Should you train on hard or soft ground as a marathon runner?

September 21, 2022

“You still need to go into the forest,” one of the leading coaches in Kenya told me some time back in 2012 after I had joined a group of elite runners for a speed workout. It was a way of telling me that my body was not yet ready to train on a hard surface.

One of the advantages that Kenyan marathon runners have over most of the other runners in the rest of the world is the variety of training surfaces, terrains, and environments. Coaches usually design routes for different training programs depending on the level of fitness of the athletes and the purpose of the workouts.

 In the early stages of training where a runner needs to gradually increase their weekly mileage as they aim to make their bodies adapt to the demanding program of marathon training, most of the runs should happen on relatively softer terrains, trails, parks, and even on sandy beaches. These surfaces may make it hard to run fast -which isn’t necessary in the first place- but are good for building a good base for the next stage of training.

The use of tarmac roads and hard surfaces should be reserved for the occasional speed workouts and the long runs where it is important to check on the paces being used and control them accordingly. The shoes that are intended to be used in the marathon race can also get tested on surfaces that will be similar to those being used in typical marathon races.

In Kenya, for example, there are some well-known -flat and free from traffic- tarmac roads that marathon runners usually visit once every week to do their tempo and long runs.

Softer surfaces also come in handy when one has a mild injury that they need to give some time to heal while at the same time making sure that they maintain their active lifestyles by continuing to do some slow jogging.

The best marathon training plans usually have some slow recovery runs in between tough workouts and the recovery runs are best done on soft surfaces to get the best out of them.

I would say, marathon training runs that are done 80% on softer surfaces will not only yield the best outcome during the race but help prevent injuries in training.

Runners across the world that I now coach online after subscribing to the Online Coaching the Kenyan way by Eldoret based Justin Lagat programs have been able to benefit greatly from my marathon training philosophies with almost 100% of them able to run new personal best times and meet their goals.

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