A physiological explanation for 30 years of marathon training advice

A Physiological Explanation for30 Years of Marathon Training Advice

The Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Running Times magazine (RT) contained an article by Jonathan Beverly titled “30 Years of Marathon Training” (1). In this article Jonathan:

“…postulated that I should be able to sort through all the marathon training articles published in RT over the past 30 years and find the essential, core principles by which to make all those four-page, four-month, four-point-font charts ‘simple’. I also wanted to see what may have changed in those 30 years since RT began publishing marathon training programs.”

The focus of his inquiry was training to perform optimally in the marathon, – i.e. “race a marathon” vs. simply training to finish a marathon – and excluded training advice for first time marathoners and elites.

There is one particular piece of Jonathan’s article that caught my attention, the question of weekly mileage.   He addresses the age old question of “how much mileage” with this:

“While elites nearly universally run 100-120 miles/week in preparation for the marathon, how much you need to do depends mostly on your goals, which in turn are dependent on how much mileage you can handle without injury.”

Jonathan included 3 charts from 3 different authors – Jeff Galloway’s recommendations from a 1991 article, Mark Conover’s recommendations from a 1996 article, and Mark Winitz’s recommendations from a 2003 article –  prescribing how much weekly training mileage one must run to finish a marathon in a particular time. The general recommendation of all three gentlemen follow the format of the faster your goal marathon time the more training miles per week are required to reach that goal.  Table 1 provides a summary from each author for the 4 hour, 3 hour, and sub 2:30 hour marathoner.

Table 1: Recommended MPW for different marathon finishing time goals

Author, Year recommendation made 4 Hours 3 Hours sub 2:30 hours
Jeff Galloway, 1991 30-40 mpw 45-55 mpw 70+
Mark Conover, 1996 32-45 mpw 35-50 mpw 54-75+ mpw
Mark Winitz, 2003 30-40 mpw 60-75 mpw 80+ mpw

All 3 are fairly consistent in that the recommended mileages for various performances are more similar than different.

Let’s assume for a moment that the weekly mileage recommendations are accurate for the majority of people.  Based on these recommendations, then, if you want to run a marathon in 4 hours you need to train about 30-40 mpw, but if you want to run a marathon in under 2:30 then you need to run 70+ mpw. 

Let’s say we have 2 runners – one with a high degree of genetic talent such that he has the potential to run a marathon in 2:30 and a second runner with less talent so that he has the potential to ultimately run only 4 hours in the marathon.  Both of these runners decide to run a marathon and for their own individual reasons each chooses 4 hours as a time goal.  Is the training advice for these two individuals the same or different?  The training advice is the same – run 30-40 mpw to run a 4 hour marathon, despite any differences in genetic talent. 

This same thing applies for any other marathon time goal.  Run X miles to finish is Y time, assuming you have the genetic potential to run Y time. 

What is fascinating is that this advice means that the less genetically blessed runner will reach his optimal mileage at a much lower level of weekly mileage than the more genetically blessed runner.  In other words, the more talented you are the more miles you have to run each week in order to fully realize that talent and reach your ultimate potential.  The guy whose genetics ultimately limit his performance to a 4 hour marathon reaches that ultimate limit while running just 30-40 mpw.  The guy whose genetic talent will ultimately allow him to run the marathon in 2:30, will also need to put in 30-40 mpw in order to run 4 hours.  However, he will have to run many more weekly miles, somewhere around 70+, in order to run a marathon in 2:30 and reach his full potential.

In essence then, the general advice from 30 years of RT marathon training articles is that you need to run a particular amount of weekly mileage in order to achieve a particular time goal.  The faster your time goal the more miles per week you have to run to achieve that goal.  And, the advice applies equally to all people, despite any differences in genetic talent.

