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Why A Lower Mileage Training Plan May Be Best For Your First Marathon

Choosing a lower mileage training plan for your first marathon may help you avoid unnecessary burnout and injury.

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Skip The Extra Mile

When I started training for my first marathon, my friends bombarded me with advice. You need to run two or three 20 milers. You need to run at least one 22-miler. You need to up your weekly mileage into the 40-50 mile range. Yet my only goal for the race was to finish.

One month into training, I had a mental breakdown on a 13-mile run. I had already run four half marathons that year, and my weekly long run was around 10 to 12 miles, so a 13-mile run shouldn’t have phased me. But my mind was freaking out at the enormity of training.

I went to talk with my personal trainer, and his words changed my perspective: “You can’t run a marathon if you don’t make it to the start line.”

I wasn’t going to make it to the 2016 Chicago Marathon start line if I got injured or spent the next four months of training in a panic. I needed to ease up on the pressure I’d put on myself.

Over the course of my 20-week marathon training, my weekly mileage stayed in the mid to upper 30s. I skipped runs when I felt sore or needed a mental break. I logged one 50-mile week, but that was the result of moving a long run for scheduling purposes.

The effect? With all the pressure removed, I was able to enjoy my runs. When I ran 16 miles for the first time, I felt so good I could have tacked on another 2 miles. When I ran 18 miles the first time, the same thing happened. And when I ran my sole 20-miler, I felt total, utter elation at having completed the distance with a smile on my face the entire time.

I Am Not Alone

Kristen Van Horn, 33, a St. Louis, Missouri runner and running coach, was working 50-plus hour weeks when she trained for the 2010 Chicago Marathon, and she made it work with an average weekly tally of 30 to 35 miles.

Today, Van Horn doesn’t have many of her runners do a 20-mile training run prior to race day. “I still believe that you can complete a marathon on lower weekly mileage,” she says. “There are no physical benefits to running longer than three hours or 16 miles leading up to a full marathon,” she says, citing recent research.

Van Horn says that’s especially key for first-time marathoners. Most of them are starting at relatively low weekly mileage, and many have limited time to train. “Keeping your average weekly mileage low for your first marathon may be beneficial in order to prevent injury and burnout since your goal for your first should be to just finish,” she says.

Toni Kengor, 27, co-founder and full-time running coach for Relentless Runners LLC, had that same mindset for her first marathon—the 2013 Steamtown Marathon—and it guided her training. She followed a beginner’s plan that peaked at 40 miles or less with one 20-mile run, and she didn’t shy away from switching around her runs and rest days because of her busy life.

“Even with making those on-the-fly adjustments, I was never stressed and always felt confident that even with a busy life, marathon training was manageable and possible,” says Kengor, who lives in Pittsburgh most of the year. “I was dedicated to my plan and had an amazing race day!”

If your goal is to finish strong and simply have a good experience, a lower-mileage training plan for your first marathon is not a bad idea, Kengor says. Five years after her first marathon, she’s seen that pay off firsthand with runners she’s coached. “I’ve worked with athletes before who’ve experienced burnout and this training direction has helped,” she says.

For her first couple of marathons, Rachel Denler, 30, of Denver, ran about 40 miles on her peak weeks—a sufficient distance to get her across the finish line injury-free, she says.

“It’s tempting as a first-time marathoner to bite off a little more than you can chew when it comes to training,” says Denler, who is training for her eighth marathon. “Find a plan that has structured workouts designed to increase your fitness and endurance without just running miles for the sake of running miles.”


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