Marathon Training Plans 101

People always ask me, "What's the best marathon training plan?" and I never know quite how to answer. In the past I've used the New York Road Runners training plans, which come in conservativemoderate, and advanced levels. But to me, a training plan is such a personal decision that there isn't one that's better than the other. There's only one that's more suited to what you're trying to accomplish.

Is this your first marathon or are you looking to beat your previous best? How much of a time commitment are you willing to sacrifice? What is the course like? What time of year are you training? When do you have time to do your long runs? It becomes a bit of a self-assessment. Here are a a few notes from personal experience that I find helpful in choosing the right training plan:

You shouldn't have to pay. There are enough people out there offering advice, tips, and training schedules that you shouldn't have to pay for a training plan. Ultimately it comes down to the effort you put in, and no amount of money is going to do that for you. Poke around online and see what's out there for free before you make a major investment. More money doesn't equal a better marathon — more training does.

Look at your schedule. Long runs are important. If you know that you're only going to be able to do your long runs on Saturdays, then look for a training plan that caters to that. If you know that Monday is always going to be an off day for reason xyz, then that's what you should look for. Can't find a plan that suits your schedule? Print out the closest one and relabel the days of the week. The sequence of mileage is the important part so leave those in tact. But if you want to make your start day a Wednesday instead of a Sunday, go for it. Just plan enough in advance so you end on the right day and aren't left with too many or too few days before your race.

Listen to your body. Only you know the difference between the usual training suffering and the pain that will lead to injury. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Don't push yourself to the point of injury to meet your training plan goals. Is your knee bothering you? Maybe it's time for a low impact, cross-training alternative like swimming until it feels better. It's better to take a few days off than to push yourself and be out for the season.

Embrace the cross-training. I know it's hard. We're runners, and sometimes we get it in our heads that anything that isn't running, isn't as good. Well, it's time to squash that thought process. If your training plan says cross training, that's what you should be doing. It's time to find another activity to add to your exercise regimen. I'm a big fan of pilates for strengthening my core. I have a soft spot in my heart for my Mari Windsor Pilates DVDs that I do in the comfort of my own home.

Don't forget to run for fun. It isn't all business. Some of these training plans put in an AYF (as you feel) day. This is the day to leave the running watch at home, call up a buddy to jog with, or explore a new route. When you're putting in so much effort, it's easy to forget what made you love running so much from the start. This is the day to remember.