I wondered what physiological model would explain the training recommendations of these 3 gentlemen.  If the recommended training mileages are correct, what is going on physiologically that makes them correct?  Why, physiologically speaking, does a person with only enough genetic talent to run a 4 hour marathoner only need to run about 30-40 mpw to achieve his/her time goal while a runner with much greater genetic talents aiming for sub 2:30 hours has to run 200% more?  How come the 4 hour marathoner doesn’t need to run 70+ mpw in order to achieve his ultimate potential like the 2:30 marathoner?

Let’s see what logical physiological model can be inferred from the culmination of 30 years of marathon training advice.

Genetics

In order to answer the question of what physiological model explains the training recommendations we have to start with genetics.  Can anyone, with proper & adequate training, run a sub 2:30 marathon?  sub 3:00?  sub 4:00?

As a point of reference, the USA Marathoning; 2005 Overview, published by marathonguide.com,(2) states that in 2005 382,000 runners finished a U.S. marathon.  Of these, “Just 1.6% of all marathoners – about 6,300 – broke the 3 hour mark – a goal for the faster marathoners.”  How many marathoners ran under 4 hours?  Only 28.7% ran the marathon in under 4 hours.  Fully 71.3% of marathoners finished in 4 or more hours.

In the article Jonathan doesn’t specifically address genetic talent, nor do the 3 authors of the mileage/performance charts address it either. However, one of the facts of life is that people are not all endowed with the same genetic talent.  There is a broad range of genetic talent in the human population, which means there is a broad range of speeds at which people can run.  Some people are going to be limited by their genetic talent and will be unable to run as fast as others.  Some people are going to have exceptional talent and will be able to run much faster than most.  As the statistics above show only about 25% of the population actually runs a marathon at less than 4 hours.

Unfortunately, genetic talent is rarely addressed in articles such as the one above. The article provides advice on how many mpw to run in order to achieve a certain time, but completely fails to address the fact that if you don’t have the genetic talent to run sub 2:30 (and not many people have the talent to run sub 2:30) then no amount of training will allow you to run sub 2:30. The same goes for 3:00, 3:30, or any other time goal.  You can only run as fast as your genetic talent allows. Certainly, inadequate training will cause you to run slower than your potential, but perfect training won’t allow you to exceed your potential.

I would be shocked to learn that the gentlemen in the cited article aren’t aware of genetic talent and the influence it has on performance.  Assuming they are aware of and accept that there are differences in genetic talent across the human species, it is interesting to note that they make no allowances for those differences within a particular time goal.  If one wants to run a marathon in 4 hours, and possesses the talent to run the marathon in 4 hours or faster, then regardless of the level of inborn talent the recommended weekly mileage is 30-40 mpw. Similarly, whether one has the talent to run only 3 hours in the marathon or has the talent to run much faster, to run 3 hours in the marathon you need to run 45-75 mpw.  

If the 4 hour runner increases his weekly mileage beyond 40 mpw, will his performance improve?  No, because his genetics limit his performance to 4 hours.  Inadequate training will prevent him from reaching 4 hours in the marathon, but excess training will not allow him to run the marathon faster than 4 hours.  Instead, running more than about 40 mpw for this runner is likely to simply produce injury and a reduced performance. 

The Consequences of Differences In Genetic Talent

Power Running acknowledges the differences in genetic talents and proposes that these differences have training consequences.  Namely, the more talent one has the higher weekly mileage they can run and benefit from and the greater resistance to injury they posses.  Power Running suggests that talented runners have the double benefit of

a) being able to improve from running higher mileages and

b) less chance of injury from higher mileage than less talented runners. 

As a consequence of this, Power Running proposes that less talented runners have lower optimal weekly training mileages than more talented runners.  The more talent one has, the more they can and should run each week in order to reach their ultimate potential.

As we see, modern marathon training advice is completely consistent with what Power Running preaches.  Marathon training advice published in RT over the past 30 years recommends lower mileages for those who, for lack of talent or any other reason, set more modest performance goals and recommends higher mileages for those with the talent and desire to run faster performances.  Those with the talent and desire to run at or near the top are told to run the most of any group of runners (100+ mpw).

