I started running in December 2005 at the age of 43 and qualified for Boston in October 2008 at the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton, PA. The following article describes the process I followed to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This article is really intended for the intermediate to advanced runner who has already run 2 or more marathons and has been running long distance for at least 2 years.
I believe you need a good endurance base before trying to qualify for Boston. Make sure you can do the distance first and then work on improving your time.
Once you know your goal finishing time, determine what pace you have to average to make that time. I like the CoolRunning Pace Calculator. Just enter the time from above, 26.2 miles, and click Calculate Pace.
If that pace is a pace you currently can't maintain for a 15K distance, then realize that Boston should probably be a longer term goal. Make running a half marathon at BQ Pace a shorter term goal. Once you reach the shorter term goal, start working on your longer term goal.
The McMillan Running Calculator is a useful tool for determining current paces based upon recent past race performances. For example, enter your most recent half marathon time and let it calculate your paces for everything from 5Ks to long runs to the marathon.
The most important parts of training that I believe helped me to qualify are:
(1) Building a strong endurance base first.
(2) Adding the speedwork intervals and tempo runs in the book Run Less, Run Faster (the FIRST Training Plan). The back of the book has Boston Qualifying plans for each of the age groups. It spells out everything. For the 16 weeks leading up to the goal marathon, It tells you how many miles/meters to run at what pace for each of the 3 key workouts (tempo, speedwork intervals, and long run). Even when I tried other training plans, I still incorporate the speed workouts from Run Less, Run Faster.
I honestly believe speedwork is necessary to become faster. The other thing I believe is: Speedwork is very difficult and it hurts when you're doing it! When I first started running, I didn't understand that in order to become faster, I was going to have to do speedwork. And the very nature of speedwork is that it's done at a pace that is faster than your comfortable pace. When I do speedwork intervals or fast paced tempo runs, I am breathing very hard (trying to get in enough oxygen to fuel the working muscles), my muscles start becoming fatigued or get that lactic acid burn, and I usually am totally depleted (and sometimes feel like throwing up). When I first did speed workouts and felt that way, I thought I was doing something wrong. Surely feeling that way with my legs as wobbly as spaghetti at the end wasn't normal. But then I read similar comments by other runners and realized that my experience wasn't unusual.
Instead of dreading speedwork, I decided to embrace it. Every time I completed a speed workout, I was getting that much closer to my goal of becoming faster. If it was easy, everyone would do it. But there's a large amount of satisfaction in working hard to reach a goal. I have read that it takes 10 times for a training effect to occur. So when I did a particularly difficult speed workout (e.g. mile repeats), I would think: This is doing to become easier each time I do it. I'm training my body to adapt to the stress. And that's the key: Applying just enough stress to force your body to improve, but not so much that it breaks down.
(3) Modifying the FIRST training plan to accommodate my own running idiosyncrasies and beliefs. It is my personal belief that you shouldn't ask your body to do in a race what it hasn't approximated in training. Consequently, modifying the FIRST training plan for my own use involved the following:
- Occasionally substituting a medium long run (10-15 miles) for one of the cross training days to increase weekly mileage. In doing this, I still followed the guideline for limiting mileage increases to less than 10%/week.
- Changing some of my long runs to be fast finish long runs. Obviously, running all of your long runs at marathon pace would stress your system too much and probably lead to injury. Consequently, some of the running coaches have started incorporating fast finish long runs in their training. I try to make every other long run a fast finish long run where I run the last 1/2 of the long run distance at marathon pace. You run the last half at marathon pace rather than the first half because you're teaching your body to run at marathon pace even when fatigued. Trying to go out and run 26.2 miles at a pace that you haven't previously maintained for over 13 miles never made any sense to me. But I'm not an expert!
