The secret you've been looking for...
...doesn't exist.

"A white lab coat does not make a scientist. Jumbo Elliott and Arthur Lydiard were the REAL scientists. They experimented first and reported what works second. These modern-day geniuses do it the other way around.

"You don't see 10x400 and 6x400 week after endless week in Running Formula books do you? Two staple workouts the world over for middle distance runners. Hard to argue VDOT in the face of that kind of success."

- George "malmo" Malley, 2:12 marathoner

Nowadays, "competitive running," loosely defined, comprises an ever-broadening subset of the American demographic. Gone are the days when road races were the exclusive purview of post-collegiate track standouts and "running boomers" inspired to jump pell-mell and unpretentiously into the fray by the exploits of the Shorters and Rodgerses of America's elite-marathoning heyday.

The niche of the upper-echelon competitor remains well-established, but these athletes going about their business with no pretense represent an ever-shrinking fraction of total participants in road races. The contemporary distance-running scene has been swamped by ingenuous hobbyists who scour runners' books, minds, and Web sites in wisdom quests borne of a variety of agendas.

Some - galvanized by commerically packaged, shamelessly minimalist notions of sporting accomplishment that conflate the spirit of wellness with the spirit of competition - treat exhortation as castigation, and with their cries of elitism are best left unmolested by diehards. But others, regardless of their gifts, are drawn to whatever it takes to improve. Over the long haul, they weather setbacks, injuries, and failures peppered by the occasional but ineffably meaningful breakthrough. They keep coming back. They listen, but moreover, they learn - not from me, but from the lessons of their toils, knowledge that cannot be vicariously assimilated.

"People used to say things about Jerry Lawson: He goes out way too fast and always crashes. He trains too many miles and doesn't rest.

"Well, one day - the right day - he did rest, and he ran 2:10. Then he did it again, and then he set an American record. No one ever believed he could run like that - except Jerry.

"You will never be a national-class marathoner on 90 miles a week; you may never be a national-class marathoner on 140 miles a week. But the only shot you have is to go the 140 route.

"When you're 40 years old and beaten up, you'll know something about yourself that [naysayers] won't. You'll know if you could have been a national-class marathoner."

- Mike Platt, 2:18 marathoner

(Also, check out Mike's visualization strategies for preparing for competition - a simple but great checklist for any athlete.)

There's something in every thoughtful running page for everyone. But with the best straining at their limits and the growing majority constitutively, it appears, beyond the reach of zealotry if not bald-faced marketing lies, this page is aimed at the passionate runners in between to whom I most readily relate. No one is obligated to mold their bodies and minds to the utmost using proven and easily understood methods; it's no longer important to me that even those resisting this dogma at least believe it so that the new and uncommitted with one eye on encapsulated penguin snot as a performance enhancer and the other on doubling their mileage can be exposed to the truth.

"Take a look at these modern-day, New Age coaching "geniuses" that have taken over. They've got their Level I,II, and III coaching certificates in one hand, and they can recite verse by verse from their running-geek exercise physio-nonsense running books; yet they don't know a damn thing about running or competition! Did Bill Bowerman or Jumbo Elliot ever have a silly coaching certificate? Get out!

"Last time I checked, running was a sport, an athletic COMPETITION - not some sort of laboratory-rat time trial. If you'll agree with me that it's all about competition, then don't you think that most of your focus should be on preparing yourself for competition? For that you need real coaching."

Patience, trust, resilience, and the ability to learn from past experience are the greatest psychological determinants of success in long-distance running, just as they are in other realms. The greatest physical determinants are, regardless of your event, an aerobic base developed through years of accumulated mileage and - just as important - consistency (a by-product of resilience, both physical and psycho-emotional). Believe this philosophy, scrawl it on the inside of your eyelids, live it, and regardless of your inherent abilities, you'll look around one day and be pleasantly astonished at your own improvement and achievements.

Pared down to the essentials, then, hard work and confidence are all a distance runner truly needs. I have found that regardless of whatever permutation of miles, intervals, tempo runs, hill workouts, and long runs I settle on for any given stretch of training, the thing that matters most is nudging your total time spent training ever higher until you find your personal "sweet spot" and only then, when you're ready to attack a period of racing, become truly concerned with intensity.

