3 Ways I’m Training Smarter than Ever for My Marathon Comeback

Jogger checking the running timeNote: This post is sponsored by the Cherry Marketing Institute. Opinions are entirely my own.

It’s been a full three years since I last ran a marathon, and over five since I last ran one hard. Or, to be fair (since they’re all hard), the last time I was last in PR-shape.

Although I haven’t exactly sat around since then, the training I’ve done for ultras has been much more relaxed and slower-paced than what I ever did as a marathoner. Lots of hills because of where I live, but I can count on one hand the number of speed workouts I’ve done since qualifying for Boston back in 2009.

So a return to marathons — to gasping for air during workouts, to hurrying through water stops, and to not walking the hills — will surely be no picnic. But it’s a change, and as someone who will take change over boredom any day of the week, it’s one I’m ready for.

I don’t know if I’m going for PR. Certainly not in this first marathon back; I think it’ll take me two races and a full year to get anywhere close to my 3:09:59 best. I’d love to run Boston again, and because I’ll be 35 next year (whaaat?)3:09 would get me in again, even under the new, tougher standards.

But somehow that’s not enough to motivate me. What I’d really like — the big, impossible goal that I seem to require in order to be excited — is to one day break three hours: to run a marathon time that starts with “2”. But alas, for now, I dream …

Even though I’m not in the shape that 2009 Matt was, I’ve got a leg up on that punk-ass 28-year-old whippersnapper. And that leg’s name is Wisdom from Experience (admittedly not a great name).

What I mean is this: ultramarathon training has caused me to grow. I’m smarter. It takes a completely different mindset to run a 50- or 100-miler, and a better understanding of what works, nutritionally. I’ve learned how to better train in the heat, which shoes work best for me, and how to eat better in general (I consider my 100% vegan diet another huge advantage I have over younger, just-turned-vegetarian Matt).

And finally, I think ultras have made me better at not letting up, even when it hurts.

Let’s get specific though. Here are three ways in which, even before the training for my marathon comeback has begun, I’m doing it smarter than ever before.

1. I chose a training plan that matches who I am

No, my training plan isn’t an insightful, funny, confident guy with boyish good looks. (But thanks.)

Half a decade of running ultras has taught me one hugely important lesson about myself: I love running … for the first hour. After that, unless it’s race day, I get bored and hate it.

So running three to six miles every day is great — lots of time to listen to audiobooks and podcasts while I’m engaging my body. Doesn’t get any better than that.

But weekend long runs, 15 or 20 and even sometimes 30 miles? Not my cup of tea.

So this time, I chose a plan that matches who I am. It’s by the Hanson brothers, and while the mileage is just as high as I’ve ever run, it’s spread more evenly throughout the week than it is in most plans. This means that runs during the week are longer — usually six to eight miles, so staying close to an hour — but the weekend long runs are shorter. Instead of 18-, 20-, and 22-milers, the Hanson plan maxes out at 16. Still a long run with plenty of time to get bored, but for me on a Sunday morning, two and half hours is far more agreeable than three or four.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about the Hanson plan. Surely, for a first or even a second marathon, there’s something to be said for the confidence that logging a 20-miler gives you. But having done a lot of running and learned a lot about myself in the process, I think a plan with fewer long runs might keep me motivated more than any has before.

2. I’m giving myself plenty of time to train

It took me six marathons and seven years to qualify for Boston, but the irony of it all is that I’d have gotten there quicker if I’d have been more patient. I was confident and passionate and on a mission — and although I may have never made it without those qualities, in one way they slowed me down.

Every time I trained for a race back then, I tried to do too much, in too little time. If 3:10:59 was the time I needed to qualify, it didn’t matter that my last marathon had taken me almost four hours. And if the race I wanted to run was 14 weeks away, it didn’t matter that my training plan was 18 weeks long — who wants to wait four and a half months anyway?

As a result, I was constantly on the edge of injury. I always felt “behind” in my training. And most race days, even when they yielded PR’s, felt like disappointments.

I almost did that again this time: in the excitement for running that #writeandrun31 created for me, I came very close to signing up for race that was just 14 weeks away — when the Hanson advanced plan is 18 weeks long.

And then … I didn’t. Instead of the doing the impulsive, I chose what I can best describe as the wise. (And old and grown-up and boring, but what are you gonna do?) And I’m happy with that choice.

I haven’t chosen a race yet, but I’m looking mainly at races in September and October, a full six months or more from now. I’ve got to figure out what to do in the meantime before training officially starts (another lesson I’ve learned: if I don’t have a plan before the plan, that’s not good either), but with another round of #writeandrun31 starting in March, I’ll have plenty to keep myself motivated.

