The BQ training plan

Happy Friday! My off-season is going great – I’m feeling rested, have so much more time in my life, and am starting to feel like I might want to start running regularly again. At the same time I’m also going through a massive period of limbo with the upcoming move to Paris, and largely I’m trying not to think about it too much 😂 Oh yeah, and then there’s Amsterdam Marathon this Sunday…

One of the things which has helped me to accept taking a break from training is recognising all the hard work that I put in to achieve my BQ of 3:28:41 at Berlin Marathon a few weeks ago. I trained very differently in the lead up to my BQ, and clearly it worked! So I figured that I’d share the strategy I used, talking about why I incorporated the different elements that I did.

I started training at the beginning of August when I parted with my running coach. I had learned a lot from him in the ten months where he planned out my weekly training, but I wanted to try things a little differently for the second half of the year. His training plan for me incorporated a lot of rest and lower mileage, and successfully got me around 8 marathons injury-free. I hadn’t PB’d though, so I wanted to switch things up and see what I could achieve.

When planning out how my 11 weeks of training (originally targeting Amsterdam Marathon), I looked to the Hanson Marathon Method for ideas. This method advocates a high mileage, but spread across the week: the longest weekend long-run doesn’t exceed 16mi (26km). It also calls for intervals on a Tuesday, and a tempo run on a Thursday which increases in distance every few weeks. The remaining runs are easy at a slow pace. Although I didn’t follow one of the several different training plans on offer I did use these core principles to create my own training schedule.

A sample week of my training looked like this:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Morning Strength or rest Easy run-commute Strength Yoga parkrun or race Long run or race
Evening Easy run Track with AR Swim Tempo Run Strength or rest

Easy runs

The bulk of mileage in the Hanson Marathon Method comes from easy runs. These are run slowly – emphasised because runners often don’t realise that it’s OK to run slow. I’ve fallen in this trap plenty of times myself; thinking than running anything over 6:00/km means I’m not good enough and have lost my fitness. Au contraire: running slowly is much less taxing on your energy levels than even a moderate-intensity run, and therefore means you won’t create extra, unnecessary fatigue.

Running slowly means that you can run further for longer, allowing you to build up the number of kilometres you run in a week. I ran 312km in August and 307km in September (which includes a 25km week after the marathon), and averaged 77km/week during the 8 weeks of training. There has been a lot of research which proves that running more kilometres means that you race faster. Most of that distance needs to be slow and easy, otherwise you overload your body and will likely get injured.

One way I incorporated more easy runs into my training was to run-commute to (or from) work. With a backpack on I knew I would be slow anyway, so I couldn’t be competitive with myself. Once I started getting bored of the same route I added a Monday night run around Hyde Park where I listened to a podcast for company. I found I could quite happily run 12-15km and maintain an easy pace, and made a significant dent into my weekly mileage target already at the start of the week.

Track Tuesday

To run fast, you need to run fast. That thought is one of the main reasons to do a track or speed interval session each week. The first time I added this type of session into my week, I immediately saw a significant improvement in my running paces. By running hard for short intervals of time, you get used to what it feels like to go all out. Track is meant to be hard, it’s meant to push you, and you’re meant to feel like you’ve given it all you’ve got. When you then run at marathon pace (much slower), it feels a lot easier.

I chose to run my track session at Mile End with the Advent Running crew. These are some of my best friends in London, and they made the trek across the city each week worth it. The great thing about how Advent Running organises these sessions is that it’s split into pace groups, which means you are not left alone to struggle around the track. Unless you’re incredibly fast, there is also usually someone running faster than you. That provides great motivation and a target to hit. Also, when you’re struggling together with a group, it doesn’t feel so bad. Running with others is fun!

But despite running with friends, Track Tuesday is tough. Not only because it’s a tough session, but because it is likely that you will have weeks where you fail to complete the whole workout. I routinely have to drop out of a rep or cut one short because I feel that it’s too much. But at the same time, I know that dropping back a group and slowing down the pace won’t give me the benefits I want. It almost doesn’t matter if you don’t do the whole set, just by giving your best and doing as much as you can, you will soon start to see your distance times improving.

Tempo Thursday

My Thursday evening tempo were hands-down the best addition to my training program, and I attribute most of my success to the once-weekly session.

The premise is this: run the same session every Thursday, but add a little distance each week. Start with a 1 mile warm-up, then run a tempo section, and finally finish with a 1 mile cool-down. I chose to run these along the same part of the Thames each week, and so knew exactly when I was going further than I had managed the week before. I started my tempo runs at 9km and peaked at 12km, but if you have more weeks to train you can take this up to 16km.

The tempo you run at should be at marathon pace, or feeling sustainably-hard. I aimed to run these at my marathon pace (5:00/km) but found that I actually tended to run at ~4:50/km pace instead. When it came to the marathon then, I was able to run at 4:50/km pace for most of the second half of my race – because this is what I had practised. On some weeks I felt great and my ‘sustainably-hard’ was closer to 4:30/km. All in all though, these tempo sessions teach you how to run at race pace.

For me, this was the key workout of the week and often the one I dreaded the most. Rather than focussing on adding another few kilometres to an ever-longer long-run on the weekend, this was the session that I knew would make the most impact on my marathon running. No matter how scared I was to complete the session, it was also the one which would make (or break) a week. Whenever I nailed one of those sessions (even if I had to take a rest pause to catch my breath during it) I knew that I was making significant progress towards my goal.

Races & Long runs

The main reason I couldn’t follow one of the provided training plans was that it didn’t fit in with all the races I had booked in, aka seven races in as many weeks (finishing with Berlin), including two other marathons. With that many races there was no time to do much taper or recovery, else I’d never be training! The most I allowed myself was a day either side of the event, and I found that to be sufficient. Due to the high mileage and training load, my legs were used to performing whilst tired. In fact, the Berlin Marathon came at the end of a full week of training and capped off a ~95km week – so no taper whatsoever!

On weekends where I had shorter races (eg. the Thames Turbo Tri) I did try and fit in a long run, but these were not as long as in a standard marathon plan. The longest I ran outside of a marathon was one 28km Saturday, however this was broken up into five sections with coffee and food stops in between; very different to slogging out that distance continuously.

The biggest thing that all those races taught me is that I can keep going no matter what. It would have been all too easy to use the racing or training as excuse for taking it easy, but instead I pushed through the races and found that I was capable of more than I expected. Since had set PBs or came close at every event I raced sinc the start of June (excluding the Medoc Marathon, of course!), which only helped grow my confidence that I would be able to achieve my goal.

That’s the plan

Those are the running sessions I did during a week. On top of that I went to the gym twice a week, once to work on lower body + core, and the other on upper body + core. I tried to fit in at least one swim per week, a yoga session per week, and often cycled to work (when not running to work).

It was intense, and took a lot of concentration and effort. Even with all those sessions though, no two weeks looked the same. As things came up, sessions got shuffled around, but I tried as hard as possible to do all the sessions I had planned out in each week. Ultimately, everything came together (a few weeks earlier than planned) and I was able to run a BQ time. It also makes me wonder what I could be capable of if I stuck to this type of plan for more than eight weeks…

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