If you give this a try and in the first two, three, six or twelve months weather some lackluster or abysmal races, good. You will need them. Only if you then quit will you have paid your dues for nothing. If you stay healthy and train consistently for a period of years, you will reach or exceed your purest of goals. Not every time, but often enough to make it worth it. You will be beat up and you will be atop the world.

Does this mean there is one perfect way to train and that I - one more guy with a hobby, a keyboard, and access to a server - have found it, integrated it seamlessly into my training and life, and led a cast of thousands into the promised land of limitless personal bests? Of course not. But despite the personal foibles which both both invigorated and hamstrung my running over time - and you'll deal with plenty of your own - I've not been blind to obvious patterns.

"Some say there's no magic formula. I say there is. It's just that the magic is different for everyone."

- Keith Dowling, 2:13 marathoner

If you feel your training has shortcomings, you may simply be neglecting the basics - the elements which, in spite of individual variations in "magic formulas" noted by Keith, are common to the overwhelming fraction of top distance runners around the globe. Perhaps you're...

  • ...not running enough. Look closely at that simple statement and apply it to an honest assessment of your own running. What's the highest mileage (or kilometrage) level you have reached and maintained for a three-month period? Got it? Okay, why did you stop "there" instead of at "there plus ten?" Probably because you were bored, wanted to race, tired, or saw no immediate (and therefore no worthwhile) results.

    The vast majority of people have never done what the greats suggest and put aside a race-free Lydyardian block of time to gradually and relentlessly build up to 70, 80, 90, and 100 miles a week or more. The incontrovertible truth is that the best runners in the world, even those specializing in the 800m and 1500m, have reached their competitive station by running an hour to an hour and a half per day - often more - for extended periods preceding sharpening and racing phases. Scads of so-called easy distance is critical, though as Keith alludes to the perfect amount varies from person to person.

    At this point, if you're not sold on the idea, you might say one of three things: "I don't have time to run more than I do," "I'll get injured," or "But Joe Shlabotnik only does 20 miles a week and he runs a 17:45 5K."

    If it's the first, well, that's some people's reality. No more time to run. What with jobs, spouses, kids, television and the Internet, heck, most of us are lucky to find the time to take bathroom breaks. If that's the case for you and you don't have another half-hour to devote to running, my condolences. You'll never quite get to where you want to be, but such is modern life.

    If it's the second, how do you know? The fact that most people convinced that "X" miles per week will lead to certain injury, breakdown, and perhaps even death have never actually TRIED running "X" miles in a week is telling. I have known very few people truly unable to survive a gradual, sensible increase in their daily workload (hint: going from 20 miles a week to 40 or 50 for two weeks, feeling a wee run-down and saying "'Nuff o' this!" does not qualify as a valid trial.)

    If it's the third, I ask you: So what? The running world and the world at large are filled with people doing more than you with less work. This vexing inequity spans athletic, financial, cosmetic and other realms. You may never beat Joe Shlabotnik...but do you want to be the best runner you can be? Then worry about that and that only.

    A special interjection here for marathoners, since, as my event of primary focus and the one that lends itself best to the brute-force credo I actively foment at every opportunity, the marathon is the race I am best qualified to chatter about. If you're one of those folks seeking the formula for running your best marathon on 35 miles a week, give up and try something else. You might as well ask a broker how to reap the greatest financial returns on an initial investment of one hundred dollars.

    The marathon is a 26.2-mile footrace. People want to believe they can logically reconcile limitations on training time - social, occupational, biomechanical, or motivation-related - with this simple truth and somehow arrive at a permutation of all of these variables producing a formula for success. It can't be done.

    You can certainly finish a marathon without adequately preparing for one, and may convince yourself that a succession of PR's gained on such training stands as proof that "quality over quantity," walk-running, or the like can actually compensate for ignoring reality. It can't. If you're truly concerned with closing the gap between your actual performances and the theoretical maximum of your potential, stick to shorter races. It's common sense, and no cognitive gymnastics, however earnest, can alter reality.

