Interview with Mike Shuman: What You Need to Know About Marathon Schedules

Today’s interview is with Mike Shuman, owner of Shu’s Idaho Running Company. Mike has completed over 70 marathons through the course of his running career and has designed hundreds of running schedules for individuals around the world. One of his proudest achievements, however, has been his victory in the battle over cancer, one he has now savored for 10 years. While offering helpful advice and inspiration to runners of all ages, sizes and types, his devotion to the community is appreciated by all.

Many thanks for his time in responding to questions many of us runners have!

You have created marathon schedules for lots of people over the years. What factors do you consider before putting together a tailored recommendation?

Since every runner is different, I try to design a schedule that meets a person’s interests, goals and lifestyle. My hope is that they’ll be more likely to stick with a schedule if it better meets their needs and expectations.

The things I take into consideration are: marathon (time) goal, number of days/week they want to run, which days they want to take off, date/length of their last long run, and race date. I also like to know if a person is open to hills and speed workouts, if they lift weights (and how frequently), if they cross-train, what events are planned and if they have any injuries.

How many days/week are ideal for marathon training?

It really varies by person. But one thing is certain – quality of runs is more important than quantity, whether you’re looking at total mileage or days per week of running. It’s also important to build your foundation gradually, to avoid injury. It’s great to run a lot and push yourself, but not at the price of sitting on the sidelines!

One thing that’s helpful for improving quality is to keep a log. Write down how far you ran, how fast and how you felt. Then include details like what you ate the night before, how much sleep you got and anything else noteworthy about the run. This makes it easy to go back and review – to make adjustments for improving your training program.

I actually enjoy reviewing my logs from my early twenties. Unfortunately, I can’t do the same workouts at age 56 that I did at 26!

You started out my schedule by incorporating hill workouts with a short sprint at the top (when the hill flattens out). What is the benefit of hill workouts?

Hill workouts lay a nice foundation for the upcoming training, while also strengthening your legs. Hill work is really just speed work in disguise. Don’t forget the mile warm-up and cool-down!

There are a variety of types of hill repeats. For example, running uphill utilizes a different set of muscles than when sprinting at the top on a flat surface.

Any general rules of thumb on running hills? How steep? How long? How fast?

My recommendation is a minimum 6% grade hill, running up at least one minute (1:00) but not longer than two (2:00). The goal is to run uphill at a fast pace, but also one that is comfortable – don’t spend your time looking down at your Garmin. Instead, get into the feel and flow of it! The intention is to build muscle memory with a pace/rhythm that is fast, but also right for you.

If you integrate a sprint at the top (on a flat surface), then you can run all out.

Also, it generally takes about 4-5 weeks to build up a foundation which prepares you for speed work.

After 4-5 weeks, you introduce speed work into the schedule. How do you determine what distances/how many?

For you, I recommended 30’s (:30 seconds sprinting; :30 seconds recovery). This shorter distance (approximately 200 yards) is better for improving speed. A longer distance (e.g., mile or 800 intervals) might be better for someone who is naturally fast, but may not have as much endurance.

Ideally, after the initial strengthening phase, I’d include a hill and speed workout in a given week. But this, too, is individual and something I’d recommend specifically for you. The integration of hill repeats, speed workouts and tempo runs depends on the number of days/week you are running, as well as how fast you want to run the marathon.

How many 20+-milers are ideal for a training program? How many weeks should someone train in total?

There’s really no blanket answer to these questions.

In terms of long runs, for some, one 20-miler is enough; for others, more is better. In fact, by running a 26-miler before the marathon, you’ll less likely to get any surprises on race day.

There’s one thing I should mention, though. Long runs are not just good for the body – they are good for the mind, too. By going long distances, your head knows you can do it. Likewise, I think running a marathon is 90% mental/10% physical.

The total duration of the training program will vary by person. Some people step into a program with a deeper base, hence reducing the total amount of time they need to train. Body type, gender and age also play into it, too.

Do you recommend tracking miles or minutes?

For “easy” days, say 30-40 minutes in duration, I’d just track minutes. After all, if it’s cold and windy or pouring down rain, there’s a good chance you’ll run a lot slower than if the weather is picture perfect.

For longer runs, it’s helpful to monitor miles – because you want to get a base of longer distances that sets you up for the marathon.

However, if you are doing long runs in especially hilly terrain, it might be preferable to measure time – versus miles. After all, it’s going to take much longer to run 18 miles in the mountains than on flat terrain.

Do you advocate cross training?

Actually, I think cross training is a good idea. I bike and lift weights when I’m training for a marathon. And I did pool running when I was injured. I still remember that 3-hour pool run, the end of which I was able to count every crack in the walls.

How long should a person taper before the marathon?

At least three weeks. And no cross-training such as biking or weight lifting is allowed! Your body will actually start missing the endorphins it’s used to having, and begin to crave them as a result. Rather than working out, focus instead on eating well and other pre-race preparation. The pent up frustration will pay off on race day!

Also, after the race is over, take some time off! Your body needs time to recover.

What other advice would you give a first time marathoner?

Run with a group! Not only do you have others to hold you accountable, but it’s an opportunity to learn from others about what you should do.

Last but not least, if someone isn’t as lucky as I am to get a tailored schedule from the master himself, what resources do you recommend?

All the great runners – Hall Hidgon, Jeff Galloway and others – produce schedules worth considering. Again, if you find a schedule that better suits your goals, interests and lifestyle, you’ll probably have better results in the end.

Click Melinda-Marathon-Schedule1-2 to see actual schedule Mike created for me.

About the author

Melinda is a marketer, researcher and writer. She also has a passion for healthy living, every day.