The recommendations for mpw are completely consistent with

1) the belief that variations in genetic talent exist,

2) large genetic differences result in large differences in optimal weekly mileage, and

3) the higher your genetic talent the more likely you are to be able to run higher weekly mileage and benefit from those higher weekly mileages.

The training recommendations in articles such as this are completely consistent with the belief that genetic talent exists and that the more talent one has the more likely that person is to be able to run high mileage and benefit from that higher weekly mileage.

Lydiard-Style Training

Note that the article does not suggest that everyone should run higher weekly mileages or that running higher weekly mileages will allow any and all to run faster. In fact, Jonathan writes, “As for running more miles, that depends on your ability and your goals. Running more miles doesn’t necessarily correspond one-to-one with running faster in the marathon…”

I often see advice by internet posters recommending Lydiard-style training – i.e. all runners pretty much need to run higher mileages (and similar high mileages) in order to achieve optimal performance.  The striking thing about Lydiard-style training is that it recommends high mileage for all despite any variance in genetic talent. The 4 hour marathoner and the sub 2:30 are instructed to build up to high weekly mileage in order for both to achieve optimal performance, albeit one finishes in 4 hours and one in less than 2:30. (These same advice givers appear to believe that almost anyone can run somewhere around 3:00 or faster if they only put in a high enough weekly mileage. The belief that some people could never run that fast, no matter how many mpw they run, seems to be routinely rejected.)

However, the logical conclusions from the training advice given in the cited article – and the training advice apparently routinely published in RT – supports the Power Running contention about genetic talent and the consequences of that talent, and contradicts the Lydiard-style training advice of higher mileage for all or higher mileage as the primary method for improving performance.

Why

Why can someone with the ultimate potential to only run 4 hours in the marathon reach their ultimate potential at just 30-40 mpw while another, more talented individual must run many more miles in order to reach his/her ultimate potential?  Why isn’t it necessary for the 4 hour marathoner to run 70+ mpw in order to run the marathon in 4 hours?  Why can’t the 2:30 marathoner run 2:30 from a training mileage of just 30-40 mpw?  While exercise physiology does not yet definitively answer this question, Power Running proposes that the answer is training load.

Training load

Training places a load on the body.  The body responds to the load applied during training by becoming faster, stronger, and more fit.  This natural raises the question of how to measure training load.  Training load is measured by multiplying training time and intensity together.  The longer the training period and the higher the intensity the greater the training load.

Training load = training time in minutes X intensity of exercise

If our two runners – the 4 hour marathoner and the 2:30 marathoner – both individually run 10 miles at the same intensity of marathon pace (RPE of 7) it will take the 4 hour marathoner about 93 minutes to complete the 10 miles while it takes only about 57 minutes for the 2:30 marathoner to run the same 10 miles.  The training load for each runner is:

Marathoner Minutes x Intensity Training Load
4 hour marathoner 93 min x 7 651
2:30 marathoner 57 x 7 399

Despite the fact that both have run 10 miles at the exact same intensity, the training load for the 4 hour marathoner is much greater, 163% greater, than the training load of the 2:30 marathoner. 

If one sums the training load for an entire week of training, the same thing would be evident.  Despite the fact that both runners ran 40 miles in a week, the training load for the 4 hour marathoner would be much greater than the training load of the 2:30 marathoner because it takes so much longer for the 4 hour marathoner to run 40 miles.

Prescribing a set weekly mileage – 40 mpw in the above example – hides the fact that the load incurred from running 40 mpw is not the same for all runners.  Slower runners incur a higher training load while running the same weekly mileage as faster runners, assuming all are following the same training program.

This explains why both the 4 hour and the 2:30 marathoner run the same 30-40 mpw in order to run the marathon in 4 hours. 40 mpw for the 4 hour marathoner is a 163% greater training load than the same 40 mpw for the 2:30 marathoner.  The training load required for the 4 hour marathoner to reach his ultimate potential of 4 hours in the marathoner is much higher than the training load required for the 2:30 marathoner to run the marathon in 4 hours.

