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Take a peek: Why 'peaking' is best way to train for marathon

Learn best practices from Run Ann Arbor's coach Gina

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

ANN ARBOR – When training for a marathon, preparing your body for optimum race day performance is key. Having your training sessions specifically build up in intensity is referred to as "peaking."

Marathon training schedules increase in weekly distance as well as incremental increases in the longest run for each or every other week until the runner reaches a "'peak," the longest distance that the runner will run in that particular training period and for some schedules, the largest amount of miles in a week is the "peak" week. Now let’s look at the "peak" long run.

What is the "right peak" distance to run? 
There is no right distance. Each training method has its own set of rules for the “peak” distance and a set of rules for marathon total weekly distance. Being unique individuals, we all train using different training methods, we all respond differently to different training modalities and we all have different goals that we want to achieve in the marathon.

Years ago (the early 1990s), when I was training for my first marathon, the peak distance that most coaches advised was the standard 20-miler. But there were still a few coaches around who advocated that you only needed to run half the distance of your race (that would be a 13-mile peak long run) in order to finish that race well. But those runners were usually running 100 to 120 miles a week.

In 1999, brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson started the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project to restore and raise the bar of USA distance running. By 2005, they gained notoriety because of their marathon training schedules that had runners "peaking" with a 16-miler.

The Hanson Marathon is a bit more complex and they offer schedules for all levels of runners. What is important to note about their training programs is the amount of mileage that the runner needs to complete each week. Their elite runners put in mileage up to and some over 100 miles a week, and schedules for "moderate" runners have recommendations of 50 to 70 miles a week. Most runners I see are not able to put in the mileage that is required with the Hanson Marathon Method.

Runners who adopt training programs that incorporate a "peak distance" of less than 20 miles, are committed to running more mileage during the week, but the runners who cannot put in the mileage usually need that 20 mile "peak distance." I have seen success from runners who weekly mileages peak at 35 miles. A lot of beginner runners can’t increase fast enough with weekly mileage to get up to more than 35 to 40 miles a week. And some "seasoned" runners may need to keep their weekly mileage lower, but they utilize cross training as well a strict adherence to diet, hydration, stretching, rest and massage. These runners incorporate that 20-mile peak run before the marathon and some runners, new and old, want to complete that 20-mile distance as a measure to ensure themselves that they can go the distance.

Although it is possible to train for the marathon with the lower mileage the advantage of having higher weekly mileage weeks allows some "play" in the schedule if something comes up that could "derail" the training. The higher weekly mileage gives more room to adjust the schedule and move longer runs from one week to another without causing an increase in injury. Higher weekly mileage  gives the runner a better base and improves overall fitness and endurance. The consistency of higher mileage better "adapts" the runner to running "long distances" overall.

Planning the taper after the "peak long run"
Runners inquire whether a that peak long run should be two or three from the event. Depends, runners who are able to run the higher weekly mileage will start to decrease that total weekly mileage three weeks after their "peak long run" but maintain the intensity of their workout up to the week before the event.  Runners with just enough miles to get you through the training, will probably only need a two taper and can plan that 20-miler two weeks from marathon date.

When choosing the right distance for your "longest run," look over your training that you have completed over the past few months. Are you on track? Have you missed many crucial training runs? Be careful when planning that 20-miler. Make sure you have prepared sufficiently with mileage, recovery, rest, nutrition, hydration and stretching.

How to prepare for the "peak long run"
This is a "dress rehearsal." Prepare for that long run as if it were marathon day. You should have prepared with shoes a few weeks prior and then run the long run in those shoes to make sure they will not be any problems. 

Have an outfit and socks ready for that long run that you intend to wear for the marathon. Granted, the weather could change drastically from the peak long run to the actual marathon, so keep that in mind when choosing your outfit. Sometimes just adding a hat and gloves if the temperatures are lowered on marathon day will suffice.

Get plenty of rest the week before the peak long run. This is the time that you recruit family and friends to understand you need for rest during these next few crucial weeks.

You diet is important. Eat nutritiously and save the treats for after the event and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Even if the marathon is going to have 

colder temperatures, usually cold brings dry conditions and that can dehydrate the runner more than a hot and humid day.

Schedule a massage with a sport therapist. If you have any “hot spots” the therapist will find them and it better to address any issues before the marathon rather than finding them while you are running the marathon. 

Foam rolling and stretching are very helpful during the next few weeks. Write a time on your calendar when you will foam roll and stretch.

The day of the "peak long run," wake up refreshed. Eat your planned meal at the appropriate time for yourself (every runner has a different time table). Generally a meal two hours before is recommended and a light snack an hour before, but that does not work for all runners, so by now, you should know what is working for you. If you have not “experimented” up to this point this a good time to try. Do not try something new on marathon day.

Be ready with your hydration, before, during, and after the long run. Determine in what form you need to ingest electrolytes -- liquid, gels or capsules. Will you take "nutrition" (carbohydrates) along the way? You should have planned the type of carbohydrates that will work best for you. Trust me, in the marathon, omitting carbohydrates, is a big risk for hitting the wall. 

Remember, this is a dress rehearsal. Prepare as if it were marathon day. If you are unable to run with a group for that peak run, make sure you have a way to obtain hydration and support along the way.

Good luck with that "peak long run." Be prepared and have fun!
You can always email me with questions, it is better to ask, than to not and "run" into trouble. 

Kathleen Gina is the founder and director of Run Ann Arbor. She brings her 40 years of experience -- including the Boston Marathon -- to her group runs, which she's been organizing for 20 years. A retired registered nurse, she works with beginner, intermediate and experienced runners.

You can contact her at runannarbor2@gmail.com.

This story is sponsored by Applied Fitness Solutions. AFS provides group fitness classes and personal wellness coaching at their three area locations: Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills, and Plymouth. Learn more about AFS.