3 Marathon Workouts to Turbo Charge Your Marathon Training

by Jason Fitzgerald

Are you hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon?

Maybe you’re trying to run another personal record at the Chicago Marathon. Whatever your marathon goals, I have several strategies for your marathon workouts that will take your training to the next level.

The marathon doesn’t have to be so intimidating. With the right training, and the right marathon workouts, you can be much closer to accomplishing your goals. There are several ways to get the most out of your marathon training. Some of these tips won’t take any extra time to execute.

First, I want to explain my marathon training philosophy to put these suggestions in context. I want you to understand how I tackle the marathon and why these strategies will make you faster.

What Type of Marathon Workouts Did I Run?

It’s important to understand that racing the marathon is entirely aerobic. It requires no anaerobic work; your heart and breathing rate will stay well below your maximum for the entire race. Research has indicated that the marathon (and the half-marathon also) is 99% aerobic and 1% anaerobic.

If you broke the marathon down into 1% segments, the portion of the race that’s anaerobic is only a shade over 400 meters. So if you qualify for Boston, that’s only the time you’re on Boylston Street! Your training time is best served preparing for the other 99% of the race.

This means that for marathon runners, speed development is not done with classic interval workouts. Especially for new and even intermediate runners, there is no need to run fast track workouts for the marathon. This goes contrary to popular belief as many runners want to improve their speed over the distance.

But to improve speed over 26.2 miles, you have to increase endurance. If you can run a 4:30 marathon, that’s an average of about 10:20 per mile. An ambitious goal would be to break 4 hours – or run closer to 9 minutes per mile. This level of improvement requires only aerobic conditioning.

This principle applies to faster runners too. I ran the 2008 NY Marathon in 2:44 and did virtually no anaerobic (or fast intervals) workouts prior to the race. I did three key workouts every week for the two months leading up to the race:

  1. A long run with several miles at the end at marathon pace.
  2. A medium-long run with 5 miles at marathon pace in the middle.
  3. A (slightly longer) medium-long run with 6-7 miles at marathon pace, negative splitting to my tempo pace.

These are the only workouts I did, except for one slightly faster track workout two weeks before the race. In hindsight, I wouldn’t do that again.

My goals were simple: make marathon pace as comfortable as possible and develop as much aerobic capacity as I could. By the end of my hard training block, my long run was 22 miles with 6 miles at 5:50 pace at the end. I ran 13 miles with 5 at 5:50 pace. My other workout was 15 miles with a 7 mile tempo starting at 6 minute pace and ending at about 5:30 pace.

The training sounds intense, but none of it was very fast. Every time I laced up my shoes, I wasn’t even approaching my red-line speed or heart rate. Investments in aerobic capacity are small deposits that pay large dividends later. On the other hand, fast interval-based workouts are like quick paydays that you have to spend soon. They don’t last.

What Type of Marathon Workouts Should You Run?

You should do the same type of workouts that I did! Depending upon your experience and fitness level, you might run more than me or faster than me. But the principles remain the same – build your aerobic base as large as possible.

There are 5 key workouts and types of training that you should focus on as you prepare for your marathon. All of them develop leg strength, endurance, and will help you run faster for longer.

The Long Run: Aim to run at least 20 miles before your marathon. If you have months before your marathon, run more 20 mile runs (a 20 miler every week for a month is better than just one!). When I was training, I wanted to err on the side of too long so I went with 22 miles. Only run what you’re ready to handle!

  • Aerobic Bonus: At the end of your long run, do a few miles at marathon pace. Not only are you recruiting more muscle fibers in a fatigued state, but you’re mentally preparing your body to run fast when it’s tired. Alternatively, run long hill climbs of 10-15 minutes or hilly terrain at the end of your long run. I call these “rollercoaster runs.”

Run More Mileage: It’s so simple! Run more, get faster. For the marathon, you don’t have to run fast. Just run more volume.  The enhanced aerobic stimulus of an extra 10-20% bump in weekly mileage will make you a much better runner. I advise all of my athletes to replace interval workouts with more mileage when they’re training for a half-marathon or marathon.

  • Aerobic Bonus: Be selective about how you run more. I typically run a 5 mile easy run every week. Bumping that run to 7 miles isn’t as useful to my fitness level as bumping my 17 mile long run to 19 miles. It’s still only 2 miles, but where that 2 miles happens is important. Increase your long run, second longest run, etc. for the most benefit. Running more on workout days is another added bonus to your aerobic capacity.

Marathon Pace and Tempo Workouts: These two workouts should be the only type of marathon workouts you do. Marathon pace (MP) workouts – either repetitions or a single run – get you used to the pace you’re going to run on race day. It’s vital that you’re comfortable with this pace. Tempo workouts are faster (but still aerobic) and provide support to your MP. They’ll make MP easier, both physically and mentally.

  • Aerobic Bonus: After a warm-up, do a long continuous run (I did 6-7 miles) starting at MP progressing to tempo pace. For me, this was starting at 6 minute pace and then negative-splitting the workout to about 5:30 per mile. This type of workout helped me get in great shape for the 2008 NY Marathon.

At the end of the day, you’re going to be running very similar workouts to everybody else training for the marathon.

You’ll have your long runs, your regular distance runs, and your tempo/marathon pace workouts. But what’s going to help you beat your training buddy is how you run these workouts.

Did you negative split your marathon pace workout ending at tempo pace? Did you climb a 12 minute hill at the end of all of your long runs? Did you skip the weekly 1,000m intervals and instead run an extra 8 miles every week?