  • ...running too fast on easy days. One of the most common questions thrown around the running community is "How fast should I run on my easy days?" Evidently there are limitless correct answers, because for every method that's been tried, I can name at least one person who swears by it. "10K pace plus 60 (or 90, or 45.987) seconds a mile." "75% (or 65%, or 80%, or 77.895%) of maximum heart rate." "As fast (or slow) as you can manage (or not manage)."

    I think answering this question in a satisfactory manner requires defining an "easy day" in running. Typically, the term is used to refer to any spate of running that is not a race or a programmed hill, track or tempo session; in short, any workout without a specific time (or effort) goal. Common sense point: A day without a pace or effort goal should remain as such. If you're in a period of training with no immediate racing goals (and thus presumably not doing a lot of track or interval work), you can run as fast as you want to every day. If you're a little tired the next day, good. You should be. If you're really whipped, consciously back off and you'll probably feel fresher soon enough. There are no magical programs or formulas when it comes to building strength in the off-season. Run as much as you can as often as possible and run like hell when moved to do so. That seemingly oversimplified piece of advice is not a cop-out or a spitting in the face of science or specifics; it's a real prescription for long-term success. I have benefitted tremendously from this approach, as have many runners far better than me.

    During a period of serious racing, the variables change. Here, you should almost certainly be running slower on non-workout, non-race days than you think you should. "Recovery days" are so named for a reason; they're not called "slow, but no slower than seven-minutes-a-mile-'cause-that's-too-slow" days, for the same reason. You're better off running too slowly than running too fast during an in-season training run, and, though it may not feel like it, better of pitter-pattering along at a relative jog than not running at all.

    I don't even time my easy days anymore. In the fall, I've done a lot of running with the high-school kids I've coached, which has meant anything from 7:30 pace to even 9:30 pace. Hence, when I'm in my racing season (which correlates well with a scholastic team's, since I usually aim for some October event), my easy days are LAUGHIN,' SCRATCHIN' easy.

    Some would say I run too easy on my easy days. Of course, many of the same people say I run too hard on my hard days, run too much in general, run excessively long marathon-pace runs, and don't drink enough gecko urine or eat enough encapsulated hippo snot. All I have to back up my methods, of course, are half-marathon and marathon times that continue to drop sharply even after seventeen years of competitive running.

  • ...not preparing specifically enough for races. Some folks seem to think that doing long runs at 8:00 pace and repeat miles at 6:00 pace is a reasonable way to prepare for a sub-3:00:00 marathon (just under 7:00 per mile). Others believe the ideal way to duck under 20:00 for 5K (just under 6:30 per mile) is to bang out 400's and 800's at 5:50 pace and do daily runs at 7:30 pace. The apparent rationale behind these approaches is that the body can somehow "average out" these paces on race day and yield the desired results.

    Alas, the body is not a mathematical equation. It is, however, extremely adept at adapting to specific physiological stressors. With that in mind, whatever your goal pace and distance, you almost certainly need to regularly cover one-third to two-thirds of the goal distance at goal pace. Someone shooting for a 40:00 10K might do three- to four-mile runs at 6:30 pace, or perhaps five repeat miles in 6:20 each with a two-minute rest - NOT 10 x 400 in 80 seconds with a 400 jog. There is a role for "supramaximal" speed sessions (discussed in a July 2000 Running Times article), but they shouldn't account for the bulk of your intense preparation.

  • ...neglecting "tempo runs." These are really basic extensions of plain old "hard aerobic" runs, only nowadays they have a name. They're discussed in detail here.

    That's all for now, until I see more people shortchanging themselves and decide to augment this rant accordingly.

Positing that proof prevails over proselytizing, I offer my training schedule for the twelve weeks leading up to the 2001 Boston Marathon.

Because I write for a widely read running magazine, have built this pulpit of a Web site, and am often mistaken for a top-caliber athlete, I am frequently asked for advice about marathon training. When I describe the path I have taken, I receive many thoughtful nods; typically, the interested party then returns to seeking an easier route to personal success, one that may involve special combinations of vitamins and herbal remedies, sleep aids, fad diets, miracle drinks, cure-all stretches, magic shoes. Many "highly motivated" runners are willing to try anything - except harder training. Is this you?