Similar Training Loads for Optimal Performance

Based on the advice in the article, it appears that the training load required in order to reach ultimate potential is actually quite similar for most people – even though genetic talent and recommended weekly mileage vary greatly.

The difference between running a 3 hour marathon and a 4 hour marathon is 133% (3 hours x 1.33 = 4 hours).  The difference between the recommended weekly training mileage, and hence the weekly training load, between the 4 hour marathoner and the 3 hour marathoner is also about 133% (~40 mpw for the 4 hour marathoner, ~55 mpw for the 3 hour marathoner). 

The performance difference between a 2:30 hour marathon and a 4 hour marathon is 160%.  The difference in the recommended weekly training mileage, and hence the weekly training load, between the 4 hour marathoner and the the 2:30 hour marathoner ranges from 150-187% (40 mpw for the 4 hour marathoner, 54-75 mpw for the 2:30 hour marathoner).

Clearly, the recommended change in weekly mileages is not 1:1 for changes in performance, but it does generally follow the same path.  To improve performance X%, increase training mileage a similar X%.  The increase in recommended training mileage is required to produce the increase in training load to the level seemingly necessary to reach one’s ultimate potential.

Generally speaking then, based on the advice in this article most people appear to require a similar training load in order to reach their ultimate potential even though genetic talent and ultimate performance varies widely across the human population.  The weekly mileage that produces that optimal training load is NOT the same for all runners though due to vast differences in typically training paces.

Summary

In summary 30 years of Running Times marathon training advice is consistent with the Power Running theory that:

1) variations in genetic talent exist,

2) large genetic differences result in large differences in optimal weekly mileage, and

3) the higher your genetic talent the more likely you are to be able to run higher weekly mileage and benefit from those higher weekly mileages.

Furthermore, training load explains why marathoners with vastly different genetic talents run the same weekly mileage in order to finish the marathon in the same amount of time.  The training load incurred from running a set weekly mileage is not the same for all runners.  At the same weekly mileage, slower runners incur a higher training load than faster runners.

Finally, despite large differences in genetic talent similar training loads are recommended for all runners in order to reach their ultimate potential.  This is reflected in the recommended weekly training load as measured by weekly training mileage for various marathon finishing times.  A comparison of recommended weekly training mileage (and, hence, weekly training load) to performance goals reveals similar recommended training loads for all runners despite a wide range of performance goals.

References:

1. Jonathan Beverly, 30 Years of Marathon Training, Running Times, Jan/Feb 2007, Number 343, pg 28-24

2. http://www.marathonguide.com/features/Articles/2005RecapOverview.cfm


Comments

A physiological explanation for 30 years of marathon training advice — 9 Comments

  1. Pingback: A physiological explanation for 30 years of marathon training advice | Training Science

  2. Your ability to ferret out the WHY of things and then to explain it in such a sensible and logical manner is a genuine gift to those of us who were not as blessed as you.
    Thank you, Fred (83 years old and still searching for truth)

  3. Age is another issue. Who can hold the same high mileage as we get older?

    Thanks! You Wrote that in such an understandable way while still keeping the data!

  4. One thing this analysis leaves out is time spent working toward a goal. I fully acknowledge genetic potential to make some things a lot easier for some people than for others, but I disagree that a gigantic swathe of the population is completely incapable of getting below four hours in the marathon. As for myself, I’m 29 and I’ve been following running programs for the last 9 months or so, ever since my doctor told me I had borderline hypertension. I’ve run a couple of half marathons and seen my times drop in just a few months from 1hr 55mins to 1hr 4mins and I fully expect to hit 2:30 in the marathon by age 40, after which I’ll just get old and slow and plod along until my body falls apart. But I really do believe if I put in a solid effort over several years, I’ll be a hell of a lot faster than I’ve been to date.

