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Lessons in marathon running: How to choose the best training plan to suit you

Part 3: Most of the comprehensive training plans begin six months in advance, others reckon four months is about enough

All marathon journeys are about reaching your destination: the finish! In the third of our monthly series, The Irish Times continues its running lessons to help make that journey easier and smooth – right to the finish of the 2023 Irish Life Dublin Marathon on October 29th.

The human body does not move as fast as the human mind.

Although we may be possessed by the desire to run a marathon, there is no law of nature that will make our body immediately capable of delivering the energy to do the job. It doesn’t happen, as Tommy Cooper used to say, “just like that”.

Noel Carroll said that, and he knew what he was talking about. The co-founder of the first Dublin Marathon had a simple and basic philosophy when it came to the classic 26.2-mile distance; to fully understand it, one had to run it, which he did, including that first edition in 1980, when all 2,100 starters were running into a sort of unknown. Only 1,420 finished.


In the years that followed, Carroll devised the first Dublin Marathon training plan, which he shared at the time on a weekly basis coming up to the event via the race sponsor, Radio 2FM. With that sort of help the popularity of the race soared, and just two years later, in 1982, the race entry was up to 11,076.

Carroll’s marathon training plan was essentially about learning to distribute your running effort over the entire distance. The first rule of marathon running is don’t start too fast; it’s still the rule most broken.

In essence his marathon training plan involved a slow, gradual and sustained conditioning process. That’s still the basis of every sensible marathon training plan, even if these days they are many and indeed suitably varied.

Whether you’re running Dublin for the first time, or indeed running to win it, the marathon training plan also has two essential components: one that will get you to the start line in the best possible shape, and one that will get you to the finish line in the best possible shape.

Most of the comprehensive training plans begin six months in advance, others reckon four months is about enough. Either way, given all runners are different, it’s about finding the best marathon plan that works for you.

A quick Google search will throw up multitudes. Look them up.

The Hal Higdon marathon training plan – one of the originals too, or rather 14 different training plans, the American marathon runner also the author of more than three dozen books, including Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide, and Run Fast, How to Beat Your Best Time Every Time.

The Runner’s World Break 4:00, the American magazine’s plan specifically geared toward marathoners who want to break four hours for the time.

The Hanson Method – as in brothers Keith and Kevin, elite coaches who founded the Hansons Distance Project in 1999 to coach post-collegiate distance runners on a national and international level.

The McMillan plan, popularly tailored to three different types of marathon runners, all based around a running calculator to helps you hone in on a reasonable goal time

Not skipping over either the Jack Daniels plan, the Runcoach Plan, the Nike plan, and on they run.

The Dublin Marathon has plenty of its own training plans and advice on its website – – and what they all share in common is the progressive uptake and increase in running in the months leading up the event, before a week to 10-day tapering off period.

So what plan works best?

Go back to Carroll’s principle of building up the body, and mind too, to be capable of delivering the energy to do the job. Most marathon plans will call for at least one 20-mile run, others might go for something beyond that; some might prefer lower-intensity training plans, or allow for other methods of endurance training, such as cycling or swimming.

Carroll was adamant that every marathon training plan is an experiment in its own right. If follows that no matter what plan or guidelines are offered, the success or failure of each runner will depend on himself or herself. Once the decision is made the follow a particular marathon training plan, the battle is only beginning.

Because even the best laid marathon training plan will sometimes go astray. Once you find the plan that suits your goals and targets and own desires, the only requirement is to stick with it as long possible. After that the end result will take care of itself.

DO – invest in a pair of super shoes, if for some bizarre reason you haven’t invested already. Although the newest model isn’t always the best.

Ever since Eliud Kipchoge introduced the world to the highly cushioned sole and carbon fibre plate, for the Nike sub-two hour project, in 2017, the race has been swift to develop the latest model, across all brands too.

Only last month, when Kenya’s Kelvin Kiptum won the London Marathon in 2:01:25, setting a course record, and becoming the second fastest marathoner in history (just 20 seconds off Kipchoge’s world record), he was wearing the older Nike Vaporfly Next% 2, still available at a marked down price on the company’s own website.

In second place, fellow Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, was wearing the new Alphafly Next% 3 prototype, not yet available on the open market, as was women’s winner Sifan Hassan from The Netherlands.

Again the latest model isn’t always best. Top British finisher Emile Cairess was wearing in a pair of Adidas Takumi Sen 9, finishing sixth overall, which does have a carbon plate, but a more traditional stack height, 27mm in the forefoot and 33mm in the heel (the Alphafly goes to 39mm).

Don’t – forget to turn the shower on cold for a couple of minutes after your run. Of all the tried and tested methods of muscle recovery – the compression socks, the elevated legs, the proper ice bath – this cold shower for a couple of minutes remains the easiest and most convenient of the lot, a timely boost to the immune system to boot.

Long before Wim Hof made the idea fashionable, our father always swore by this process, not just because there wasn’t always enough hot water to go around for him and his two running sons at the time.

I don’t know the exact science behind it except to say it’s always worked for me. Scrub up all you want under the hot water, the key being never step out before turning that shower dial to cold, maybe halfway at first, all while cooling down the legs and other extremities, before going full on and under the cold all over.

For the uninitiated this does require a period of acclimatisation, maybe a few seconds first rather than minutes. Once it becomes standard practice there is no turning back, only turning on the cold. Trust me, it works.

TARGETS – At some point over the coming months there will be a need or desire to target or even predict a marathon finishing time. Where to begin?

It helps that most big city marathons, Dublin included, now offer designated pacemakers to assist runners throughout the field to judge their pace and break through some of those ‘big’ marathon barriers – two hours 30 minutes, three hours, three hours 30 minutes, and four hours.

There is also a popular chart here, beginning with the 5km time of 15:45, 10km time of 32:30, half marathon time of 70 mins, which all going to plan predicts a marathon time of around 2 hours and 30 minutes come the big day.

A 5km time of 19 minutes, 10km time of 39:30, half marathon time of 80 minutes, should point towards a finishing time of three hours.

And looking to break four hours? The target times to work off would be 25:15 for 5km, a 10km time of 52:30, and a half marathon time of 120 minutes. Hit any of those targets over the coming months and predicting marathon finishing times will become an easier exercise, just not necessarily an entirely accurate one.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics