Overlapping training plans

Overlapping training plans

How do you figure out how to stack dissimilar endurance events?

I’m in an interesting situation where I am training for the Boston Marathon in April and the a 100-miler in July.  This isn’t a unique situation.  Most years I’m training for different events and many times they overlap.

How do you overlap training cycles for different events?  What kind of events are complimentary?  What types of events can be stacked into one training cycle?


It wasn’t long after renewing my running career that I came to understand that you can’t just train hard for marathons all the time.  The training for a road marathon for me was very intense.  It was always up in the air as to whether I would be able to avoid a major injury during a training cycle.  If I managed to survive one cycle, stacking another one on top of it, ad infinitum, was a guaranteed recipe for injury.

That’s when I learned to break the year into seasons.  There was a spring season that started around the holidays and culminated with the Boston Marathon.  There was a fall season the ended in a targeted qualifying race in October.  In between theses seasons I could rest and recover.

The challenge I had was if I gave myself those 4-8 weeks to recover I would totally lose my conditioning and start the next cycle from scratch.  I would train like hell for 3-4 months, race, or get injured, then get out of shape.  Rinse and repeat.

It was, ironically, injuries that brought me to the triathlon.  I couldn’t run for some reason and needed to stay in shape.  I started swimming and biking.  I was terrible at swimming, but it was something new to learn.  I learned a lot.

Triathlion training is incredibly complimentary to road running and racing training.  Of course, one of the events in triathlon is running, but you really aren’t running that much.  In a typical marathon plan at that point in my life I might be training 6-7 days a week, getting up to 50+ miles a week.  In a triathlon plan I’d only be running 2 or maybe 3 times a week.

You can see, right off the bat, triathlon training is balanced between the 3 disciplines.  You maintain your fitness in running and build fitness with the swimming and biking.  The biking does overlap with the running, because, hey it uses your legs, but it uses them in a different way and it’s not weight bearing.

You can sequence the workouts so that one discipline is the recovery workout for a hard effort in the other.  You can also do more hard efforts in a row.  You can do a monster pool workout one day and a hard bike the next.  You’re using different muscles.  You can do a hard run workout and recover with a low effort bike.

The net result is that you maintain your fitness from the volume of work, you get stronger from the cross training and you refresh you brain by thinking about something new.

Transitioning into a triathlon cycle from a running cycle takes a few weeks because you have to reteach your swimming and biking muscles.  Transitioning out of a triathlon cycle into a running cycle is extremely complimentary.  You’re strong, healthy and fit and you can start loading the volume and quality on to that base.

Short speed vs marathon

What about moving from a marathon training cycle into a shorter race goal, like a 5K?  Most people know how to go from a shorter race to a longer race.  It’s just more volume.  How do you go the other way?

If you’re coming out of a marathon cycle you’re going to have fitness and some speed.  It’s not 5K racing speed, it’s more like tempo speed.  I’m assuming you’ve been training well for your marathon – training hard to race it for a good time.  This advice, these observations, are probably less applicable if you’re training to finish it versus training to race.

In either case you’ll be carrying the fitness earned during the one training cycle into the next raining cycle.  But, honestly, I think this type of transition is probably the least complimentary.

One challenge with rolling out of a marathon into a shorter race is that you still need to recover.  You need to give yourself a couple weeks to get your legs back.  If you don’t recover you won’t get the benefit of the new training protocol.  You will be going from hard running to hard running and this makes the chance of injury, over-training and pure exhaustion higher.

Then you need to find some strength and speed.  You’ll do this through speedwork and core strength.  You’re asking your legs to do something fundamentally different.  Your 5K race pace might be 1-2 minutes a mile faster than your marathon race pace.  You have to re-learn those mechanics and it takes a few weeks.

My experience is that other than the pure fitness carryover, you’re almost restarting a new training cycle.  With recovery, training and taper you’re probably looking at a couple months to do it right.

Marathon vs ultra

What about going from a marathon to an ultra or from an ultra to a marathon?  This scenario is not dissimilar from the 5K/marathon discussion above.  It’s a difference of pace and intensity.

The jump from a quality marathon training cycle to an ultra is not hard.  I have done this, and I actually find it quite complimentary.  One difference for me is I’m typically not looking to race the ultra, I just want to finish.  The transition is from lots of intensity and volume to lots of easy volume.

It’s almost like recovery running for me.  If you’re in shape to race a marathon, running a slow 50K is a piece of cake.  Running a slow 50 Miler is going to take some training, but it’s still well within reach.  Going from a marathon to 100 is going to take a couple months of prep.

Coming back from an ultra to the marathon is similar to what I said about going from the marathon to the 5K.  You bring that big fitness base, but you have to recover then rediscover your speed.  This takes some time and some work.  It’s a different training and different mechanics.

Another thing to remember is that most ultras are (mostly) trail runs.  Running trails is very complimentary if you’re coming off a road racing training cycle.  Trails are softer and more forgiving, and they work your core.

Cycling versus marathon

I have done a few seasons of mountain bike racing.  How complimentary is this to my marathon training goals?

Coming off a hard marathon training plan into a mountain bike training plan is very complimentary.  You bring that running fitness with you.  You just have to get the feel for the bike back.

Mountain biking is mostly slow grinding out in trails.  I do throw in some hill repeats and some road centuries just to make sure I have race fitness, but for the most part it’s just a lot of long rides in the woods.

I have also found going the other way, from the mountain bike back to road racing is very complimentary as well.  You maintain that deep aerobic fitness from all those hours on the bike, you have a nice strong core from working the trails and your legs are fresh from staying off them for a couple weeks.

Obstacle racing versus marathons

How about going from a marathon to a Spartan Beast or something like that?  Again, super complimentary.  You bring in that race fitness and add core strength to it.  I found that the one big advantage I had over the regulars was my ability to run, in all conditions, on all terrains, for a very long time.

Coming back to the marathon was complimentary as well.  I still had the base aerobic fitness from that 6 ½ hour Beast plus core strength.  On top of that, to do well at an obstacle race you need to be light, and I was able to carry, (or not carry), that weight into my target marathon.

Can you train for two events at the same time?

You can.  But, understand that you are naturally compromising performance in both events.  The more complimentary the events the better, but it’s always a tradeoff.


Which brings us back to the concept of seasons.  If you look at the natural cadence of road racing most of the good races are in the spring and the fall.  This leaves you the winter and the summer to try something different.

If that something different is complimentary to your marathon training, all the better.

My typical cycle, which keeps me injury free, is to train for Boston in April, then train for something different at the end of the summer.  The good news is that most of your mountain bike races, your triathlons and your ultras are in late summer.

Then you can role off that event and crank up your training for a couple months to hit your fall races.  You maintain your fitness, get some cross training, some recovery and it clears your head.


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