Small decisions made every few days over the course of a 2-3 month training block can provide big gains in fitness. Especially when it comes to marathon workouts and their potential to dramatically increase your endurance and turn you into an aerobic powerhouse.

Are you looking to run a fast marathon? Get notified when we re-open Run Your BQ, a coaching program and community dedicated to helping you qualify for the Boston Marathon!

Photo Credit: Zach Klein and zhurnaly
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{ 13 comments }

mike

While I understand what you mean by saying you did no “fast anaerobic” training the runs you describe are significantly faster then marathon pace.

Your NYC marathon was run at 6:16 yet you say:
My goals were simple: make marathon pace as comfortable as possible and develop as much aerobic capacity as I could. By the end of my hard training block, my long run was 22 miles with 6 miles at 5:50 pace tack at the end. I ran 13 miles with 5 at 5:50 pace. My other workout was 15 miles with a 7 mile tempo starting at 6 minute pace and ending at about 5:30 pace.

Yet your advice is:
A long run with several miles at the end at marathon pace.
A medium-long run with 5 miles at marathon pace in the middle.
A (slightly longer) medium-long run with 6-7 miles at marathon pace, negative splitting to my tempo pace.

I think what you mean to recommend is more LT pace runs aka 10 mile race pace but rarely to go faster (since for instance fast 400s and 800s will do little for a marathon). That is the bread and butter run in my opinion that will net you the best result for anything longer than 10k with minimal chance of injury.

Using your marathon pace of 6:15 here: http://runningtimes.com/Article.aspx?ArticleID=6765 I get your LT pace as 5:48.

Fitz

Hi Mike,

Faster than MP and anaerobic are very different. My MP ended up being about 6:17, but I had a real fueling issue during the race. My goal pace was about 5:58 and I went through 20 miles in about 6:04 pace – pretty close. While much of my training was significantly faster than my overall MP, it was still aerobic – and therefore the main point of my article.

The problem with those running pace calculators is that they’re…well…wrong. According to your advice, my 10 mile race pace should be my LT pace (or 5:48 according to the calculator). But my actual 10 mile race pace is 5:29. Historically, my LT pace has been 5:25 – 5:40 depending upon fitness levels.

When I ran MP workouts, I intentionally went a little faster because I knew I could run in the 2:40-2:45 range. If I did my workouts at 6:15 pace I wouldn’t be getting the aerobic stimulus I needed. I was still very far from the anaerobic zone so it doesn’t matter and my advice still holds.

At the end of the day, you only need to determine your MP and your LT pace and do a lot of running at these paces. If you’re a little bit off, it’s no big deal. Unless you’re undergoing testing in a lab (like LT, VO2 Max, ventilatory threshold, etc.), the exact times are pretty meaningless. They’ll change daily based on heat, humidity, stress, fatigue, etc.

- Fitz.

Ken Rasner

My friends encourage me to do marathons once in a while. I just started at the 10k run. Hope I can make it as far as I can go.

Fitz

With practice, you can definitely make it!

Rex

Fitz,

I know your post is almost exactly a year old, but I have an Q for you based on your commenets above.

I get the idea of Long Run piece and getting to pace for the back end of the run. But, when you state:

Marathon Pace and Tempo Workouts: These two workouts should be the only type of marathon workouts you do.

For the Marathon what or how would you define the Tempo Workouts . . .

For example, having a average pace for 3:42 over my last 4 Marathons (2011 PR of 3:38) and looking to run say 3:25 – how would you work the Tempos in to achieve that goal? Thanks!

Fitz

Hey Rex, my thinking has evolved a little bit since a year ago and I think you need other types of workouts as well. In addition to marathon pace and tempos, I suggest regular strides and hill sprints, and occasional VO2 Max work like 5k pace. Tempo pace is about 85-90% of your max HR, also known as “comfortably hard” or the pace that you can run for an hour.

Rex

Thanks for the update Fitz – to ensure I get the idea . . .

if I run 7:30 pace for say 8 miles (basically an hour) – that is, as you say, “comfortably hard,” that would be a goal pace for the tempo run

for a reality check – if looking for a 3:25 Marathon (right around 7:50 pace) where should one be at on their Tempo runs to achieve this goal? thanks again!

thanks again

Fitz

Tempo pace is the pace that you can race for about an hour. So if 8 miles in an hour (or 7:30 pace) is your race pace for that time period, then yes that’s probably about your tempo pace.

If you’re shooting for 7:50 pace for a marathon, you should be able to run a lot faster over 8 miles. So I think your tempo pace is faster, likely around 6:45 or 7:00. Tempo pace is also defined as 85-90% of your maximum heart rate, so experiment with the three definitions and find what works best for you. Good luck!

Rex

thanks – that was my question or what I was thinking / wondering

Wes

This was probably one of the most helpful articles I have read in regards to being a straight forward guide to marathon training. Most people beat around the bush when it comes to workouts. Definitely absorbed some of this information actually – thank you!

Bob

Hi,
Gotta say, with a 10 mile time like yours, your marathon time should be a lot faster, closer to 2:33. I don’t think that the Running Times LT pace calculator is wrong, I think your marathon time is wrong. Time to get out there and nail one.
That said, I enjoyed the article. We could argue a bit about the value of long intervals vs steady-state runs, but it’s small difference for 95% of marathoners. You’re right, most runners just need more miles on Sunday.
Keep up the good work.
Bob

Andrew

Fitz,

Quick question about 5k running during marathon training. What are your thoughts on participating in a 5k race 8 days before the marathon?

Jason Fitzgerald

Don’t race it.

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