To What Extent Is It Possible to “Cram” for a Marathon? – 80/20 Endurance

To What Extent Is It Possible to “Cram” for a Marathon?

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of cramming. You fail to attend any of your American Civilization 101 classes or to do any of the required reading all semester, and then, with one week remaining before the final exam, you hit the books and burn the midnight oil in a heroic effort to catch up enough to escape with a passing grade.

Although stressful, cramming can work for students with good knowledge retention. The brain is an amazingly adaptable organ, capable of assimilating tremendous amounts of information in very little time given intensive exposure. Heck, you can learn a whole new language in a week if you fully immerse yourself in it and you’re good with accents.

It’s a different story with the rest of the body. The muscles and cardiovascular system are also highly adaptable, but they change on a much slower timescale than the brain does. You can’t cram for a marathon in the same way you can cram for a college exam. But a form of cramming is possible in marathon training under certain circumstances. Under normal circumstances, runners in marathon training build fitness at a leisurely rate, because in doing so they minimize the risk of injury and burnout and maximize the likelihood of successfully attaining peak fitness for race day. It is possible, however, to purposely build fitness more quickly, and even to aim to build fitness at the maximum rate achievable, and indeed this is precisely what I am doing now. 

Here’s how I ended up here: This past winter I was on a roll—training consistently and intensively and racing well at distances ranging from 5K to the marathon. Then I got sick. Really sick. Between early March and early April I did virtually zero exercise, and as a result I hemorrhaged fitness. It wasn’t until April 8th that I felt ready to try my first tentative test run. It went okay, and so, being who I am, I immediately set about making plans to get back to racing.

In the early days of my illness, when I assumed it was going to be the usual mild flu, I committed to all four events of the Rambling Runner Virtual Race Series: a 5K in late March, a 10K the following week, a half marathon in mid-April, and a marathon in mid-May. By the time I was back on my feet, the first two events had already past and the half marathon was just around the corner, and I was nowhere near ready for it. But I had five and a half weeks from the date of those first six 10-minute treadmill miles to prepare for the marathon. Could I pull it off? I decided to give it a shot.

The goal for me is not to achieve the sub-2:40 time I believe I would have run in the Modesto Marathon on March 27th if COVID-19 hadn’t hit and I hadn’t gotten it. I just want to embrace the physical and mental challenge of seeing how far back I can come in such a short period of time. I’m approaching it as a test of my knowledge, experience, and judgment more than anything.

After surviving a handful of slow but increasingly normal-feeling jogs, I decided to sit down and create a plan for the last four weeks of my marathon cramming. I know this sounds like an obvious step, but I normally train without formal plans. I’ve been running long enough that I am generally able to train very effectively by creating a loose mental road map and filling in the details as I go. In this case, though, I felt the need to take a more conventional approach.

The key decisions I made are as follow: 1) I would run every other day. I was doing this even before I got sick, as I often do when some pesky sore spot in my much-abused body makes it unwise or impossible to run more often. 2) I would make every run count, alternating long runs and quality runs so that I was doing one of each every four days. And 3) I would do a ton of cross-training (indoor and outdoor cycling, steep uphill treadmill walking, and elliptical biking) to maximize my aerobic fitness  development without the heightened injury risk that would attend running more. I kicked it off with a 14-mile run on April 17th, one month out from the virtual marathon. Here’s the rest of the plan (runs appear in bold):

Week of April 19Week of April 26Week of May 3Week of May 10
Hill Reps
10 x 0:30 hard uphill 

Strength Training 

Cross-training
Strength Training 

Cross-training
Easy Run
8 miles easy 

Cross-training
Cross-training 2x
Cross-training 2xSpeed Intervals
10 x 1:00 @ mile race pace 

Cross-Training
Strength Training 

Cross-training
Marathon Pace Run
14 miles including 10 miles @ marathon pace
Long Run
17 miles easy
Cross-training 2xTempo Run
10 miles including 6 miles @ half-marathon effort 

Cross-training
Strength Training 

Cross-training
Cross-training 2xLong Run
23 miles easy
Cross-training 2xEasy Run
8 miles easy 

Cross-training
Steady State Run
8 miles including 6 miles @ marathon effort 

Strength Training 

Cross-training
Cross-training 2xCritical Velocity Reps
4 x 1 mile a little faster than 10K race pace 

Cross-training
Progression Run
8 miles with the last 3 @ 80%, 85%, and 90%

Strength Training 
Cross-training 2xStrength Training 

Easy Run + drills and strides
Strength Training 

Cross-training
Cross-training
Long Run
20 miles easy
Virtual 1-Mile Race + 2-mile tempo 

Cross-training
Depletion Run
20 miles easy, no carbs before or during
Easy Run + drills and strides

As you can see, it’s quite aggressive, especially considering the thinness of the fitness base it builds on. But it’s not reckless. It represents the limit of what I think my body can adapt to, no more. And if it turns out to be too much at any point, I can always dial back. And if I fail to dial back sufficiently or in time and I get injured and have to take a little time off from running and delay my next race, so what? I’ve survived worse.