by Jarek Mäestu in Training Tips, image by Nordea Riga Marathon

How to prepare for a marathon?

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We love running and we love to take part in races, but we do it in a world of limited time resources. Day job, family, home, friends, etc – they all take a lot of our time. This means that we can’t just increase our weekly running volume hoping that this leads us to better results.
We need to train smart!

Looking at competitive sports, we can see that the season is usually divided into a preparatory and a competition period. The aim of the preparation period is to build a solid base for the upcoming intensive competition period. But this is usually a pretty monotonous long period with long-lasting and low intensity trainings. As for recreational athletes sports is not the first priority in their lives, it’s easy to skip trainings during preparation periods and pay a high price for this at races.

Shorter Cycles Bring Change into Training Process

Analyzing latest findings in coaching science we can find block periodization system by Dr. Vladimir Issurin. Issurin’s block periodization system suggests dividing longer periods of 6–10 weeks into three shorter cycles – base cycle, specific cycle and realization cycle. (The names of the cycles are not original but we hope this makes the concept easier to understand.)

The good part is that frequently alternating cycles with different training aspects makes the process of marathon preparation a lot more fun and keeps us more excited about our trainings.

Base Cycle – Build Your Base

Base cycle is for the development of aerobic endurance and cardiorespiratory fitness. The main characteristic of this cycle is a relatively high training volume and low intensity of workouts, and its aim is to develop aerobic and muscular endurance. Depending on how much time is left until the race the duration of this cycle may vary from 2 to 6 weeks.

Specific Cycle – Target Your Weakness

Specific cycle is meant for developing a very specific ability that is needed for your performance. It may be special muscle endurance, anaerobic threshold speed, enhancing maximal oxygen consumption etc. But it is important to remember that only one targeted ability is allowed at a time. For example, if you aim it to anaerobic threshold speed, do not include workouts for maximal speed development.  Due to increased intensity you may find this cycle to be the most difficult. Training in the specific cycle lasts for about 2 to 3 weeks.

Realization Cycle – Realize Your Condition

Realization cycle is designed to get you ready for your forthcoming goal. There are trainings with relatively high intensity to accustom your body with racing speed and low intensity workouts aiming at quick and active recovery.  The overall intensity shouldn’t be very high, otherwise you wouldn’t recover for your race. Realization cycle usually lasts for 1 to 2 weeks and ends with a race.

Stack Blocks For Longer Periods

Even if there’s a lot of time until the next main race the block periodization can still be used. For example, if your race is in 9 months, divide this time into 3–4 blocks of 3 cycles. Keep in mind that in each block the specific cycle must be followed by a realization cycle. Usually this is a race, but if there’s no race to attend you can realize your condition at a training race or exercise testing.

It may happen that there are several races coming shortly after each other. In such cases you have to decide on your priority. The rest you either skip or take some of them as intensive trainings where you are not expecting maximal performance.

Advantages of Block Periodization

Analyzing the number of races and their length in a year of enthusiastic runners, we can see that the “block system” has several advantages:

  1. It adds your preparation process variation and makes it more interesting.
  2. It allows you to maintain basic and sport specific activities in a narrow range during the entire season to allow multiple peaks.
  3. It allows a specific targeted training for one certain ability at a time (the specific cycle). Therefore it has a clearer message to your body about what ability is actually trained and how to adapt.
  4. You will not experience the „washed out“ feeling so hard like after a traditional competition season and you are more likely to go for another one.

Therefore, we encourage all recreational athletes use the principle of BUILD – TARGET – REALIZE and train like this all the year long.