- Changing some of my long runs to be 22-23 miles. A lot of experts say that running over 20 miles in training is unnecessary, takes too much out of you, and requires too long of a recovery time. I listened to the experts on my first 3 marathons and I always fell apart at the length of my longest training run (usually 20 miles). It wasn't glycogen depletion, because I was fueling the entire way. Consequently, I decided to "do my own thing". I incorporated two to three 22-23 mile training runs into my plan. And lo and behold, I qualified for Boston in my next marathon and I ran strong until the end. But everyone is different, and running over 20 miles is not a good idea for everyone. I know a lot of runners that have qualified and done just fine with their longest training run being 20 miles. In order to help prevent injury, I always took two days off from running after a run over 20 miles. And I tried to do most of my 20+ mile runs on a soft surface. If you are prone to injury or have issues with 18-20 mile runs, it might be better to avoid the 20+ mile runs. You don't want to miss your goal marathon because you added in too many really long runs and ended up with an injury.
- Fueling on the run rather than quickly stopping for sports drink/gel. This is a personal preference. A lot of runners hate wearing fuel belts, but I use them in the half and full marathons and I don't stop for anything. And on shorter training runs, I carry a handheld amphipod. Fully filled, the belts can add a couple of pounds. Extra pounds can mean an additional second or two per mile. But actually I believe "it's a wash". I don't spend the time at aid stations which generally averages out to more than a few seconds. And I have the sports drink/gel on hand that my body is used to. A good rule of thumb is: Don't try something different on race day. Or you may end up in the port-a-potty! Being glycogen depleted can slow you down more than the extra pound or two in the fuel belt, so I choose to use it.
The other point about stopping at aid stations or during training takes me back to: "Train like you would race." If all your training runs have you stopping to drink/take gel and you stop your watch during those times, you're not really getting an accurate assessment of how you would do in the race. Here's a good example: One of my marathon training classes had aid stations with water/cups/Gatorade every 3-4 miles during our long training runs. That worked perfectly for most of the runners who preferred not to use a fuel belt. We would stop our watches, take fluids/gel, use the restroom, and regroup. So we were effectively spending up to 5 minutes at each aid station. One time our coach suggested we were going to treat the training run like a race. We would leave our watches running the entire time, try to maintain marathon pace, and spend as little time at each aid station as possible. It was a disaster for most of us. In fact, I'm not sure anyone in my pace group was able to maintain marathon pace. My body had become used to the little "mini breaks", although I always found it was more difficult for me to regain my former momentum after stopping.
That brings up my final point about why I don't stop during a race. When I'm moving, the endorphins and the increased blood supply to the working muscles keep the inflammation at bay (or at least I'm not aware of it). When I stop, I stiffen up and start to feel sore. This may be something unique to my system, although I have heard both other runners and my chiropractor (who is a triathlete) say the same thing.
- Adding hills by replacing some of the workouts with hill repeats, hill intervals, or hilly tempo runs. I can't remember where I read it, but someone said "Hills are speedwork in disguise." Of course, you can also become injured by running too many hills, so you need to find the balance. Doing some training on hill would be especially important if you're going to be running a hilly marathon. If you only ever train on a flat route and expect to do well on a hilly marathon, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. "Train like you would race." Because my qualifying marathon was predominately downhill with 2 miles of uphill at the very end, I knew that downhill running could really fatigue the quadriceps. But I didn't want to just train on downhill courses - that would give me a muscle imbalance between hamstrings and quadriceps. So I picked hilly routes for training. That meant I was training on a route more difficult than my qualifying marathon, but it also meant my qualifying marathon would seem easier in comparison. I don't do speedwork intervals on really hilly routes (although there are some small hills/gradual inclines), but I do tempo runs and long runs on hilly routes. I just have to modify my goal pace to factor in the more difficult route.
- Realizing that if I decide to "let up" during a hard training run that it's a case of Pay Now or Pay Later. I know from experience that I always have a little gas left in my tank to do what's necessary. It may hurt and I may not like it, but I can push myself to do it. The more I push myself now, the less of a push it will be on race day. There are exceptions to when all the pushing/desire/motivation in the world won't help. And that's if I'm overheating, ill, or haven't fueled properly. And that's one of the things I have learned with experience: the difference between wanting to slow when it's uncomfortable and wanting to slow when you're truly in distress.
As far as training plans for qualifying for Boston go, another good option might be a custom training plan from McMillan Running. Coach Greg McMillan will send you a questionnaire and design a program based upon your current fitness level and goals. Amby Burfoot from Runner's World said that "Greg McMillan is one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America". Considering that endorsement and his qualifications, his custom training plan prices are very reasonable!