3. I’m drinking tart cherry juice for recovery

I first discovered tart cherry juice by way of a week-long trial last year, during which I was shocked to experience noticeable improvement in a nagging shoulder injury I’d been dealing with for more than six months. Since then, I’ve become something of an evangelist for the natural anti-inflammatory properties of tart cherries (and to be totally transparent, this post and others this year are sponsored by the Cherry Marketing Institute).

But I wasn’t actually training for anything then, so I couldn’t really speak to how well cherries help runners recover from workouts, as they’re purported to do, even finding their way into the routines of elites like vegan ultramarathon hero Scott Jurek. The science is there — you can read the details in my post right before my trial last year, but the gist is that drinking tart cherry juice twice a day (one study specifically had athletes drink it before and after races) may speed up recovery by lessening inflammation, muscle pain, and oxidative stress.

So that’s what I’ll be doing, drinking 8 ounces of tart cherry juice (or more often, 2 tablespoons of concentrate) twice per day — once in my morning smoothie, and once directly following my workout. That’s a decent amount of added sugar to my diet, and while I’m not concerned about it immediately post-workout, I’ll make adjustments to my smoothie so that it’s not overly sweet and doesn’t pack more sugar than I need.

Given how well I’ve responded to tart cherry juice in my trial and since then, I’m excited to see how it works when I’m training hard again … and yes, that means speed workouts.

The best laid plans …

In theory, this all seems great. The cagey veteran relies on his wits to overcome his failing body, like Kirk Gibson knocking one out of park on two bad legs in the ’88 World Series.

Okay, so my body isn’t exactly failing, and it’s a stretch to call me cagey. Come to think of it, I have no idea what that word means. But I do know that when it comes to training for a race that’s many months away, a lot can happen. Better than any foolproof plan is having the foresight to know that everything won’t work; no matter how perfect your approach seems at the outset, you’ll need to make adjustments. And I will.

But I’m happy to be back to running again, and to have a goal that excites me. Onward!




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  1. Hi Matt,
    I’ve read the research as well about tart cherries. Do you know if taking a supplement would have the same affect or does it have to be in liquid/concentrate form?

  2. the Erie Marathon (September 13) in northwest Pennsylvania is a great place to attempt a fast effort. Pancake-flat course (there’s a short bridge with about eight feet of elevation gain), double loop on the largely shaded peninsula, some views of the bay and lake, water stops every mile. The weather is the one wild card, but mostly it’s a matter of whether it ends up being a windy day (last year’s conditions were perfect: temperatures in the low to mid-50s throughout the race with no wind). It’s ideal if you want to try running a steady effort.

  3. Good luck! This is some great advice for people getting into (or back into) running marathons. I had no idea tart cherry juice was so beneficial! I’ll have to try it out.

  4. Good luck Matt! I read the Hansons Marathon Method book and it got me excited. Then, as I started training, I realized how much I love the long runs. I do 20 milers (and beyond), but I added their “tempo” runs (at marathon pace) and do their strength/speed sessions. It’s an interesting approach and a cool motivator. I’ll know on April 25 if I made the right chocie doing a hybrid Hansons/Chris plan! Hope to have a BQ at the Illinois Marathon.

  5. Big fan of tart cherry juice, it’s really helped with the shin splints I’ve been suffering with this year.

  6. I love this post. You’re so right about being patient. I’ve been in a HUGE slump lately due to this weather, and though I’m signed up, I have very little desire to run Boston this year. I’m “training,” but know that if I just take some time off and then pick it up again when I have more time and motivation, I’ll be so much better. Have fun with your comeback!

  7. It’s interesting, I’ve come to the exact same conclusions about my running lately. I finally decided to listen to what my body was telling me and I’ve chosen a longer training period to get back into marathon running. I’m hoping I can be as dedicated and disciplined about the nutrition piece as you are, Matt. I struggle with the vegan diet, though I’ve managed to stay about 80% vegan for nearly two years now. Good luck to you in your next marathon. Maybe you’d like to come up here to MN and run Twin Cities in October? That’s the one I’ve got my eye on.

  8. I think you will love the Hanson’s plan. It completley revoluntionized my running–and I love the consistency of long(er) runs everyday, but no 20 milers. Good luck with training!

  9. 3:09 is good indeed! My first full marathon was a 3:42 and I know what it took to get that. I’ve ran two halfs since then and I’m still undecided if I’ll do a half or full this year. Regardless, I’m waiting for the freezing cold temps to let up and get back out on the road.

    I have several tart cherry trees (Montmorency) in my backyard and gobble them up right off the tree. I can easily and readily get juice out of them as well. Wash them, freeze them and thaw them back out and they are mostly mush that can be strained from the juice. For anyone that cares, montmorency trees are easy to grow… they are VERY hardy and in about 3 years, they put out so many cherries, there’s enough for me, my friends and the birds still! Mine are going on 8 years old and I couldn’t imagine my yard without them!

