The marathon might be the most challenging distance that “normal people” race – and for good reason.
At 26.2 miles and lasting the better part of a workday for most runners, it will test you in ways no shorter race ever will.
Just stand at the 24th mile-marker at any major marathon and you’ll see injured runners hobbling toward the finish line – faces twisted in agony – with form that more closely resembles a limp than a run.
But one of the most effective ways of making the marathon easier and more accessible is to train appropriately. With smarter season planning, runners will enjoy a litany of benefits:
- Less risk of injury
- You’ll actually have more fun during the marathon
- A faster finishing time!
But for some reason, I’m constantly bombarded by training plan requests from runners who have no earthly business training for a marathon. If you’re running 12 miles per week, then you’re not ready yet. Be patient, young runner.
Sound training begins months and months before the race. With a proper base of endurance and general fitness, most runners will have excellent marathon performances provided they run smart workouts.
Here you’ll learn the most effective workouts to improve your marathon. Since this race is over 99% aerobic, there’s no need to hammer 400-meter repetitions on the track – instead, we’re focusing on endurance-oriented workouts.
And it all starts with better long runs.
Workout #1: The Specific Long Run
There’s no better workout for marathoners than the long run. It’s the most specific to the race itself, meaning it most resembles the marathon and contributes most to your level of preparedness.
For these reasons, runners should complete a long run every week (with an optional cut-back long run every 3-4 weeks). While the purpose of early-season long runs during the base phase of training is to increase general endurance, there comes a time when long runs must become even more specific.
That’s when runners can implement goal pace running during the long run to maximize fitness and the odds of success on race day.
In its simplest form, a marathon-specific long run includes several miles of Goal Marathon Pace (GMP) at the very end of the run. Running at goal pace – on tired legs – is a fantastic way of simulating what you’ll experience during the marathon.
Here are a few examples, with each option becoming progressively more advanced:
- 16 miles with the last 4 miles at Goal Marathon Pace
- 18 miles with the last 5 miles at Goal Marathon Pace
- 20 miles with the last 10 miles at Goal Marathon Pace
These runs force your body to become more efficient, boost specific endurance for the marathon, and teach you to use less carbohydrate. There’s no better “bang for your buck” workout for marathoners.
Workout #2: The Progression Run
Any marathoner knows that overall effort will increase dramatically in the marathon – especially after the 20th mile.
To help prepare the body (and mind) for the rigors of an ever-escalating expenditure of effort, progression runs can be used during training. These aerobic workouts are best used in the first half of a marathon training cycle and are great foundational workouts before faster, more sustained effort lactate threshold runs are incorporated.
A progression run is executed by gradually speeding up over the final miles of the run so that the last 3-5 minutes are at your threshold or tempo pace. More challenging progressions are longer (not faster).
Most runners can start with 2-3 miles of progression running at the end of an otherwise easy run. Every few minutes, the pace quickens so that runners are gradually running faster and faster.
More advanced runners can do 5-7 miles of progression running. But again, faster is not better! This is an aerobic workout, so the fastest pace that’s reached is about threshold pace during the last several minutes of the run.
For a runner with an easy pace of 9-10 minutes/mile and a tempo pace of about 7:45 per mile, a 6-mile run with the last 3 miles at a progression to tempo might be run with splits like this:
No part of this workout is particularly taxing, but the sum total of the work can be fatiguing.
This type of workout helps increase general endurance, mental resiliency, and helps runners transition to more challenging workouts later in the training season.
Workout #3: The Tempo Run
Tempo workouts really are the bread and butter workout for distance runners.
That’s because they accomplish our #1 goal: they increase our ability to run fast before we need to slow down.
There are three common ways of describing tempo pace:
- A “comfortably hard” pace
- A pace that a well-trained runner can hold for about an hour
- About 85-90% of maximum heart rate
At its simplest, tempo runs are 2-5 mile efforts at your tempo or lactate threshold pace (they’re the same).
They can be run without any recovery or broken up into shorter repetitions, usually longer reps in the 1-mile range.
How exactly do they improve our endurance? Since they’re run at your lactate threshold, they straddle the pace at which your body starts to work anaerobically – or, without oxygen.
At this pace, your body produces a lot of lactate but should be able to clear it about as fast as you’re producing it.
Run too slow and you won’t make enough lactate to practice buffering it.
Run too fast and the workout becomes anaerobic – and you have to slow down.
Tempo runs can be done at virtually any point in your marathon training but it’s ideal to place less emphasis on them during the very early and very late stages of training.
Workout #4: The Lactate Clearance Run
I personally cursed my college coaches for prescribing this workout – it’s a tough one!
Lactate clearance runs are a type of tempo workout. The twist is that you periodically surge to about 5k pace or slightly faster for 30-60 seconds before settling back to tempo pace.
The surge puts the pace much faster than tempo – thereby introducing significantly more lactate into the blood stream. Lactate is responsible for that uncomfortable and often painful burning sensation that’s present in hard interval workouts or short races.
When you settle back into tempo pace after the surge, the body is forced to clear that lactate as best as it can while still running at a challenging pace. This helps the body process lactate more efficiently, ultimately helping push your lactate threshold pace slightly faster.
Lactate threshold has a direct correlation with endurance and performance, so there’s no surprise this type of workout can improve your marathon finish.
Since this workout is quite stressful, it’s best to run them once every 2-3 weeks during the mid-late phase of marathon training. More traditional tempo, progression, and goal pace workouts will make up the rest of your workouts.
Armed with smarter and more specific workouts (as well as a focus on intelligent mileage increases and injury prevention), there’s no doubt runners who train more purposefully will be better marathoners – more confident, less prone to injury, and faster!
A version of this article first appeared on Competitor.