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Countdown to the Soweto Marathon: Your 8-Week Journey to Ultra Marathons Begins

Countdown to the Soweto Marathon: Your 8-Week Journey to Ultra Marathons Begins

For many the Soweto Marathon on the 5th of November will be their first step towards a Two Oceans or Comrades Marathon. It is one of the earliest qualifiers for South Africa’s two big Ultra marathon challenges and as far as those two go, it is always a good feeling to get the qualification process taken care of early so that we can concentrate on the specific ultra marathon preparation after a period of recovery. The November date also allows us to make the most of the holiday period through December and to use our extra free-time for training.

Soweto is a fantastic goal in itself though. The marathon distance is one of endurance sports most iconic and a proper challenge for any road runner. The Soweto marathon route is also a challenging one. Lots of ups and downs will add to the task of covering the 42.2km and will not only require some specific preparation but also be a great preview of what will come in the two Ultras in the first half of next year.

Many runners will have had a bit of an off-season during the colder, shorter days of Winter but will hopefully have kept things ticking and possibly focused a bit on building some strength and speed over shorter distances. To follow we will look at the final eight weeks of training as we build to the Soweto Marathon but we need to be fit and healthy when we start this. An experienced runner would certainly be able to complete a marathon off only eight weeks of training but it would still be a grind and not a lot of fun. So, hopefully we are all in good shape, capable of a strong finish in a half marathon, and then these final eight weeks will kick things up a few notches and turn that condition into a strong finish in a hilly 42.2km.

MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY FRIDAY SATURDAY SUNDAY
Rest, stretch and mobility Hill Reps – 10-15X 300m Recovery 45-60 minutes Threshold Intervals 2:00/1:00 Recovery 30-40 minutes Long, Aerobic Run – 2:00 1:30 Building Run
Rest, stretch and mobility One hour Hilly Fartlek Recovery 45-60 minutes Tempo Run Recovery 30-40 minutes Long, Aerobic Run – 2:00 Split Run – AM / PM
Rest, stretch and mobility Hill Reps – 6-8 X 500m Recovery 45-60 minutes Threshold Intervals 3:00/1:00 Recovery 30-40 minutes Long, Aerobic Run – 2:30 1:30 Building Run
Rest, stretch and mobility One hour Hilly Fartlek Recovery 45-60 minutes Tempo Run Recovery 30-40 minutes Long, Aerobic Run – 2:30 Split Run – AM / PM
Rest, stretch and mobility Hill Reps – 10-15X 300m Recovery 45-60 minutes Threshold Intervals 4:00/1:00 Recovery 30-40 minutes Long, Aerobic Run – 3:00 Recovery 30-40 minutes
Rest, stretch and mobility One hour Hilly Fartlek Recovery 45-60 minutes Tempo Run Recovery 30-40 minutes Long, Aerobic Run – 2:00 1:30 Building Run
Rest, stretch and mobility Hill Reps – 6-8 X 500m Recovery 45-60 minutes Threshold Intervals 5:00/1:00 Recovery 30-40 minutes 1:30 Building Run Recovery 30-40 minutes
Rest, stretch and mobility 45 minutes Hilly Fartlek Recovery 30 minutes Tempo Run Rest, stretch and mobility Pre-Race 30-40:00 easy SOWETO MARATHON


Rest, Stretch and Mobility – Mondays are always good for a rest day. The weekend sessions are always endurance focused and the legs will need some proper recovery by the time Monday comes around. It is also the start of the work-week and there is always a good chance that the ‘real-world’ will throw a spanner in the works that could jeopardise any planned training sessions. Although a complete day off is good for the body, we do want to avoid any stiffening up and sluggishness when we head out for a key session on Tuesday. So, some gentle and relaxed stretching and mobility is a good idea on the rest day. Stretching should be focused on all the muscles of the legs: Calves; hamstrings; quads and glutes but don’t overdo it. We are not trying to compete. We just want to take things to the point of tension, hold for a few seconds and then relax. We are not trying to be ballerinas and over-stretching will do more harm than good. 

The mobility movements should be focused around the hips, lower back and glutes. This is often an area of tension because we spend so much time sitting at desks or behind steering wheels. Many injuries lower down can be traced back to overly tight hips. So, across the body movements of the legs and lunge type stretches for the hip flexors are what we are looking for. 

Hill Reps – On Tuesdays we are going to focus on hills. The Soweto Marathon has over 500m of vertical ascent in its 42.2km and we will want to work on our strength going uphill. Running hard uphill is probably also the most beneficial training for running on all inclinations though, and we’ll feel the benefits of these sessions in all our running.

