recovery, nutrition, unrealistic target etc), or was it out of your hands (bad weather, etc).
    If you did achieve your goal then you can use the training plan you followed to help design your plan for your next race / target.
    This is also a good time to figure out what your next goal is, and considering it’s the marathon, what are you hoping to achieve? I presume it’s a personal best time, if so, you then have to look at your previous training and see what changes you can make to make sure you achieve this new goal.

    For the remaining four weeks of your off-season introduce 2 strengths sessions per week, with a general circuit session being what I find most beneficial (Squats, lunges, push ups, pull ups, abdominal and lower back). This will provide a whole-body workout that will help improve your strength and reduce your chances of injury long-term. No need to go heavy, just use 2-3 sets with 10-15 reps, focusing on technique through-out.
    You could also start running again (as well as the swimming and cycling), again just low intensity, 2-3 times per week, fartlek style runs, preferably off-road for fun and enjoyment!

    With regards the minimalist issue, most people try and incorporate it into their training at too high a level, during periods of high training, having quite a shock on the body, as your gait and technique change dramatically. I find it helpful to walk around barefoot as much as possible and do a few light runs (on grass or sand) during the off-season, so maybe you could give it a try. Just make sure you keep it low intensity and adjust the amount you do (if any) when you start your next marathon training program. It definitely can help strengthen your feet and improve your proprioception, so don’t write it off just yet!

    The most important thing is to get to your next training period revitalised and ready to go (and not feeling exhausted like last time!), hopefully this will help you on your way to a new pb!

  6. First thing first. Sounds like some much needed REAL rest and recovery is in order. This would also be a good time to get that tune up to see what is going on with the knee and hip before adding anymore trauma.

    • Thanks for the advise. I got rest after Chicago and I am go to go … I am not worried about the hip and knee issues, they are manageable … Thanks again.

  7. Strength train 3 times per week with running specific exercises, yoga, keep a base running mileage of around 40 miles per week.

  8. William Kuester says:

    He should use this 8 week window to do a good base phase and just reconnect with running. He should cut out any workouts, except maybe a Tempo Run once a week, and have most of his runs at recovery pace or long run pace for the duration of the 8 weeks. He should implement a strength workout routine during this time. If he treats this as a Base phase I believe he would be able to increase mileage slightly and still be rested for his build up for the Boston Marathon.

  9. My advice would be to focus on recovery for a few weeks post-marathon. At least one week should have no workouts – being as advanced as a runner as he is, it shouldn’t affect his fitness at all. Adding a second week with no impact cross training would be great for recovery, too.

    The following Week two (or three) should have 3 to 4 very easy runs between 4 to 8 miles each.

    Week three (or four) should again be easy runs, 5 to 6 runs, with three or four runs ending with four to six striders. Week three’s mileage should be around 40 miles.

    All of these easy runs will promote recovery, which should be a big focus for Torsten given the issues mentioned above, so he can come in strong to the new training cycle and get ready for Boston.

    After the weeks of recovery, one to two moderately paced (i.e. Tempo) workouts can be worked in each week, as well as more mileage, to really round back into form (slowly) for the new training cycle.

  10. I’m a big proponent of strength training. Building up a good base helps with running. If you already combine this into your training maybe change it up a bit (new exercises, or use interval training to keep up the heart rate). I would also recommend continuing running (not total rest) but with decreased mileage. I think tempo runs might be good and some fartleks mixed in there. I wouldn’t focus so much on track workouts, but just keeping a good foundation of mileage. I think someone mentioned about a 60% mileage compared to your “race training” program. This seems like it could be good especially to help you actively use this time to recover. It might be a good time to check out your nutrition and any other areas you might want to build up/recover (like your left side 🙁 ) before engaging into the 16-week race training again. I’m nowhere near your level, but just from what I read these would be my suggestions. Good luck with your training and next race! 🙂

  11. Strenght running with focus on your weaknesses, easy running with some fartlek sessions with a mileage around 60% of yodur usual one. Analyze your training log and your lastbmarathon in order to better address your next training proram.

  12. i think more rest is in order. when i’m not training for an event i have had good results taking a full week off every 6-8 weeks. the best part is that you don’t have to necessarily scale back your workout schedule when you are working out, meaning you can both maintain your broad base of mileage while also injecting some pretty significant rest into the routine.

  13. After recovering from the marathon, I recommend getting back to some shorter distance training, introducing a lot of 5k speed workouts to bring back speed in the legs. Keep the overall volume relatively low, i.e. you can afford to skip certain easy days and keep the long runs manageable, e.g. between 10-15 miles. Once the real marathon training starts, he can refrain from doing these sorts of workouts, go straight back to tempo/marathon pace stuff and start increasing mileage. With the base he has got already, mileage increases won’t be a challenge. With the 5k workouts in his legs, marathon pace workouts won’t be as demanding and he can concentrate on maintaining or extending top end weekly mileage.

  14. About his comment on his minimalist shoes and his joint issues while running in those shoes:

    Humans are designed to be flat footed “animals”. If you place anything under the heel to elevate it higher then your forefoot, you shorten the posterior chain, including muscles, ligaments and tendons. Also you limit your full range of motion basically from toe to head.

    Addressing mobility issues would be the first thing, I would do with him. As many advanced and forward thinking physiotherapists, coaches and strength and conditioning professionals state, gaining back full mobility after years of misuse abuse can take up to 18months of ultra focused approach.

