Training for a marathon is a long process, it takes a few months. The training plans use different phases to prepare the body for the race. It is good to know what these phases are and what you can achieve by completing them.
There are five phases of the marathon training — these also work for any long-distance race. Most of the training plans you will find are 12-24 weeks long, but they include only the middle three phases, leaving out the first and the last one. To successfully prepare for a marathon you need all the five phases.
Understanding the role of each phase is very helpful to create or modify a training plan to your individual taste. This way you can improve both your weaknesses and strengths. A personalized plan is always better than a general one.
If you want to immerse in the details, read a book about marathon training. The most popular ones were written by Pete Pfitzinger, Jack Daniels and Hal Higdon.
Phase 1: Base
The base training period is at least one month long, but it can go up to half-year in special cases — e.g. before the first marathon or after a long period spent without running it is longer than in normal circumstances.
This type of training consist mostly of slow runs with a maximum of one interval session a week. The aim is to run as many kilometers as possible at a slow, comfortable pace — running, not jogging.
It increases the aerob capacity of the body by making the heart and the lungs stronger.
Phase 2: Strength
The length of the strength period is one-two months long. Its purpose is to teach the runner to run at an increased speed for long periods.
The strength period uses long interval training session, one or two of them every week. The high-intensity periods of these runs are between one and three kilometers and you should run at your lactate threshold pace.
These runs help increasing the lactate threshold — the most important part of marathon training.
Phase 3: Speed
The speed training period is also one-two months long. It is used to increase the speed of the runner.
The most specific training type of this period are the short interval runs, sometimes simply referred to as speed runs. The high-insensity periods of these runs are shorter than one kilometer and you have to run slightly faster than your lactate threshold pace.
This type of interval training increases the VO2Max, that is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can absorb.
Phase 4: Taper
The tapering period is one-three weeks long, depending on the length and intensity of the previous phases. Its purpose is recovering from the heavy training and gaining energy for the race.
While the intensity of the runs stays the same as in the preceding phase, the distances are getting shorter and shorter.
This period is followed by the race.
Phase 5: Recovery
After the marathon your body needs recovery. This phase is four-six weeks long.
In the beginning most of the runs are very slow, at a recovery pace. As time passes by both the speed and the length of the runs increase. This phase is best described as the opposite of the tapering period.
When this phase ends you can start all over from phase one.