Additional training plans and information are listed in the training program article on this site.
When I was trying to qualify for Boston, I maximized my chances by picking a qualifying marathon with the following criteria:
(1) A flat or downhill marathon is generally going to be easier to qualify than one that has a lot of uphill portions. Why make it harder on yourself if you don't have to? You can't control the weather (e.g. heat, cold, wind), but you can control the race you choose. MarathonGuide.com lists the top Boston Qualifying Marathons. As for downhill running, you need to be prepared for that - it stresses the quads and the calves.
(2) A marathon that isn't so crowded that you spend all your time trying to get around other runners to maintain your pace. Even though a timing chip means the clock doesn't start until you cross the starting mat, it doesn't stop for you when you're having to weave all around people to maintain pace. When you choose a marathon, you may want to see from past results how big the field was.
(3) Hot and humid conditions can rob you of speed because your body allocates some of the blood formerly going to your muscles to the skin capillaries for cooling. That means less oxygen for your working muscles. For that reason, a cool weather marathon is generally more conducive to faster running. Try to pick a marathon known for its good weather conditions (cool without rain, snow, or strong wind). MyForecast.com has an almanac with historic weather conditions by month and city. You can find out what the average temperature, wind,and humidity are as well as the extremes. To change the city, you can either change the zip code in the URL or enter the city/zip in the search box, click almanac and then historical climate along the left. Be sure to select the month of interest or you may end up viewing the data for the wrong month. But as we all know, the only thing constant about weather is that it's likely to change.
For these reasons, I chose the Steamtown Marathon to try to qualify. It was a qualifying course, had a small field (3000 or so runners), and was predominately downhill (with the exception of 2 miles at the end) with generally cool weather in October (although there were exceptions in previous years).
I had originally planned on running Chicago to try to qualify because of the flat course. But another runner told me about the crowds and so I decided not to. It was a good decision. That was the summer they had the heat wave and closed the marathon course early.
If I had not qualified at Steamtown, my next choice for trying to qualify was going to be the Tucson Marathon. That one is predominately downhill with cool/cold weather. The St. George Marathon is another popular Boston Qualifier, although it has its share of both uphills and downhills.
The way you run can not only affect whether you get injured, but can have a large effect on how fast/far you can go. If you run with an optimal running form, you receive more energy back with each footstrike and that helps to propel you forward to the next footstrike. This site provides articles with my thoughts on running form and running shoes.
I personally prefer the Garmin Forerunner 310XT. They also offer model 405 that's smaller, but I like the bigger screen on the 310. With the 310XT, I don't have to go to the track to run intervals. It allows me to enter custom programs such as 1 mile warmup, 3 times 1 mile at a certain pace, and a 1 mile cooldown. It then indicates with both a certain type of beep and an on screen message when one interval is about to end and another is about to begin. If you fall below your goal pace/heart rate/distance, it will beep and let you know to speed up. But one of the best things I have found is that it wirelessly transmits my workout data to connect.garmin.com and provides an interactive route map, detailed splits, and workout summary. If you're really serious about your running, I believe having the correct tools is important. This tool allows you to analyze your performance data. You can then adjust your training based upon that analysis.
There are some things I've learned along the way that I don't believe are necessarily common knowledge, even among some experienced runners:
- Marathon/half marathon running can exacerbate a pre-existing heart condition. Please have a physical and cardiac/health screening beforehand. I have had two friends with adverse heart conditions during races. One had a stroke during a marathon and another had valve failure during a shorter race. Neither was aware of their pre-existing condition and both were very experienced runners.
- Drinking too much water can lead to a potentially life threatening condition called hyponatremia (water intoxication).*2 Medical and Fluid Replacement information provided by Elite Racing for the Philadelphia Distance Run had some guidelines for avoiding hyponatremia, including favoring a sports drink that has some sodium in it over water, which has none.*3
- "Recent medical research has shown that non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Advil, Motrin, Aleve, ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen, etc. may be harmful to runners' kidney function if taken within 24 hours of running...These NSAIDs are thought to increase the possibility of hyponatremia while running long distances due to their decreasing blood flow to the kidneys and interfering with a hormone that helps the body retain salt."*3 On a personal note, one of the coaches at a training class I took spoke about taking too many NSAIDs in order to be able to run through an injury at a marathon. His kidneys failed and he had to have dialysis and he's very lucky that his kidney function returned. So these aren't just scare tactics or warnings that officials have to say...the risk is real!
- Experts recommend not trying something new on race day. That includes things like a new pair of shoes you've never worn before, new sports drink or new gel you haven't tried before, or a pre-race meal you haven't tried before.
- If you're nauseous or throw up after races/long runs, this may be the cause: "During the race, blood has been re-directed to your legs, away from your internal organs... If you don't walk (after finishing your race) or you stop and sit down, the blood flow to your internal organs will not rapidly be redirected to the pre-race state. You may then feel nauseous (not enough blood flow to the stomach) and throw up, as well as feel very dizzy and weak...Walking helps to redirect your blood and bring you back to 'everyday' physiology."*3 However, if you're dizzy or feeling really unwell, the best idea may be to get checked out be a medical professional. Many major marathons have medical support on site.
- Time blood donations so they don't impact a race you've trained for all year. But please don't let this dissuade you from giving blood. I donate blood on a regular basis. I'm just careful to time my blood donation so that it's not within the 6-8 weeks prior to an important race. "...Red blood cells (RBCs) contain hemoglobin, the main constituent that carries oxygen to the muscles during exercise. The typical male distance runner may have about 10-12 pints of blood, so donating one pint will result in an approximate 8%-10% decrease in total blood volume, RBCs, and hemoglobin concentration... Regeneration of the RBCs and hemoglobin concentration may take four to eight weeks, so aerobic endurance performance, which depends on adequate amounts of oxygen, may be impaired during the early stages of recovery from blood donation...In essence, if you have an important race on your schedule, you may want to avoid donating blood for 6 to 8 weeks prior to the race..."*4
- Time your pre-race meal appropriately. Even if you've been tapering and carb-loading, up to half of your liver glycogen is depleted by the time you wake up in the morning. This is because it fuels your nervous system while you sleep. So, assuming you have carb-loaded and tapered properly, your muscles, inactive during the night, remain fully glycogen loaded from the previous day. Consequently, one of the main purposes of the pre-race meal is to replenish your liver glycogen. "The ideal time' for a pre-race meal is about 4 hours before the race because it's early enough that you can digest and store a large amount of energy, yet late enough that this energy won't be used up by race time.."*5 Since sleep is important too and it's not always possible to eat 4 hours before a race, it's usually possible to eat a smaller amount 2 hours before. A pre-race meal with a lot of fat/protein can slow the digestion, so if it's not contra-indicated, many experts recommend a pre-race meal with at least 80% carbohydrates. In addition to Matt Fitzgerald's Performance Nutrition for Runners, another excellent resource is Monique Ryan's Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. There's too much information to include it all here. But the main point I took away was that I needed to eat 2-4 hours before my race so that the food could be digested and replenish my liver glycogen.
- Some antibiotics can lead to tendonitis or tendon rupture.*6 Although I cannot say for certain that the Levaquin prescribed for my high fever/sinus infection last December was the causative factor, I did subsequently develop a bad case of peroneal tendonitis followed by a fibular stress fracture. The FDA has since issued a block box warning for antibiotics known as Fluroquinolones (Cipro, Cipro XR, Proquin XR, Levaquin, Floxin, Noroxin, Avelox, FActive and marketed generics). I just wish I had known about this and I could have requested a different antibiotic from my doctor.
*1 Boston Marathon Medical Directors: Pierre d'Hemecourt, MD (Co-Medical Director), Sophia Dyer, MD (Co-Medical Director), Aaron Baggish, MD
*2 The American Medical Athletic Association Article, Marathon Dilemma: How Much Water is Too Much?
*3 Excerpted from Philadelphia Distance Run Medical Information, Edward Jasper, MD FACEP, Lewis G. Maharam, MD, FACSM
*4 Mel Williams (former director of Human Performance Lab at Old Dominion University and member of Marathon and Beyond's Science Advisory Board)
*5 Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald
*6 WebMD® Article: FDA Warning: Cipro May Rupture Tendons, Agency Issues 'Black Box' Warning for Antibiotics Known as Fluriquinolones