Improve Your Marathon and Half Marathon Running, by David Chalfen

chalfen book review

Paperback, 2012, 144 pages

This is an excellent resource by the very knowledgeable running coach David Chalfen.

Aptly titled, this book is unapologetically aimed at more experienced runners and those looking to build on previous performances over these distances. It contains a profusion of excellent advice and guidance, taking the time to explain why certain approaches are likely to be successful in addition to rock-solid specifics on how to train effectively.

What it covers

The book is divided into two parts: Part 1 “Training and Racing”, and Part 2 “The Running Body”.

Part 1 begins with a chapter which explains the physiology of training, and how training adaptations occur in the body. This sets the scene for everything to follow, providing a context for how structured training can best deliver improvement in performance.

The “full season” six-month macro-cycle for training is discussed as preparation for more event-specific training which will build from this. Chapter 3 considers the general endurance phase for building that sound base, and provides detailed training schedules for two different levels of runner.

From here, Chapter 4 gets into the specifics of training for a marathon or half marathon. With particular reference to preparing for the full marathon distance, this chapters covers training the body to convert fatty acids once glycogen stores are depleted, explaining how and why certain key training sessions support this process. Chalfen provides two particularly good sessions which enable both adaptation to improve the body’s ability to metabolise fat at steady speed and practising marathon pace in a depleted state. These are great sessions for those who are genuinely committed to finding improvements, and the clever way in which they are combined will enable runners to get more from the session and recover effectively with a weekly cycle.

Chalfen also covers the obligatory topics for an endurance book, such as tapering and race day considerations with solid common sense advice.

The author explains how his training plans can be developed and extended for those who want to do more, and he also provides case studies about real athletes to ground the theory in reality.

Added to these core chapters, two further chapters in Part 1 focus on aerobic cross-training and veterans’ running, with well-informed insights into these important topics.

In Part 2, The Running Body, Chalfen moves on to discuss biomechanical aspects of good running technique. He also covers flexibility, strength and conditioning, with illustrated examples of specific exercises. Further chapters on nutrition and hydration, and injury, ensure a comprehensive gamut of essential topics for improvers.

Why it’s helpful

Personally having attempted various different training approaches for marathon preparation, I had a “light bulb” moment when looking at the training plans in this book. I was surprised by my own response, because there is nothing revolutionary in the approach (as the author is at pains to point out, he is following the well-established tradition of other respected coaches).

But there is something exemplary about the craftsmanship with which the suggested programmes are put together. I think it is for the following reasons:

  • The approach achieves a balance which can be difficult for individual runners to plan for themselves, managing to incorporate necessary rest and recovery alongside harder sessions.
  • While many marathon programmes focus on quantity (miles per week), Chalfen more specifically focuses on how to get the most from the key sessions by ensuring you execute them very effectively. He does this by building the week around them, and including just enough rest to get more from the runner. It sounds simple, but doing it well is a real challenge.
  • I would be more confident that these programmes facilitate high performance at a lower risk of injury, because athletes will be able to recover more effectively while simultaneously gaining more from the key sessions than if they were to run each one in a more depleted starting-state. (There is of course a place for running while depleted during marathon training, and this is also included by Chalfen, but not to excess. Having suffered serious injury due to overenthusiasm on the running-while-depleted front, I think this is a better approach for getting to both the start and finish lines feeling happy!)

I would certainly recommend this as a useful addition to the bookshelf (for regular reference) of anyone serious about improving their marathon or half marathon times.

This book is available in The Flying Runner bookshop.
Click here to find it.

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