    He tries minimalist shoes for probably 3-4 months, too sudden, without any precautions and correct transition time, without addressing other curb balls thrown by life. Too much sitting, incorrect shoes during all day long, every day, improper balance, flexibility and mobility drills or the total lack of it.

    For instance just let’s see a simple squat. Feet parallel, back neutral, shin vertical, knees pointing out, neck follows spine line.
    People cannot get into these mobility positions in an ass to bottom squat. What do they do ? Turn feet out, or put on a weight lifting shoe even for light weights or use a belt. Is this correcting the problem or masking it ?

    We are not designed to run, walk or live with heals elevated. Get your mobility issues sorted out, your technique corrected and your daily life geared towards less sitting and more movements. (Standing work station, gym ball…)
    This will immediately help you out with extra strength and speed.
    I am not a big fan of true barefoot shoes for high speed drills or races, like VFF or Vivos. They are great for form focused trainings.
    There are many other shoes and brands what serve you with cushioned low drop full neutral shoes: Merrell, INOV 8, Altra and so on. But firstly I would look for at least 2 pair of shoes, to change down your every day work shoe. (Lemming shoes, Vivobarefoot)

    Books: Thread lightly, Becoming a supple leopard, Overcoming gravity, Speed power endurance
    After a good progression you can go for the training books like the Daniel’s running formula or the Triathlon Training Bible and so on…

    Full Range of Motion first, then we can talk about speed, endurance and racing.
    Time and results are nothing without health and longevity in sports.

    • Thanks for the comments … interesting points! In my “defense,” I transitioned into zero drop or minimalist shoes during a 9 month period, starting with Newton shoes, then Karhu and lastly Vibram shoes. At first the shoes felt nice, but with in a month my ankles and calfs started to have serious issues … also, I usually do not wear any shoes at work, use a ball to sit on or work standing up. I also practice various forms of mobility and strengthening routines daily, like doing a squad almost all the way to the floor without turning my feet 😉 and even doing single-legged squads at least half way down.
      I do agree that range of motion is compromised in most (if not all people,) but I also think that people who take running seriously have learned to deal with these issues in many different ways and forms. I know that I can’t keep up this kind of intensity for many more years to come, hence I am not overly concerned with improving mobility but rather maintaining whatever mobility is there.
      Again, Thanks for the comments and advise.

  15. Alright – my turn to chime in!

    So Torsten is a very highly-trained runner. To continue progressing, he can’t take 6-8 weeks at a low volume/intensity level. That’s a long time. Once he recovers from Chicago – which he probably has already – I think he should focus on one of two things: either high volume or high intensity training.

    A 16-week marathon training cycle would start on 12/30 for Boston. Until then, if Torsten chooses the volume route, I’d get his mileage up to 80-90 per week but make up the additional miles with cycling and/or pool running. I’d have him do the equivalent of 110-120 miles/week for 6 weeks. For him I’d use 10min of cycling = 1 mile of running from an aerobic perspective.

    Or, if he’d rather a speed oriented pre-marathon phase, I’d have him keep the miles at 70-80 but do 2 fast workouts per week and several 5k – 10k races. Since he just came off a marathon cycle, it’s helpful to focus on shorter races for a mini-cycle. Those fitness gains transfer very well to marathon training.

    Some caveats: the week before his 16-week cycle starts, he should either take off complete or just run 1-3 times short and easy. He needs to start marathon training rested. And of course, all this work is in addition to regular strength exercises and mobility work to keep him healthy. He can get a gait or mobility analysis like others suggested, but that’s in addition to the real training.

    You can see that my strategy includes an additional week off (or very easy). For highly trained runners, that’s really all you need, particularly for a mini-cycle like this. The goal is to modulate the training effort by a significant amount. 8 weeks of easy/moderate training isn’t going to do much for a runner like Torsten.

    Thanks everyone for your contributions! Always interesting to hear your thoughts.

  16. Frannie JG says:

    I would recommend dividing the the recovery period in two halves. The 1st portion I would use as a more aggressive recovery from Chicago and the 2nd half would serve as a precursor to base training in the next marathon cycle.

    In the 1st half I would mix in the following activities:
    1. Running, but limited to a longer run (7-10 miles) and a 40-60 minute easy run to keep legs tuned into the roads.
    2. Crosstraining, specifically, swimming and cycling, as needed to meet your endorphin fix. I’d use swimming as slow, recovery aerobic activity. If you feel any need for speedwork, I would do short intervals on the bike to minimize stress on your joints.
    3. Rest days – Get 1-2 days of aerobic rest per week; activity on the rest days can include yoga and stretching, but I’d try to let the body heal.
    4. Form drills – I’d use the drop in training volume as an opportunity to do some form drills that can help keep you healthy in the next cycle.
    5. Muscle / joint recovery – I’d get a doctor to check out your leg. Do the physical therapy if it works for you, but I’ve found that I respond better to massage, chiropractic and even accupuncture.
    6. Equipment – Now is the time to experiment with more lightweight trainers, but focus on casual wear and short runs. See how your body responds without speedwork and make an informed decision from there.

    2nd Half
    1. Pretty much the same as 1st half, but I would substitute some recovery runs for the cycling and swimming.
    2. Speedwork – I’d introduce a lower intensity speed session. I’d limit the work to a 20-30 minute “tempo” run w/ a 20 minute w/u & c/d or a short fartlek session after a good warmup.
    3. Build up long runs 1 mile / week until you get to 13 miles & you’re ready to tackle the next cycle.
    4. Continue stretching, yoga, massage and other recovery activities.

    Good luck


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