Winter Marathon Training: 10 Tips from a Boston Qualifier

Blog #4 – Thursday, February 5, 2015


Mother nature waited until last week to pummel Massachusetts. It’s inevitable: Snow is always going to pile up in New England.

Over the last two weeks, and heading into next week, we will have accumulated about five feet of snow. Fortunately, the Patriots won the Super Bowl so there’s a sense of hopefulness for most residents of the Commonwealth and our 4th Lombardi Trophy may indeed hold us over until Spring arrives.

But what are you supposed to do if you are training for a marathon this spring? You need to get your miles in. You need to do your tempo runs. You need to do your weekly long runs.Do you train outside on the ice and snow or hunker down inside on the treadmill?

Frostbite versus insanity on the dreadmill…pick you poison.

Over the last five years, I’ve run four spring marathons: 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, dividing them between the Providence Cox Sports Marathon and the BAA Boston Marathon. I’m old – 43 – but I’ve impressed even myself in the way that I’ve stayed consistent, hit the roads, treadmill, elliptical, gotten in my long runs, achieved my tempos fairly religiously….I got the training done. For the most part.

Since 2009, I’ve “trained” and completed six marathons successfully except for the 2012 Boston Marathon, where I stepped in a pothole on my last tempo run and sprained my ankle to the point where I had trouble even walking, never mind running. Game over. I had trained through the snow, sleet, rain, cold, ice storms, hail…you name it…no injuries the entire winter of 2011-12 … only to fall victim to a lousy pot hole. It happens. Fortunately, the temperature shot into the 90s on Marathon Monday and I was able to defer my entry a year. I lucked out.

However, to be completely honest, my fastest marathon came from UNDERTRAINING.

Now hear me out: this wasn’t on purpose. I just happened to stumble into the idea of doing spring marathon about six weeks before. Initially, I started running again after a long lay off and was just trying to lose weight and get back in decent shape again at age 38. In fact, I was not even thinking about running a marathon until I ran a 1:25 at the New Bedford 1/2 and started thinking maybe I could go a full 26.2.


Now, don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just start training six weeks before. Back in December, I started running 3-5 miles a day, did some track workouts, built a decent base over the winter, gradually working up from 7-8-9 milers to the 13.1 as we got into February (Hyannis) and then March (NB). The Providence Cox Sports Marathon is the closest 26.2 miler to my house so I decided I’d aim for that and see if I could run 3:10:59 and qualify for Boston. The 1:25 half-marathon made me pretty sure I could run between 3 hours to 3:15.

Between the last week of March and the first week of May, a 5-6 week period, I ran 15, 20, 20, 18 miles every Sunday….and that was it. Four long runs. Two 1/2 marathons. And, at the end of about a 5 month training block of 30-60 miles per week, I ran my first BQ. In fact, I was a little disappointed because I felt my debut should have been closer to 3 hours than the 3:10:25 I ran. Race day shot up to 80 degrees so the last six miles were tough to say the least.

So was my training model correct? Can you do just 4 long runs and still race 26.2?

Well, it depends but in my case less was more.

As a coach, the first thing you realize is that every runner is different. Perhaps my minimalist approach worked due to the fact that I had done some speed work, 5k-based workouts the spring and fall before. It is important to note my two fastest marathons (3:07 and 3:10) came from this method. Not extraordinary times but BQs…Isn’t that the goal? For me it was. Perhaps, I was more rested and didn’t leave my marathon out on the training course.

In 2011, I ran outdoors for most of the winter and got in great shape. I did weekly Saturday morning long runs with my club, The Wampanoags and got up to 20 miles twice. I ran a 1:23 at Hyannis then a 1:21:57 at New Bedford, my post-collegiate P.R. My base mileage was good and my speed was excellent so much so that I did a few 5ks and won one with a 17:45. The problem here was that I got so excited about my fitness, I ran too many back-to-back races the final stretch of training AND followed it up with long runs of 20 the next day. Bad combo. I staggered to a 3:14 finish at Boston. I was in great shape, did most of what I should of but tired myself by racing before the goal race.


In 2012, I ran long runs from 13 up to 23 miles. I hit almost every mile up to 23, I’m serious….14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23….My legs were dead tired to the point where I spent the last two weeks on the elliptical trainer and even though I was in much better shape, still ran that 1:25 at NB.

The result was a DNS at Boston.

In 2013, I trained outdoor the whole winter. I started the Hanson Marathon Method after reading their book and did all of the their 5k / 10k based workouts, a weekly tempo run up to 10 miles, AND two SOS long runs at 16.2 miles at an average of 6:40 pace. I was strong and I was fast, faster than I had been in a long time. The result? A first 1/2 in 1:28 followed by a miserable 3:16 finish, a minute off the BQ. Failure after a solid sixteen weeks of training.

In 2014, I coached indoor track for the first time in a few years so I wondered if I could even train at all for a marathon. I hit the gym and did the treadmill and elliptical and pulled off a 1:30 at Hyannis in February. By March, I was running more consistently and ran a 1:28:57 at New Bedford. I threw in long runs between 15-20 miles and entered the Providence Cox Sports Marathon to see if I could get a BQ. I hit the 1/2 at 1:36 then fell apart, staggering home in my slowest marathon, a pathetic 3:32.

