I get a fair number of inquiries from people that want coaching looking for something specific: they want to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Usually the inquiries go like this: “I’ve run x number of marathons and now I’m ready to try to qualify for Boston. Do you have a “Boston” training plan?”
The Fabled Boston Marathon Route
What’s interesting here is that there is a recognition by runners that after already having some level of success at running marathons they know that they need to do something differently to earn the mantle of “Boston Qualifier.” What we know about these people is that they have finished some marathons; they want to run more of them; and they are doing well enough that the chance to qualify is somehow within reach.
So what is it that takes the “ordinary” marathon runner and turns her into a “Boston Qualifier?” And are there specific training plans for people that are trying to qualify for Boston?
My answer goes something like this. First, there isn’t some special formula that is unique in qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Remember that qualification for Boston for first-time Boston qualifiers comes more often than not at a race other than Boston. So the training plan isn’t training you to run Boston, just to run fast enough on some other course (perhaps much easier than Boston’s) to get you there. This is important, because it helps us realize that training to qualify for Boston is all about hitting a particular and precise time goal.
With that said, the secret sauce for qualifying for Boston isn’t really that much of a secret: you need a plan to make you faster and you need a plan that makes you fast enough to meet the qualifying standards for Boston.
Qualifying for Boston is often a forcing function for marathon runners to do what we are often espousing here on our blog – to focus on quality over quantity; to add intensity to workouts to become more efficient; and to have a very specific focus on pacing goals. As tough as they are, it is only when these three items align that training will yield the speed and endurance to meet the Boston Marathon qualifying standards.
Let’s think about each of these. First, increasing the number of quality workouts in the training plan means doing more running at a faster training pace. Running more at faster paces makes the runner faster. The flip side of this — running more miles at slower paces — doesn’t do much of anything to improve speed.
Second, adding intensity to workouts increases the efficiency of the runner, helping them sustain their goal pace for a longer period of time. In other words, by stressing the body hard for short periods of time, we make the body better at performing at lower levels of intensity for longer periods of time. This is where we start to understand that marathon training runs don’t need to be 26 miles in length to get us ready for the marathon. By running 18-20 miles at pace AND running much faster than goal pace for shorter distances, we build the strength and efficiency to continuing running at our goal pace for those last few miles.
And third, by practicing a specific pace, we remove the doubt associated with the runner’s predicted marathon finishing time. Most new marathon runners have only a vague sense of pace. They think they’ll finish in X time. When taking on the target of a Boston qualifying time, the runner now has a precise target to hit. Workouts then can take on the role of “dry runs” of race day in which the runner knows that they need to hit that pace in order to be on track to meet their goals. Training moves from being distance oriented to being time oriented and with this comes a new level of precision and dedication to pace.
The bottom-line is that qualifying for Boston is really about moving to a new level in your marathon training. When you qualify for Boston what you’ve done is graduated from the beginning stage of marathon training in which the goal is to finish the distance and then gradually improve your time. At the Boston level, you have shed the feelings of doubt that come with the marathon distance – you know that you can finish – and move on to racing more precisely against the clock. With this new level comes a new reality that time goals are achieved by practicing a particular pace over and over until it become easily repeatable and making the body the most efficient running machine possible.
So what you need to do to qualify for Boston could be summarized like this: increase the speed and intensity of your training and develop a whole new level of awareness of your pace. When your Boston qualifying pace is engrained in your head and your legs you’ll be ready to qualify for Boston.
Coach Joe English, Portland OR, USA
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