Marathon training programs usually run around 16 to 18 weeks. I have been basically using the same program for each of my marathons so far. The last two I ran were ones I wasn't fully trained for, but I have been maintaining a fair base of fitness over the past couple of years. That is actually the thing I am most happy with. Signing up for these runs has helped keep me working out.
The last marathon I showed up fully trained and ready to run was the Seattle Rock n Roll Marathon a year ago in June. I did every training run, rode my bike once a week, and did some swimming as well. I mixed in a little "speed" work for the first time, which mostly consisted of treadmill intervals where I would speed up and slow down about every quarter mile. This program seemed to work relatively well for me, and I cut about 21 minutes of my best time.
But I think that there is still some room for improvement. I want to qualify for Boston someday, hopefully by the time I turn 45. It gets 10 minutes easier at that point, but I would still need to run the marathon in 3:30. Though I have followed a formal training program in the past, I mostly ran whatever pace felt right that day. So I want to ramp up training for my marathon in October, to see what happens when I push myself.
I have stuck with three runs a week in the past, mostly to avoid injuries, and I think that will work best for me as I ramp things up. My new training program is based on the F.I.R.S.T. program detailed in the book Run Less, Run Faster. The program has you running three days a week, and cross training at least two days. The theory is that the two days of cross training help maintain fitness, while reducing the amount of time you're pounding the pavement. The biking and swimming will also help me build a base for a triathlon later on.
In order to run faster while running less often, the three running workouts each week are very specific. Each week, there is one day of intervals, one tempo run, and one day for your long run. The distances and paces are specifically called out for each workout over the 16 weeks. For example, today's interval workout was:
10-20 minute warm up
Intervals of 1200, 1000, 800, 600, 400, 200 yards
(200 yard rest intervals between each interval)
10 minute cool down
The pace of each interval depends on your marathon goal. My paces range between a 7:00 and 7:24 per mile. The Thursday tempo runs are also at a different, specific pace each week. The long runs each weekend are also run at a pace quicker than most programs. The one tweak I made was to reduce the mileage of the weekend long runs. The program had the miles ramping up quicker than I thought was sensible with the fitness base I had going in. The long runs will be a bit longer than in the past, though.
So overall, it isn't a huge change in direction. I will be running the same number of days, but the plan is definitely more structured, and the mileage and pace are higher than before. After two weeks, I am definitely feeling more challenged. I am also feeling more sore however, and have been having some knee and ankle problems. So we'll see if the new program nets me a new PR, or sidelines me with an injury.