You can’t fudge base mileage for certain. I had half-assed it and paid dearly the 2nd half of the race.

So here are some tips that I can share as both marathoner and coach to help along your training and get you to finish and maybe achieve a BQ in your next marathon.

1) Focus on “Time On Feet” – This is the mantra of two members of my running club and I do agree. A three hour long-run accomplishes what you need to build up your endurance and rich red blood cells. Don’t worry if you didn’t run 24 miles that day….slow and steady wins the race of training. You’ll make it up with your tempo runs.

2) Heartrate Workouts: These DO NOT have to be running workouts. Often, I will strap up for an elliptical or cycling workout and aim to do 60-120 minutes of pure aerobic training in that 125-145 zone. Sometimes I will also throw in some Chris Carmichael style workouts with a minute on / off to keep the snap in the legs. The benefit is huge for the cardiovascular system and the legs are fresher. When you plug your Garmin into your computer, the mountain-range charts of your HR are fun to study too. On level 1 of my elliptical, a 40-minute workout at a 5:10 pace covered 8 miles and held my HR average at 136. Not bad with five feet of snow banks piled up outside.

3) Tempo Runs – I usually start with 3 miles and work up to 10 miles. The longest tempo I did at goal pace was the Hanson’s 16.2 from Natick to Cleveland Circle on the Boston Marathon course. I crushed it. However, I also crushed any hopes of a good race that year. Don’t race them! A heart rate monitor can help you control these tempos and let you know when you are working too hard.

4) Cross-Training – Hit the gym. At my YMCA, there’s always a white board up with the workout of the day. Hit a few machines, the medicine ball, the kettle bell, the weights. You can easily created a variety workout for an hour rather than giving in to the snow outside.

5) Cross-Fit – A guy in my club took about 15 minutes off his time doing cross fit. He was leaner and stronger than he was the previous year after doing this program. Be careful, don’t get injured…but 2-3 days a week along with running might just get you are P.R. with your new found strength, balance, and form.

6) 1/2 Marathons – I am fortunate to have two great 1/2 marathons within an hour or so of my home. Hyannis is in February and it is a one-loop race that is as flat as a pancake. I find it is a good indicator race after a couple months of training. The other race is New Bedford in March, about a month before Boston. It features a few uphills but a long downhill portion which can help you prepare for Boston. New Bedford is probably my favorite race of the year and I am surprised it hasn’t turned into a world famous 1/2 marathon with some of the Olympic talent who show up like Kim Smith, Ruben Sanca, Nate Jenkins…it has even been won by Boston Marathon winners like Geoff Smith.

7) Hills – My club runs no shortage of hills in their Boston training. Tower Hill is a massive three mile stretch out in Cumberland, Rhode Island and when incorporated with a few other mountains in our area can lead to a billy-goat experience of a long run. Hill repeats up the local ski slope are another favorite. These get the HR up and also build strength and speed.

8) Speed work – The most effective marathon speed plan I have seen is the Hansons Marathon Method. They start with 12 x 400 and work their way through 5K based workouts then transition to 10K based workouts like 6 x mile, 4 x 1.5 miles, 3 x 2 miles, 2 x 3 miles etc. Their charts are dead-on as far as goal training paces and I found myself really looking forward to these workouts. The problem is that they fall on Tuesday followed by a Thursday tempo run that goes from 6 miles to 10 miles. I found myself a little tired and beat up with this cumulative fatigue build up.


9) Treadmill – Or Dreadmill as I’ve been calling it lately. Keep the grade at 1%, set up your place list, and just start running. I tend to overdo the treadmill and this can take a toll on the ankles and hamstrings as the belt pulls you a long faster than your muscles may be ready for. I found myself doing some speed workouts and tempo runs on it but make sure you do a sensible warm-up first. Being tight on the mill will absolutely lead to injury.

10) Vitamins After feeling lousy this week, I suddenly realized that besides shoveling snow, I really hadn’t had any sunlight or fresh air in a bit. My Vitamin D level is always low so I went back to the gummies (2000 i.u.) a couple times a day. I started feeling better in a few hours as my body absorbed what it needed. Magnesium is a big one for runner and coffee drinkers as well (the two go hand-in-hand). Nordic Naturals puts out a good Cod Liver Oil that I also incorporate. And hyrdrate – you don’t realize your water loss as much in the winter so I try to stick to 100 oz. a day to be safe. A good multivitamin is helpful to stay balanced too along with eating sensibly. My friend and Faster Than Forty author, Mark Gomes would suggest that diet should be the main focus during a marathon training cycle. Get your diet balanced for faster times!

Coach Atwood is currently at work on his untitled book project on coaching distance runners. He has also published a short story collection, HiStory of Santa Monica: Stories available at, and For ideas on distance training, check out He is the head indoor track and field coach at Middleborough High School, mentors the Wampanoag Road Runners, and has helped many high school runners realize their success with individual coaching. Have an idea for a blog post? Feel free to send him a note at


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