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The Revolution in Practice

Running a marathon having never run further than 14km in your training? It sounds like a fool’s errand. Five Dutch runners, including Runner’s World editor Ysbrand Visser, gave the Marathon Revolution—from the book by the same name—a try. They tested the schedule for the 2016 Rotterdam Marathon and achieved some surprising results.

Nothing ever put the Dutch running community in as much turmoil as the release of the book Marathon Revolution by Koen de Jong and Stans van der Poel. The authors claim that training for a marathon doesn’t have to be gruelling and that training sessions of 25, 30 or more kilometres, as prescribed by traditional schedules, are completely unnecessary.

This remarkable approach was already presented in their earlier book, I runner, with many runners already successfully implementing this ‘light’ training schedule. Co-author De Jong didn’t actually test van der Poel’s approach until after the publication of I runner, but in 2014 it helped him finish a marathon in 03:09. He was so impressed that he decided to write another book about it. Upon its release in the Dutch market, they proclaimed “Today, we unleash a Marathon Revolution.”

The Formula

The book of fun to read and somewhat provocative text by de Jong is certainly convincing. Co-author van der Poel claims that existing marathon training schedules are too intense for most runners—mainly because they’ve been copied from schedules for athletes that can easily finish a marathon in under three hours. The duo advises that these types of runners stick to their regular schedule as they clearly benefit from them.

A large chunk of the running community however, have far lower marathon ambitions—for many, the ultimate goal is simply to participate, enjoy the run and finish injury-free. The Marathon Revolution, according to the authors, is applicable to any runner who can run 10km within 65 minutes. Personally, I feel it’s also wise to have at least one to one-and-a-half years of running experience. A feel for pace is also advantageous, so having run a few shorter races or even a half marathon (within 02:15) would be of great help.

The Secret: heart rate

In the end, the secret of the whole schedule is heart rate. Van der Poel, who has a background as a lung function lab assistant, has tremendous experience with exercise testing. Over the years she tinkered with a training system until she was able to prescribe this lower, precisely determined heart rate at which you train and run the marathon. This heart rate is meant to be the perfect guide to take you all the way to the finish line. Simply running distances from 9km to 14km at this marathon heart rate twice a week is all you need to be successful!

Aside from those sessions, the method has a high-intensity session and a short, light training session that they call “bird watching”—this bird watching can easily be skipped or replaced by any other low-intensity sports activity.

So this ‘revolutionary’ method doesn’t include any long training sessions that would prepare the musculoskeletal system for the burden of 42 consecutive kilometres. But isn’t this necessary for a marathon? Well according to van der Poel, the answer is no: it’s precisely those long training sessions that wear out your body and make you injury prone. “A regular marathon training session of 30km for a beginner means four hours of running”, says van der Poel, “…their recovery time is much longer than it is for professional athletes who do this distance in one and a half hours. The ligaments, tendons and joints of an amateur runner take weeks or even months to recover. So they get injured for no reason and these long training sessions become even more burdensome.”

With the Marathon Revolution schedule however, an amateur does build enough stamina to finish safely—by running at their pace and frequency, the body does develop strength and resilience…and the method allows you to run more if you like, but it isn’t necessary.

Classic Distance

We, the Stone City Runners from Steenwijk in The Netherlands, were eyeing to take on a marathon, the classic distance that every runner wants to do at least once in their lifetime. Diana van Schijndel was the first in our group to read the book and the others followed suit. And so we picked Rotterdam, host to the biggest and most festive marathon in The Netherlands.

Shortly after making the decision, the first day of the 100-day schedule was upon us. At that point we still had many questions: how to determine the right heart rate, what shoes to buy, how to eliminate small pains, how to train at our own individual heart rates but still do it together, and how to drink during a marathon if we have no experience beyond 14km.

To determine the right marathon heart, we did a running test that, in my case, took 3km to complete. It works like this: you start slow and over about 20 minutes you accelerate until you can’t anymore—at that point you take down your heart rate, and then refer to the table in the book which will provide you with your marathon heart rate. An extra factor in this table is your current best 10K time and another table will even provide a pretty accurate finishing time for the marathon too!

The longest session in the schedule is 14km and you only do this twice in the entire 100 days. The book doesn’t say too much about the weekly high-intensity training so, upon enquiry, we learnt that it’s OK to do this in one go, or as an interval session. There are also three “all-out” 10K sessions in the schedule, but our group didn’t really do that. It didn’t seem to matter much—just like the order of the sessions over the course of the week—as long as we recovered appropriately between sessions, everything was good.