We will have relatively fresh legs on a Tuesday after our days off on Mondays but our legs might feel a little sluggish starting out. For this reason it is even more important to have a good warm up before we start the intense portion of these sessions. The warm up is not aimed at adding volume. It is just easy running that should take us to the bottom of our chosen hill, that allows the muscles to loosen up, our stride to stretch out naturally, and it prepares the body for what is to come without stress.

We have four hill-rep sessions and we are going to alternate between a 300m long hill and a 500m long hill. The effort is obviously different for the different lengths. The 300m being a bit more explosive and allows us to hold a more powerful stride through the interval. The 500m long hill will become a more aerobic type of effort and will allow us to focus on running more efficiently up a climb. The 300m hill can be slightly steeper than the 500m hill but neither should be so steep that it forces a change in our posture. In other words, we don’t want to feel like we have to bend forward and haul our way up.

In fact, there are some important cues to keep in mind when running these hill rep session. We want to lean into the incline but at the same time, we want a full-body lean. Not bending at the hips. We want an imaginary straight line running down our neck and spine, through the hips and down to our feet. To help achieve this we won’t be looking up to the top of the hill or down at the ground in front of our feet. We should be focusing on a point roughly three meters in front of us, so that our head remains in a neutral position.

Our shoulders are squared but relaxed and arm carriage is as it would be if we were running on the flat. We don’t want excessive pumping of the arms and legs as if we were running the 100m sprint. We are looking for a ‘proud’ posture with our chests out, shoulders back and chin up. 

The number of hill-rep intervals that we do will depend on our overall level of experience. We do however want to finish the session feeling like we probably could have squeezed out another two. The idea is not to smash ourselves to complete exhaustion by the end of our last rep. We will be running these fast but there should be a good pacing strategy from the first to the last. The first one should feel comfortable and relaxed so that maintaining that speed for the last rep, with the build-up of fatigue, will be very close but not quite a maximum effort. We definitely don’t want to start these too fast and fall apart because that all-important form and posture that we are looking for will be compromised.

When running the hill-reps we want to focus on generating our propulsion from our glutes and hamstrings. Not the calves. Drive your leg forward but don’t ever-extend so that the foot-strike occurs too far up the road. We want it just below or only fractionally ahead of our centre of gravity. Then pull the road back (or the body forward) with the big muscles in the glutes assisted by the hamstrings. We are aiming for a light contact with the ground and a nice, high cadence throughout. Run through the finish line at the top, turn and walk a few metres before jogging slowly back to the start as recovery.

After our last rep we will run the equivalent to our warm up as a cool down. This is just as important and will kick-start the recovery process after this intense session. Again, these are not to add mileage. This is nice and relaxed running, allowing the heart rate to gradually drop before we end our session. The overall duration of the hill-rep session should be around an hour.

Hilly Fartlek – On Alternate Tuesdays will still be running hills but these sessions will take the form of a free run on the open road or trails. Just like in the more structured hill-reps, we will be running hard up the climbs and relaxing and recovering on the downhills and any flats. We want to start and finish with some easy running to prepare us for the harder efforts and then to allow the body to ease down before stopping. 

All the same posture cues apply as for the hill-reps and pacing should be the same as well. We don’t want to attack the first climb we come to like maniacs and then with a whimper over the last one on our route. In fact, our approach should be that we are building through the run so that our last hill effort is our best one and close to a maximum effort as we crest. 

Whereas the jog down recovery in the hill-reps is very easy, running the downhills in a fartlek session are not. We definitely want to recover but we want to do it in a way that we don’t loose as much speed. We want to relax and stretch out on the downhills but without braking and robbing ourselves of momentum. Make the most of the downhill to recover but don’t give away the free speed.

Our last hilly fartlek session will be in the taper/race week. Taper does not mean complete rest and we still want a good effort in this session, we will just cut it a bit shorter than the rest.

Wednesday and Friday Recovery Run and the Pre-Race Run – This is an active recovery session, where we take things easy but keep the body ticking. Nice and relaxed 30-40 bpm lower than your threshold heart rate (The average heart rate from a flat out 30-40 minute effort). Preferably over a nice, easy route and doing it on grass or trails on soft surfaces is also beneficial. We want to continue the recovery process from Tuesday without adding any additional stress.

Threshold Intervals (overs and unders) – As for the other quality sessions on Tuesday, these sessions begin and end with some easy running to prepare the body and then to begin the recovery process. Again, we are not adding extra minutes for volume.

