Marathon training should be taken seriously. But what if your race is rapidly approaching and you’re not quite ready?
I’m sure it’s happened to you at some point: you register for a race but don’t start training right away.
Soon, the race is right around the corner and you’re not ready!
This happened to me last year when I was put on the waiting list for a 12-mile trail race in the Colorado mountains. Soon, I promptly forgot about the race.
Two months later (and only 5 weeks until the race!) I got an email confirming my race entry. The only problem was that I hadn’t been training and was woefully unprepared.
Oops! Still, I trained as best as I could and had a blast:
Today I want to walk you through several helpful ways of thinking about “cramming” for a marathon. It’s not recommended, but I know it happens so I want you to prepare as safely as possible.
If you are battling a significant injury or planning your first go at 26.2 miles, condensing your marathon training into a short window of time is not recommended. If you have already paid your entry fee, defer if you’re able, or select a new race that gives you at least 12-20 weeks of adequate preparation.
But if you’re uninjured and reasonably fit (and this isn’t your first attempt at 26.2), you may still be able to make it to both the start and finish line of your upcoming marathon.
Use these guidelines to help you make your next marathon a success on limited time.
Set a More Realistic Marathon Goal
Before you plan your training, you first need to revisit the goal. It’s important to be realistic from the beginning.
If you set an aggressive time goal – or even a BQ attempt – you’ll probably need to reset those expectations. If your goal is more conservative like a sub-4 marathon, it might still be possible:
When your marathon training isn’t as thorough as it should be, finishing healthy and happy can become an ideal goal (as I did with my 12-miler last year). Make it a priority to enjoy the race, take in the sights, or run with a slower training partner.
Once you have reset your goal, it’s time to set your priorities for the training time you have left. Don’t cram in too many miles, long runs, or quality workouts (you can’t make up missed time – and this is a big injury risk!). It’s essential to stay healthy and injury-free in the weeks that remain.
Now is the time to commit and make the rest of your training a priority. Put your training sessions on your calendar and commit. For marathoners, the remaining long runs should be considered non-negotiable. They are the most essential part of your training.
Overall, your training schedule should prioritize your long runs and easy miles, not speed sessions. Faster workouts are icing on the cake for most marathoners but if the goal is simply finishing, they’re not necessary.
Run More Mileage
In an ideal marathon training plan, your long runs will gradually build up to about 20 miles (or even 22 miles for more advanced runners). For some runners, many of these runs will include goal marathon pace work to ensure more race-specific fitness.
But all of these ideals will need to be adjusted depending on where your training is starting from. When time is limited, always focus on increasing your distance before adding in faster paced miles.
Be careful not to make too big a jump in your weekly mileage:
- Only running 3-4 days per week? Add a short, easy run to pad your mileage total
- Keep weekly increases to about 10% (but back off if you’re feeling a niggle turning into an injury)
- Long runs can be increased by 1-2 miles per week depending on how much time you have left to train
During this time, practice your fueling and hydration plan during each of your long runs. There shouldn’t be any surprises on race day.
Run (mostly) easy
Specificity is critical no matter your goal. All this means is that your training should prepare you specifically for the goal.
Want to lose weight? Eat and train properly.
Want to race a fast mile? Don’t run all your miles at an easy pace.
Want to develop power and strength? Lift appropriately.
So if you’re rushing your training before an upcoming marathon, easy runs should make up the bulk of your mileage. Almost all types of faster workouts are simply not a priority if you’re training for a marathon on a tight time schedule.
These workouts (like hill workouts, tempo runs, and fast reps) have a place in a lengthier training cycles but they’re not the main priority in a compressed schedule. If you prioritize building mileage and the long run in addition to faster sessions, you’ll likely end up injured.
There are a few exceptions: strides can be done 2-3 times per week year-round and help reinforce more efficient mechanics. You can also add some marathon-pace work to your training once or twice per week to get in a specific stimulus without overburdening your body with stress.
A marathon is always an aerobic effort so train the system that gets you 99% of the way there (aside from that sprint across the finish line, of course!)
It may seem counterintuitive, but even runners on a compact training schedule need to include a taper before lining up on the starting line.
The final long run of the training cycle should come about two weeks before race day. Those last two weeks should also see a drop in mileage of about 30-50%.
Throughout your taper, pay attention to the “extras” like sleep and nutrition so you give yourself every possible advantage before race day. Remember to adjust your race expectations for unusually challenging weather conditions, especially heat and humidity.
Before you know it, your 26.2 mile adventure will be underway. Run smart, enjoy the experience, and cross the finish line with a smile on your face!
If you need help planning your marathon, don’t miss all of our training programs, coaching services, and other resources at strengthrunning.com/coaching.