I’ve been following the exploits of the Northern Arizona Elite group for a while, ever since runner/writer Matt Fitzgerald joined them as a “celebrity” member in his quest to break 2:40 at the Chicago Marathon. One of the things I really respect about the group, and coach Ben Rosario, is that they share everything. There are no secrets within their group (at least about their training). You can see every run that a NAZ Elite runner did leading up to their races on their Final Surge site. (That is actually how I found out about Final Surge and decided to use it as my coaching platform).
NAZ Elite has produced a bunch of truly solid performances over the past few years. They don’t have any athletes that can challenge Galen Rupp or Shalane Flanagan, but their runners post consistently good times: they had two women in the top 10 at NYC this year, and four men run 2:13 or faster. So I took a deeper dive and looked at what Ben had them doing before their races. There was the usual steady diet of doubles, long runs, and 100 mile weeks, but what surprised me was that there were very few crazy difficult workouts. In fact, I only found two workouts that looked intimidating, and they were very similar: a 3 mile tempo, some repeats totaling 3-5 miles, and another 3 mile tempo. Scaling that down to my ability level, that would be equivalent of me doing a 2 mile tempo, 2-3 miles of repeats, and another 2 mile tempo. Difficult, but not nearly as difficult as some workouts I have done. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Ryan!)
In addition, famed coach Renato Canova, who has coached many of the best marathoners in history, has a surprisingly simple philosophy as well. Basically, he believes in mimicking the stress of a marathon by running long and fast. This means doing a long run close to marathon pace, rather than just slogging along for a “Long Slow Distance” run. This is very challenging, but not complicated; in order to run fast, you must run fast. In addition, his runners do a lot of fartleks and long intervals, much like you would see in almost any training plan.
So what is the difference between the training of a successful marathoner versus one who struggles to meet their potential? My argument would be that unsuccessful marathoners typically overthink and undertrain. It’s easy to think you are training hard because you are running almost every day, but if you’re not doing lots of work at marathon pace or faster, you’re not getting a true marathon-specific stimulus. Likewise, mileage is crucial to marathon success; more is almost always better. Furthermore, people are always looking for the newest secret workout, when it is apparent there is no secret. The trick to running a good marathon is to run a lot, and run hard. Sounds simple, but is very hard to do.