When I suggest to a would-be marathoner that he boost his mileage from 30 to 40 to 50 and beyond, I generally learn that 1) he doesn't have the time; 2) he'll get injured; 3) he knows several people who, relying on low-mileage diets, successfully completed marathons [the definition of "successfully completed" is fluid and hazy]; 4) best of all, that "I'm a different type of runner than you are," or "I don't have your talent." The runner will often marshal scientific or anecdotal "evidence" to prove his point(s).

It is the last claim that I find excoriating. These are people who epitomize the placement of the cart in front of the horse, or, forsaking the colloquial for the scientific, the confusion of cause and effect. I did not spring from my mother's womb ready to rattle off a hundred miles a week. I do not wake up every day beaming in anticipation of training, little of which consists of ecstatic and effortless bounding for as many hours as I please. I enjoy running, of course. But I have built up to my current level of training over many years, and not without setbacks.

It may appear at this point that the advice on this page, collected almost entirely from national-class distance runners, has little bearing on the more workaday competitor. Not so! There are far more four-hour and three-and-a-half-hour and three-hour marathoners out there fighting to improve than there will ever be two-and-a-half-hour marathoners doing the same, so owing to basic population ecology, the suggestions on this page are aimed toward the middle of the pack.

  • One of my CMS teammates committed to a focused and "holistic" marathon training plan in 2002 and reaped tremendous benefits, hewing huge chunks off his bests at every distance. His initial experience at the Boston Marathon in 1999 - a four-and-three-quarter-long mixed bag of exhiliration and torture - inspired him to reach for the BAA's 3:10:00 qualifying standard for open men. In the course of a long build-up aimed at achieving that mark at the 2002 Hartford Marathon, he carefully chronicled his training, thoughts and conclusions over a period of several months and kindly made them available for viewing on this site.

    Something to keep in mind is that this runner was no neophyte before this undertaking and that his striking improvement cannot be simply attributed to "natural talent" - he's been running for a number of years and had struggled with injuries before resolving to do most of his mileage on soft surfaces and slow down on his recovery runs.

Understand that I am not insisting all runners train themselves silly, nor am I suggesting people for whom running is merely a diversion rather than an obsession do not have my respect. But if you claim to desire improvement and say you are willing to make sacrifices, then you have no excuse for ignoring the wisdom of a legion of accomplished runners. I, of course, invented none of it.

There will always be those who do not adopt mad training regimens simply because they do not want to. There are no demons flitting about compelling them to do more, ever more, and to make running a top priority in the face of swirling relationships, occupational and scholastic concerns, and what have you. These are legitimate issues often at odds with consistent training. And I do not believe that a runner can be taught to hunger the way some of us do. It may be as innate as the color of our eyes. It is not something upon which judgment need be placed or for which merit points ought to be allotted. There are runners and there are competitive runners, and there are racers.

Don't get me wrong. I love running for its whole spectrum of benefits and the range of experiences I've had, many of them outside the competitive milieu. But I have one basic reason for doing what I do. The rest is gravy, basting the raw, tough, but often tender and delicious meat of competing against the rag-tag army of my alleged constraints - going into some awful yet welcoming zone, headed straight into downtown Hell to rip it up yet another time.

If, deep down, you don't want to be a better runner, don't pretend you do. You won't be doing anyone, especially yourself, any favors.

Running now includes a higher fraction of inexperienced runners than ever before (duh) and, accordingly, a potentially greater number of running-magazine readers. RW's circulation suggests that this potential is being realized, but there's no reason RT need be excluded from the burgeoning fun because I think many people would be willing to choose both, given the proper impetus.

"Ever hear me tell anyone how much to run? NOPE. Ever hear me tell anyone about my 12-step contrived training schedules? NOPE. What do I tell you guys? It goes like this, baby:

  • 1) Run twice a day, as many days as you can. Hopefully five, six or seven days a week.
  • 2) Run more. How much? I dunno. You figure it out, but find out for yourself.
  • 3) Run it faster.
  • 4) Love running and LOVE racing.
  • 5) Stay focused.
  • 6) Set goals and don't be afraid to fail.
  • 7) Listen to your body and don't be afraid to rest.
  • 8) Compete WITH your comrades in sweat - never AGAINST them.
  • 9) Smile a lot.

"There you have it - Malmo's Manifesto. I told you it would be less than four pages."