Mind the gap

There are many cliches around training as to be the best runner you can be – that you can bank your training, that pain is temporary and pride is forever or that running a marathon is 90% mental. Many of these sayings have some value…

One that I do think has some usefulness however, is that training for a marathon is a journey.

My take on that, is that the journey from wherever you are to the start line of your key race is along the banks of a flowing river. On that river there is a good side and a bad side. On the good side is fitness, preparedness and mental strength. On the other side is beer, staying up late, not eating well and ultimately failure.

Get on the right side of the river

As you train for a marathon you need to make sure that you spend as much time on the correct side as possible, because my analogous river gets wider and faster flowing the further you go down-stream. This means that as you get closer to the goal, it gets harder and more hazardous to cross the river to the right side.

What I am trying to suggest is this:

• if you start a 16 week training programme and miss an easy run or even a session or long run in the first week, you find yourself on the wrong side of the river. But the river is a mere trickle at this stage, so it is no problem to cross back to the correct side and crack on.

• but if you miss several runs that week, i.e. you spend 7 days on the wrong side, then you’re one sixteenth of the way to the end and the river has grown a bit. It is still possible to cross to the right side, but it will take some effort.

• if you get to week six or eight of your training programme and you have been on the wrong side of the river, then crossing back to where you should be is very, very difficult. The gulf between where you are and where you should be is very big indeed.

This chart illustrates the growing gulf over time:

Suddenly your training programme is calling for 30 minutes continuous hills in the middle of a 60 minute run or a 2hr 40min long run with the first 50 minutes easy, the next 50 minutes steady and the last 50 minutes at target marathon pace…

You are struggling to run continuously for two hours at this point or to even do a hill session.

This is the point at which you have to rethink what you are striving to achieve.

The bank that you are on is the wrong bank for a sub-3 hour marathon, but could well be the right bank for a river which leads to a 3hr 30min marathon. So you can decide to try to get across the river and risk over-training or getting injured. Or you can reset your targets and pick another river…

Ideally you should be thinking about this now, as you start your preparation. Experienced runners know that they can only afford to miss a couple of sessions in an entire 16 week training programme. The temptation is always there to think that you can afford to put off your training for another day or until next week or that you’ll start seriously next month. This is a big mistake.

Start now. Be consistent. And when you get to the day of your marathon you’ll be able to look across the fast flowing river – deep and wide – and laugh at all the suckers stuck on the other side.


  1. An excellent analogy Simon and please forgive me for taking it a little further!

    Fortunately I am a strong swimmer and in 2010 getting across the river was indeed a massive challenge. Although to be fair I found myself there not through indulging in alcohol and missed training but through first illness and then injury. Unable to run for a little over six weeks due to a stress fracture right in the middle of my marathon training, I kept up my fitness by swimming and spinning classes. It was tough! As each week of recovery went by I kept readjusting my plans to the point that I imagined the marathon was probably out of my reach but continued with my non-running training. My physio suggested a 2-hour session on an exercise bike in the gym keeping my heart-rate at a constant 120 (I think or was it 140) bpm. I have never been so unbelievably bored in my life but I did it and that was the turning point. When I got the all-clear, 7 weeks before the marathon, little by little I battled my way across the river, determined not to pick up another injury but equally determined to run. I alternated running training and strength with swimming. The longest run I did was 15 miles and I didn’t taper before the marathon but rather used it as my ‘long-run’. I ran 10 mins slower than my pb time but was absolutely delighted with that.

    I would never choose to be on the wrong side of the river although I’ve had the opposite experience to the above too. A year when training went perfectly, my times were fantastic I felt in tip-top form until the actual day of the marathon when I woke feeling heavy and sluggish and just unwell in that non-specific way and it was one of the hardest marathons I’ve ever run and slower than the one described above. I’d still choose to prepare well though!

  2. A great way to look at it Simon and so very very true. The more I run the more I have discovered just how important it is to have a plan and stick with it. I have tried to fool myself before and only ended up disappointed on race day.

    Like Andrea I have also experienced a bad marathon on the back of a great training. For one reason or another, well there were a few (like missing a flight the day before the race and racing a super fast 20 mile race a few weeks before) it just didn’t come together. These are the things that I have learned from and I will always travel a bit earlier if needed now and will not race 20 miles in my marathon training.

    My plan and commitment to it is within my control and balancing it with general day to day life can be challenging when aiming for a time but I know what I have to do. I may pass to the other side of the river during my training and but will think of this before I do so!

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