Long runs, speed workouts, hill repeats, and rest days. Informed by the successes and failures of elite runners and sports science, today’s marathon training programs incorporate those fundamentals. But training plans are constantly evolving, along with the nutritional needs of distance runners.
“People used to race a lot and they used to run a lot, too,’’ said BAA running club head coach Michael Pieroni. “Up until the mid-to-late ’80s, high mileage was the core of any runner’s training program. If you weren’t running 100 miles a week, you weren’t serious. So, there was a little bit of peer pressure in there, too.
“In the mid-to-late ’80s you started seeing a scientific approach, a more analytical approach to training. Less is more came into fashion.’’
High-mileage weeks (110-plus) are popular again among top American runners, following the lead of internationally successful Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor. But that high mileage typically is done at altitude and with more sophisticated planning than in the past.
Spiridon Louis, 1896 Olympic marathon champion, logged lots of miles on daily deliveries of water to Athens. According to accepted history, he ran alongside his water-carrying mule to train, covering roughly 18 miles per round trip from the water source to the city. And Louis was not alone among early marathoners who used physically demanding jobs to help them prepare for racing 26.2 miles
Over time, the science applied to training has also been applied to nutrition. In 1935, Johnny A. Kelley tried to fuel his first Boston Marathon victory with 15 chocolate pills. By the time he reached Kenmore Square, the chocolate had made him sick.
He stopped to vomit, losing valuable time, but not the race. Many serious marathoners of that era and for decades later believed in drinking lots of milk and eating prerace meals of steak.
In the 1980s, sports-specific nutritional products — drinks and energy bars — entered the long-distance running culture. Now, runners commonly pack Gatorade, Gu Energy Gel, and power bars for race day. The new post-workout food and beverages promise faster recovery.
“People are always looking for an edge,’’ said Pieroni, “some sort of potion or secret formula to get them to perform at their best.’’