Ease

In practice, the prescribed heart rate was easily achieved and we even had to hold back a little. At the other end of the spectrum, some of us did have moments when it was difficult to reach our prescribed heart rate. When in doubt, it’s possible to do a professional exercise test just to be sure. Sometimes it was so tricky to find the right marathon heart rate that we felt compelled to just run really slow and with some of us, it led to doubts about whether the schedule would work. A lecture by Koen de Jong still left a few of those niggling doubts. We did discover however, that de Jong isn’t just an entertaining writer, but also an entertainer in person; he even showed up at the Rotterdam Marathon to cheer us on from the sidelines, positioning himself strategically at the 14km mark!

The power of the training schedule is that the lower distances allow for better recovery. This was particularly true for our Stone City Runners compatriot Diana van Schijndel. She used to battle shin splints but took a few weeks off and had a great test session to start her schedule. Still, her preparation for the marathon was gruelling and it wasn’t until midway through the schedule that she eventually loosened up. She was confident she would have a great start, but would she be able to finish? Even in the last weeks leading up to the race her shins were still giving her trouble so she didn’t get beyond 428km in her training—less than three quarters of the full schedule.

Out of our group of 5, only Miranda van Schijndel—who ran 615km, or 44km per week—really managed the schedule easily. The three men had various small injuries along the way, so they skipped a few sessions. But the book promised that this wouldn’t be a problem/ Nike Wijnen and Klaas Beute especially, were not always able to restrain themselves. They ran various sessions faster than prescribed or went beyond 20km. My longest session was 15km at the marathon heart rate (plus 2km warming up and 2km cooling down). In my case the schedule was a blessing because for half of the period, maintaining my work-life balance was rather stressful.

Sunny

In the end the schedule kept its promise on a beautiful sunny day in spring. Much to everybody’s surprise, Diana van Schijndel jolted to the finish line with a massive smile on her face. The marathon heart rate had guided her through a difficult phase of the preparation and that paid off during the race. As the ultimate guinea pig, I was also ardently sticking to the ‘holy’ heart rate with a negative split resulting in a really good finishing time. Two of the other three were tempted to run a little faster in the early phase and they had to slow down a few times in the latter half of the race. For Wijnen and Beute, the somewhat bigger differences from their predicted times seemed to relate to their straying from their heart rate and pace. But even they didn’t meet ‘the man with the hammer’ and both finished with no problem.

The next day entailed—as it does for any marathon runner—stiff upper legs. Walking down stairs was agony, but other than that, we all felt remarkably good! That Monday evening after the race, I went for a bike ride with Wijnen and noticed that he was incredibly euphoric. I could hardly keep up with him! “My gosh, I’ve run six half marathons and they were all troublesome. So I never thought I could do this!”, he exclaimed in amazement.

Hate to run?

So is all the criticism about the Marathon Revolution well founded or is it just unfair bad-mouthing? Critics kept asking if one should run a marathon at all if they hate heavy training loads and long endurance sessions. Our running group certainly doesn’t hate running, but we do recognise the fact that long distances can weigh heavily on one’s private life and fitness. So we counter this question by asking “What’s wrong with running a marathon with a smart solution to those issues?”

We were also warned about stress fractures due to the fact that the body would endure so much additional load during the race. In our case, just one of us pulled a muscle and the four others were fully fit and cheerful. Four days after the marathon I was already out in the German Eifel biking up steep hills! But we do admit that of course it’s not advisable for completely inexperienced runners to sign themselves up for full marathons.

Online, next to many happy finishers there were also examples of runners for whom the Marathon Revolution didn’t work out so well. Every big marathon has these stories. Often the problem is that the chosen heart rate in the first half of the race turns out to be wrong. In 2016 my New York City Marathon didn’t go as well for example. The track, which isn’t as flat as I’m used to in The Netherlands, prevented me from keeping my heart rate constant and low.

In the end I’ll never forget how euphoric we all were when the four people in our group who’d never run a marathon before, finished so easily with me. After having trained for months, we all made it to the finish line in good health. Who wouldn’t want that?

Marathon Runner Test Heart Rate Prescribed Time Result Marathon Heart Rate
Klaas Beute 140 3.30 3.52.54 158
Diana van Schijndel 155 4.30 4.18.18 157
Ysbrand Visser 147 4.30 4.20.27 154
Miranda van Schijndel 156 4.30 4.28.05 165
Niek Wijnen 153 4.50 5.03.49 162

Ysbrand Visser has been a journalist for Runner’s World for 30 years. He was the Dutch champion and record holder for the 110 metre hurdles (13.96, 1988) and has successfully participated in four marathons.