We begin with a set of 2:00 at half marathon pace or perceived effort alternating with 1:00 at marathon pace or perceived effort. The intervals are short so heart rate lag will mean that it will be difficult to use HR as a gauge of effort. So pace, on a flat route, or perceived effort on a more undulating route will be how we judge our effort. Doing these sessions on a track or around a flat field are ideal for added control. We then add a minute to the harder (over) efforts every second week, without changing the floating recovery period (under). We want to aim at holding the same effort and pace for both the over and under periods, that we did with the corresponding periods in previous weeks, but the overall session will obviously get more challenging as we increase the duration of the over period. 

The number of rotations we do will again depend on our level of experience and fitness but the range should be somewhere between 30:00 and 60:00 for the over and under period of the session (not including warm up and cool down). A nice thing to do is to perform this session over the same route every two weeks and try to cover more distance in the over and under period while the duration stays the same.

Our goal during these sessions is to be running fast but relaxed. We are working on our efficiency under effort. 

Tempo Run – On alternate Thursdays we want a tempo run, which is probably the simplest of all runs. Again, we do the easy warm up and cool down, and the rest of the run is at a steady, hard effort, somewhere between :20-:30 per kilometre faster than our goal marathon pace. Probably close to our half marathon PB pace. Keep in mind that we will be doing this on pretty tired legs by the time Thursday comes around, so that pace should be challenging, without being a maximum effort.

The duration of the tempo run should range between 30-60 minutes and again, will depend on our experience level. We can also start with a shorter one and add a few minutes every week at the same pace. This is also a nice session to do at our local club time trial which are generally 4-8 km.

Our average heart rate for the tempo period should be similar to the average from the over and under period of our threshold interval run. We should see a gradually rising HR line from start to finish.

Our final tempo run is only three days out from race day and just a short stretch out for the legs after the recovery session. The tempo here will be at our goal marathon pace and only 20-30 minutes long. We should still do a short warm up and cool down on either side of that.

Long, Aerobic Run – The marathon staple. The weekend long run. We define this as the aerobic run because we want to work below our aerobic threshold. This is the point defined as about 20 bpm below our anaerobic threshold. It is a comfortable but steady effort that will allow us to talk but not as easy a recovery paced run. At this intensity level our bodies are able to utilise our fat stores for the majority of our fuelling needs and we want to encourage this because these stores are pretty much unlimited whereas our carbohydrate stores are limited and will not carry us through a full marathon. The harder we work (the higher the HR), the more carbs make up our fuel mix. So, doing these long runs at this easier effort allows the body to use more fats, and the more the body is allowed to do that, the more efficient it becomes at the process and the higher the fat ratio becomes, even at higher intensities. The key to staying in that fat-burning zone is to keep the intensity low. If we run hard up a hill early in our long run, and take the HR up to levels that require more carbs for fuel, it is difficult for the body to return back to the fat-burning zone. Even if our HR has dropped back into the zone. So keep things chilled and do the time.

The other training adaptation that we will acquire during these runs is muscle durability. Quite obviously, we are training the muscles to handle the repeated contractions and relaxations of running for longer and longer periods.

1:30 Building Run – This run is effective in training us to be able to hold our pace late in the marathon and possibly even run that illusive negative split. On  its own, this session is good but combined with the previous day’s long run, it has added punch, as we will be starting with fatigue already in the legs. 

The first hour of the building run is at the same intensity and pace as the previous day’s long, aerobic run. Nice and relaxed and easy. At the hour mark we want to start gradually accelerating, easing up our effort. The goal will be to get to our goal marathon pace after about 5:00 and then to hold it for another 15:00. So the acceleration is for 20:00 I total, including getting up to speed. We then ease up and relax for the final ten minutes of the run.

Our final building run will be on the weekend before race day and is essentially the beginning of our taper. Everything is as it was for the previous building runs but we will have less fatigue in the legs and our goal marathon pace should feel more comfortable during the acceleration. This is also good for our heads. We want to be confident that our goal pace for the race is comfortable, and achievable.

Split Run – On alternate Sundays we are going to do a split run. This comprises an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening with less than 12 hours between each. These runs compound the effect of the previous day’s long run and it is the combination of all three sessions that we are looking for. 

Our first run is at the same, aerobic effort level of Saturday’s long run. The afternoon run is like the end of the previous weekend’s building run. So, we have an easy start but fairly quickly build into our goal marathon pace (by the 10:00 mark at the latest) and then hold it until the last ten minutes or so where we ease up again. Again, we should have nicely fatigued legs and we will need to have had a nice, relaxed day between our two Sunday sessions so that this final run of the weekend is not compromised. So you can excuse yourself from any household chores.

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