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The Ultimate Low-Mileage Marathon Training Plan

Here’s how to wield your multisport superpowers for your best performance.

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Targeting 26.2 this winter? Being a triathlete is a huge asset. Here’s how to wield your multisport superpowers for your best performance.

It’s a myth that only high-volume run training begets Boston-worthy times. Three days of running a week and two to three days of training on the bike can nab you the marathon you want—while lowering your risk of injury with mind- and body-stimulating variety. This is one case where the adage is true: You really can do more with less.

If you cut your teeth on triathlon back in the days when volume was king, it’s hard to believe that three days of run training could do enough to get you through 26.2 miles. Here’s what makes it work:

Quality with every footstrike
If you’re going to do fewer days of running than a traditional marathon plan, those running days must count. And the days in-between have to prepare you to nail those tough workouts. That means skipping recovery runs in favor of your bike. Because when people slow down for a recovery run, their form often deteriorates, says Earl Walton, founder of Tailwind Endurance Coaching in New York City. “They’re heavier in their steps, choppier, and are mentally checked out, so they’re just practicing bad form.” Plus, it piles more stress on top of stress. “The same quads that pounded the track last night are now plodding through the recovery run, and they’re not happy about it,” Walton adds. Slotting in a cycling workout in place of that recovery run allows you to avoid grinding yourself down and helps you show up prepared for the next day’s hard running work.

Constantly improving fitness
Complimenting your running with cycling doesn’t just take away some pounding—it keeps your fitness moving forward. “You’re letting your body recover but still working on aerobic fitness,” says Taylor Thomas, founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching. So your cardiovascular system builds up without breaking the rest of you. “Shorter duration rides can aerobically tax you, but they don’t have the same kind of aftermath as a long run or a hard track workout,” Thomas says.

Injury prevention
“If you’ve been doing triathlon and try to ramp up for a marathon and all of a sudden switch to all running, that’s going to be a big increase in training load on the legs,” says Bill Pierce, professor of health sciences at Furman University in Greenville, SC, and co-author of Run Less,

Run Faster. “Running three times a week and cross–training helps you get the most out of your efforts and reduce the risk for injury or for becoming overtrained.”

Free speed
“If you really struggle with top-end efforts in your running, and you can’t quite get to the pace you want or sustain the effort you’re looking for, a V02 max effort on the bike would be a great use of training,” Thomas says. “On the bike, you can often layer in workouts that are really challenging but may not be approachable for you yet from a running perspective.”

Cycling can also improve cadence, Pierce says. If you do a workout at a pretty high cadence, “it can transfer to running, and you can get a faster leg turnover.”

Volume sans wear-and-tear
“You could do a two-hour run on Saturday and ride three hours on Sunday, and it’s not going to knock you out—but it does help build your overall endurance system,” Walton says. “That gives you a five-hour workout, and that’s not something you could do running—at least not without damage.”

To Bike or Not to Bike

Cycling makes a lot of sense in a marathon program because it’s done in the same plane of motion, and strength built on the bike can translate easily to strength on the run.

But swimming, rowing, and water running can stand in for cycling workouts, too, Pierce says. “We like these because they are non–weight-bearing, so that reduces stress on the legs.” There’s no magic number of minutes at a certain effort to make cross-training count as a recovery run. Pierce recommends aiming for 30 minutes to an hour.

Swimming can be especially useful if you don’t have a lot of upper body or core strength. Bolstering your upper body can keep your posture more stable on the run, preventing you from wasting energy when your body isn’t working as a unit.

The Plan

The point isn’t to avoid running—it’s to use the rest of your training to support your quality runs. Consider these supplementary workouts to be the domestiques of your marathon-training Tour, so to speak; they do a good chunk of work in the background so your runs can shine.

Essential Elements
Each week should include the following:
Two bike workouts. During the first three weeks, keep them social and recovery–oriented. These help maintain your aerobic base and help your body process the new and challenging run program.

One interval run. Do it on the track. Focus on quick cadence. You’ll increase the distances on a weekly basis from 400s to to 800s, 1000s, 1200s and 1600s, depending on how you develop. But never do more than 2 miles of total hard effort.

One strength (or tempo) run. Do this on terrain similar to your marathon course (hilly, flat, etc). Gradually increase to 1 x 5 miles. Once you get there, don’t go longer, just faster. If you’re running slower than an 8-minute mile, adjust the intervals so your tempo running is no more than 30 minutes per workout.

One distance run. Start conservatively in speed and distance, as your goal is to maintain pace on these. These should be run closer to your goal marathon pace than you’re used to running. This may seem fast, but the point is to build the skills and your tolerance for running at that pace. Do not run longer than 2 hours—you need to be able to do the interval workout next week.

One optional swim. This helps you redevelop lung strength and work on your core.

*Note this plan assumes your last race was Olympic distance or greater. Do the workouts in the order presented. Download the PDF version of this article here.