Many marathon training plans, long-course triathlon training plans as well feature what are commonly referred to as “step-back” weeks. Weeks that occur every three or four weeks where you reduce your workload, allow your body to absorb the increased training during the preceding weeks and adapt. During that “step-back” week your body goes through changes, absorbs this increased intensity and grows stronger. This process is critical to good health as the athlete can allow any small “nicks” that they have experienced to bounce back to full-strength for another push forward over the next 2-3 week period. Allowing for even more miles and more intense training to continue to move the needle forward once again throughout the training cycle.
I agree with this philosophy 100% and have seen it work like a charm during my previous marathon cycles – allowing me to stay healthy while training hard and create the perfect situation where I reach the taper pretty much on fumes. I then use those final 2-weeks before race day to recharge the batteries and on race morning I am ready to rumble. The only problem I have always had with the “step-back” week was the name. You really aren’t taking a step back, you are reloading to take a step forward.
Instead I refer to these weeks as “cut-back” weeks. Where I cut back my mileage by 10-12 miles or so over the course of 7-days, in this case from 67 miles last week down to about 55 or so and then rebound back up to 70 miles the following week, then 75 the next.
The alternative would be to simply post weeks of 62, 67, 70, 72, 75 – but a schedule like that for a 45-year old marathoner is one that invites the possibility of not only injury but of overtraining. The fact of the matter is that for adaptations to your muscles to take place, you have to let them rest and recover. Last week featured 4 very challenging “Quality” workouts spread over my 6 runs. My two easy workouts for the week were 10 recovery miles on Wednesday after a pair of runs on Tuesday less than 7 hours apart and my 20-mile long run on Sunday. Keep in mind, those were the “easy” days.
So this week we will be running 55 miles +/-, if we need to cut back a little more than that by reducing our Saturday run from 10 miles down to 8, that will be fine too.
The key is to make sure that while you cut back on the mileage you keep some “intensity”. You want to make sure you continue to work some tempo miles into your week, some hill work, some marathon goal-pace miles to keep the legs moving and the pace ticking over. But make sure that you give yourself plenty of “easy” work also and allow those training miles from the previous two weeks to do their thing and build a stronger base moving forward.
This morning’s run of 10 miles was a good example of keeping the intensity level up, but not overdoing things.
After a warm-up mile that was steady effort (7:26), I locked in at Marathon Goal Pace Effort (6:52) but not necessarily Marathon Goal Pace on the watch. I did this by wearing heavier trainers this morning – Brooks Ghost 5’s, which are about 3 ounces heavier than my marathon race shoes. This difference in weight is the equivalent of :03 seconds per mile. I took this run to the softer crushed granite trail system behind our home to reduce the pounding on my legs a bit, but also slowing down my speed by another :01-:03 seconds per mile.
This turns a 6:52 goal pace effort mile into one that shows up on the watch in the 6:55-6:58 range.
Miles 2-10 this morning came in at:
6:59, 6:58, 6:52, 6:58, 6:54, 6:59, 6:53, 6:50, 6:41.
Only over the last mile did I press the issue a bit to feel like I was working hard. The other miles I just focused on even effort and let the hills on the trail dictate my pace on the watch. Running smooth, even opening splits in Houston is what I worked on today, stopping my legs when they got a little carried away and wanted to start pushing pace towards the end of the run. Only in the final mile did I let them take over.
Running a smooth opening 13 miles in Houston is going to go a long way toward our goal of breaking 3 hours in the marathon. We will not “make” our time over the first 13 miles, but we certainly can “miss” it there if we are too fast and burn up too much energy and glycogen during the first half of the race.
So, just because you are cutting back your mileage – it doesn’t mean that you are not getting quality work in. Marathon training is like trying to create the perfect stew. You have to put all of the ingredients together, take great care in finding the perfect mixture and temperature, and then giving it the time to all come together.
No single workout or “ingredient” is going to make or break you. It is the way that you put all the ingredients together that makes the difference.
75 days left to race day. Things are just starting to heat up on the stove. Happy Halloween everyone!