Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I trained like a mother: A review

If you Google "marathon training plan," you will get 157,000 results; 3.5 million if you search without  the quotes. There are the respected and well-known plans from Hal Higdon and Jeff Galloway, pay-to-run plans from Runners World and a dizzying number of free plans from a number of sites sites from MarathonRookie to Harvard to individual race sites.

It's a bit overwhelming to sift through, especially for a first-time marathoner, and I found myself struggling to select a plan (or plans) that would best fit me. I initially looked at Hal Higdon, having successfully followed his plans in the past but felt like I was somewhere in between his levels. Other plans offered a challenge but required a significant time commitment that I feared I couldn't meet.

As I tried to mix and match, a copy of "Train Like a Mother" landed on my desk. I was instantly drawn to the orange cover and tagline - "How to get across any finish line - and not lose your family, job or sanity." Sarah and Dimity were describing exactly the plan I needed. Especially the sanity part.

The book offers schedules, designed by Christine Hinton, for nearly every distance - 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon - with two options for each. You can "Finish It" or you can "Own It." And though the "Finish It" plan is the less challenging of the two, it still incorporates speed work, hill work and long runs with race pace. With the option of four or five days a week, I was sold.

I began the plan in earnest in June and, despite a few hiccups along the way, completed it successfully. That is if you call running 26.2 miles a success.

That's not to say the plan is perfect - no plan is - and as I try to stretch out my Columbus Marathon glory, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the plan. Good and bad.

A short training run in Boulder
Good: There is some flexibility. Many of the weeks have five runs scheduled, something I had resisted up until marathon training, but one is always labeled optional. You can call that run a rest day or cross-train if you want. I never skipped one of these runs but it was nice to know I could. (Note: I also liked that it eased me into five days a week running.)

Good: Incorporates shorter runs. Marathon training can feel like a huge time suck. Three hours on the weekend for a long run and another 90 minutes for the mid-week long run. It can be overwhelming. Many weeks included one or two 3-mile runs, which felt blissful and stress-free with the other demands of training. These shorter runs also worked well when I needed to double up workouts to teach BODYPUMP.

Bad: No specific cross-training. While "Train Like a Mother" encourages cross-training and the fifth run can be swapped for spin, there is no specific strength or non-running workout scheduled. I can't stress enough the importance of cross-training and how vital I think it has been to running. I'm obviously partial to BODYPUMP but cycling, Zumba and circuit classes are all great.

Good: There are quality runs - tempo, strides, repeats , hills - but it all seemed fairly manageable. This training cycle was the first time I resumed speedwork seriously since having Miles and it was a nice introduction. I didn't feel like I had to nail 800 repeats at a certain pace or do a 7-mile run with 5 at tempo the way I had pre-baby but I still felt like I was pushing myself, working harder and getting faster.

Bad: Hill work. One, there are almost zero hills accessible to me on regular routes. Two, I think there were only two specific hill workouts in the plan. There's no way that Christine, Dimity or Sarah could foresee the steady climb on the Columbus course but given the structure of the plan, I think they could be more regular.

Good: Aggressive long runs. I've looked at marathon plans, and many of them start off with single-digit long runs and slowly ease past the half mark. I felt like TLAM gave you a push toward being real comfortable at the half mark and beyond. There's a number of runs of 15 miles or more, which help build endurance. There's also race pace/finish strong elements to some of the runs to help mentally prepare you for running harder over distance. I didn't focus on that part of the plan but with strategically planned races and running buddies, I was able to incorporate it.

Bad ... maybe: One of the things that psyched me out most about the plan was the length of the taper. TLAM is a 20-week plan and the longest run, 20 miles, is ran in week 16. Other 20-week plans have the longest run during week 17. I know marathon taper is longer but having my longest run an entire month before the marathon was not good for me mentally.

Good: The goal of the plan was to finish the marathon, and I finished it. I'm not sure I finished it in the time my training runs would have suggested but I'm not sure that's the plan's fault. After all, I did have to pee at mile 18.

By the way, if there is a plan that factors in potty breaks into a projected finishing time, I'll be all over it.

Next time?:  The test of any plan or set of plans is whether you would use it again. Look at Hal Higdon - he's popular because people go back to him time and time again, moving up levels or changing distances.

Looking forward to 2013, with my sights set on getting faster and PRing the half, I've been looking at plans - TLAM, Higdon, Runner's World. No matter how many I look at, though, I find myself going back to that glorious orange cover. Maybe it's because I have girl crushes on Sarah and Dimity. Maybe it's because the plans are challenging without being intimidating. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because the plans are that solid.

Have you used a TLAM plan? What were your thoughts?


  1. I have not used their plan (yet) but I do have the book, and I love it. Thanks for an honest review of your experience using it!

  2. I was googling for reviews of this plan and was happy to find your blog entry! I'm strongly leaning toward using TLAM Finish It for NYC this November. I'm usually a Higdon girl but found his Novice 1 plan a little 'thin' when I followed it last year - no idea what my results would have been since the NYC marathon didn't happen.
    Thanks so much for the helpful review! -Terry