    Thanks for the motivation.

  10. Awesome Matt! Congrats on getting back into the marathon distance.

    I did something similar last year regarding marathons. I was just going for a “mild” goal of 3:30. I decided no more ultra long training runs – – – capped out at 16 and 17.5. It was my best decision ever. No, I didn’t hit 3:30, but there were some issues (i.e. my kid got me sick before the big race) as to why I didn’t hit it.

    What I did hit though were 3, yes, 3 PR’s within 72 days in back-to-back-to-back marathons. 3:50 then 3:46 (Denver altitude 5280′) then 3:42 (CIM sea level). If it weren’t for being sick the week prior to CIM, I prob would have done 3:35 or better.

    Those aren’t amazing times, but all PR’s thanks to not being over-trained.

    Another thing I did which I thought was great was schedule three marathons within that timeframe. Why would running more marathons be smart? Little to no pressure.

    I knew that I would be good for, at minimum, one of the races. The first was 80 degrees and the last saw me sick. 3:46 in Denver is quite amazing for the altitude. If I had just scheduled and ran 1 of these races, I would have put pressure on myself to have “the perfect race”. By having 3, I was able to just give it my best knowing I had another. If I hadn’t been able to run CIM, I still would have been happy that I PR’ed the other two.

    Anyways, just my approach and agreement about running fewer miles.

    Good luck!

    David Damron

  11. I like the long run, and also cannot personally imagine going into a 1st marathon without the confidence of at least a 20-miler or 2, but I wanted to try something different to see if I could improve my time so used a Hansons training for my last one (my 4th) this past September. Despite the shorter long runs, my legs were always tired (kind of the point of the program) and it was hard, but I PR’d by more than 18 minutes! More important, though, was how I FELT. It was still hard(!!), and I was still in a lot of pain, but every time I passed a mile marker from mile 17 to 22 I thought to myself “Man! I can’t believe how good I feel!!”. Well, not “good”…haha! But relatively speaking I felt so much better than I did in those miles at all 3 of my previous marathons, and was able to really push hard the last few miles and had almost perfectly even splits (a big deal for me!). I plan to always use Hansons!

  12. Matt, I’m so happy to hear that its the Hansons Marathon Method you are following. When I was reading the first part, I was thinking how I would definitely recommend the book to you. So glad you chose it! I know that you and I are very comparable. We both qualified with near the same time in the same race! I ran 17 marathons since then with a PR of 3:06:43 up in Vermont and 5 of these were in Ironmans. I bought the Hansons book half way through this season in my leadup to Geelong 70.3. While I didn’t PR on the run (too much fatigue/lack of sleep), Hansons got me faster than I ever have. I highly recommend though doing a 5K treadmill test at the start and then ever 2-3 weeks. This will make sure you are on the correct pace. I improved with Hansons from 19:24 5K to a 17:34 within 10 weeks. I know you can get there too. Keep it coming, I want to hear all about it! and Good Luck!

  13. Good luck, Matt! I’m about halfway through the Hanson’s program and although I feel great during workouts, I wasn’t too sure about it at first. It’s encouraging to see some good reviews on here. I’m sure you will write a follow-up post, but I would like to know how it works for you!

  14. I used the Hanson Method for my first (and only) marathon (Columbus). The plan was geared to run a 3:45 time, but I started into the plan three weeks late (shouldn’t matter right?). I ended up with a 3:52 marathon that I was still very proud of for my first. Not sure how much those first three weeks would have made a difference. It was very strange going into my first marathon with only a 16-miler under my belt, but I trusted the approach and it did come through. A big part of my training did indeed involved tart cherry juice which I strongly believe helped in my recovery and injury prevention.

    Training now for Cincinnati Flying Pig on May 3 and following a more traditional plan with the longer runs. The traditional approach definitely fits better with the awful weather we are having as I just could not bang out all those miles on a treadmill. It should also help that I’m starting off down 20 lbs. and much healthier thanks to all the prior training, going vegan and continuing the tart cherry regimen.

    Happy Training!

  15. Hi Matt!
    It’s good to know you decided to return to your hobby after 3 years. One of your best decision indeed. You’re an inspiration to others and your tips could help others like you too. Keep it up! Thanks for sharing!

  16. Kevin Peter says:

    My schedule was altered. I needed to adapt to a different time zone because of my work and this tired while working out, I hurt my shoulder, had severe muscle pain. And yeah tart cherry juice suggested by my trainer did work for me.

  17. Matt, I am so happy to have ‘run into’ this site. I am a vegetarian researching proteins found me this site. I have run my last and only marathon 4 years ago – 5:45 – want to run another – but I am four years older – so am starting out like i have never run the distance before.
    this seems like a great community and I look forward to spending time here.

    Thanks, a

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