    The genetics come in with a classmate of mine from high school. The fastest time I ever ran a 5k was in high school. I was a middle-of-the-pack runner with a 5k PR of 18:59. This skinny, funny little guy named Derek always ran in the 15-16min range. After college, with no serious or regular running practice for a few years, he jumped right back into 6min/mile pace while mine was more like 9:30/mile. But I also never followed any set routine until recently, and, like every article on running I’ve ever read, I’m seeing big improvement right off the bat. I expect it to continue, with diminishing returns, until I reach a performance peak in my late 30’s or early 40’s and then begin the aforementioned slow, agonizing aging process. I feel like not many marathon runners get up and say to themselves, “I can break 2.5hrs, but it might take me ten years to do it, even while the Dereks of the world could probably accomplish that goal in a third the time.”

      • Hi Josh
        Just curious how your marathon times are going – want to tie it into Rich’s genetic thing

        Using the WMA- Road Grading Calculator http://www.howardgrubb.co.uk/athletics/wmaroad15.html

        and the info that you provided on your age and 5 km best time in high school.

        Using the aforementioned calculator your predicted marathon time at age 32 is 2:59:48

        Hope you made it; also at age 40 will be 3:04:52 showing that age thing that you mentioned

    • “I feel like not many marathon runners get up and say to themselves, “I can break 2.5hrs, but it might take me ten years to do it, even while the Dereks of the world could probably accomplish that goal in a third the time.””

      Josh,

      There is certainly nothing wrong with setting an ambitious goal and working hard to achieve it. In fact, that is often the only way to achieve a particularly challenging goal. All the talent in the world isn’t much value without the hard work required to take advantage of that talent.

      On the other hand, all the hard work in the world won’t overcome a lack of genetic talent. I recall a case study that Dr Ed Coyle of the University of Texas published on Lance Armstrong. Ed runs the physiology lab at UT and tested Lance’s physiological capabilities many times over a 9 year or so time period. He started testing Lance when Lance was a “just turned pro Cyclist” about age 21. Ed continued to measure Lance’s physical capabilities as Lance matured, during Lance’s cancer battle, and ultimately after Lance’s multiple wins in the Tour de France.

      As I recall, Ed noted that Lance’s physiological abilities were about 17 standard deviations above the norm. Lance’s baseline level of capability was higher than the average person could ever hope to achieve in his/her lifetime. The average guy might be able to achieve a VO2max of 55. Lance, with no training whatsoever, in a completely untrained state, has a VO2max of about 57.

      In performance terms here is what that means. Let’s say an average guy, with a VO2max of about 45, started at age 10 and devoted his life to being the best cyclist he was ever capable of becoming. He ate, trained, slept, meditated, etc so that by age 29 he was at his ultimate peak of capability as a cyclist. He had achieved 100% of his potential and was at the peak of his physical maturity. He was as fast as he was capable of becoming and would never be faster. His VO2max would be about 55.

      During this same 19 year period, Lance Armstrong, who is the same age as our hypothetical average man, was a couch potato. One day, on a whim, Lance decides to enter a bicycle race that our average guy has also entered. In that race, Lance beats our average guy. Lance beats average guy because Lance’s starting capabilities are higher than the highest our average man could hope to ever achieve in his lifetime.

      The point isn’t to discourage anyone or cause them to abandon their dreams. The point is to make people aware that the formula for success is Hard Work + Talent + Opportunity = Success. Without all three any person will achieve less than they are capable.

      Setting goals is important in order to achieve high levels of success. Whenever a goal is set, it should be set at a level that is achievable for the person setting it – which includes taking into account important factors such as talent, desire, and opportunity.

      • How do you know what your genetic potential is? Taking baseline measurements is one piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle. While I agree that people in general have wide physiological baseline differences, you severely underestimate body’s ability to adapt. In my opinion with the appropriate training and nutrition any healthy individual is capable of running sub 3hr marathon. What is not the right path forward is to rely on an ambiguous metric of talent which, unfortunately, often becomes an excuse to not do something rather than finding constructive ways to break the plateau.

  5. Replyed to this article 4 years ago – thought it was very good – still of that opinion

    truht is truth – yesterday tomorrow etc

    if it changes, it wasn’t truth

    Thank You

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