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Key marathon workouts

Updated on October 11, 2014

Key workouts to improve your marathon time

Want to run a faster marathon? Maybe qualify for Boston? The key is not only to train harder, but smarter. That means targeting your workouts to the training intensities that will most improve your marathon fitness. Here are some important workouts that I use when training for a marathon.

Key marathon workouts

Marathon training is tough. Not just physically ( that's a given ), but tough to plan and balance the various elelments that make up a good marathon training program. As always I feel that it's best to cover all the bases and that good marathon training is not so different from good training for shorter events, but there are a few elements that you won't want to leave out of your program.

1) Long runs: Obviously the marathon requires that you do some long runs to prepare for the 26.2 mile distance. But all long runs are not created equal. I believe there are two specific types of long runs that should be included in your training. The first is your standard, garden variety long run in which you gradually build up the length of your run each week until you reach about 20 ( at most 22 ) miles of running at a comfortable pace in which you can easily carry on a conversation. The second is a fast finish long run. With this type of long run, you run a little less distance ( 15-18 miles max ) but you start the run slowly and then run the last 1/4 to 1/2 of the run at marathon pace or slightly faster. As an example, you might run the first 10 miles at a comfortable pace and then finish with 3-8 miles at your goal marathon pace or slightly faster. This is a tough workout and you won't want to do this more than once or twice a month at most. Running your long runs this way is excellent training for the marathon as it teaches you to run at marathon goal pace after you're already pretty tired from the first several miles of the run, exactly what you will need to do on race day.

2) Stamina training: These are what used to be called lactate threshold runs or tempo runs or anaerobic threshold runs etc. Whatever you want to call them, these are runs of 20-45 minutes at a pace about 20-30 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace. I have found these runs to be some of the most useful training that a marathon runner can do. You'll want to warm up before these runs by jogging a couple of miles and cool down down afterwards with another couple of miles of jogging. Another way to do this type of training is to run what Jack Daniels ( the famed exercise physiologist and running coach, not the distiller ) calls "cruise intervals". These are simply repeated runs at the same pace as your tempo runs, but with short jogs in between. An example might be to run 4-6 repetitions of 1 mile at 30 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace with a 200m to 400m jog at a very slow pace in between.

3) Speed work/VO2 max training. Marathon training doesn't require a lot of this type of training, but a little goes a long way. One of my favourite speed workouts for marathon training is one done by a number of the top Kenyan runners, including former world record holder Paul Tergat and current Olympic Champion Sammy Wanjiru. Here's how it goes, you warm up with an easy 15-20 minute jog and then alternate repetitions of 60 seconds at a fast pace, followed by 60 seconds of jogging, and then finished with 15-20 minutes of jogging to cool down. Elite runners like those mentioned above would go for 20 or 25 1 minute repetitions of fast running, for myself and most mortals, I think 10-15 reps will suffice. If you really want to add to the challenge of this workout, try not to let the pace slow down too much during the rest jogs after each fast rep. This workout helps build leg strength, neuro-muscular coordination, and VO2 max.

4) Easy runs: The 3 types of training mentioned above are very demanding workouts and neither should be done more often than once a week. You could probably get away with doing each type of workout just once every 2 weeks. So, what to do the rest of the time? Sorry, reclining on your sofa isn't an option. The answer is easy runs, daily runs of 40-90 minutes ( depending on your goals and experience ) at a very easy conversational pace. Many runners are confused by how fast to run on these runs, some like to use heart rate monitors and stay within a certain percentage of maximum heart rate. Personally, I don't think it needs to be too precise, just make sure that you're relaxed and not pushing the pace at all. Save that for the above 3 types of workouts. Easy runs should be just that, easy physically and mentally and when in doubt, go slower. This will allow you to recover properly and put your best effort into your harder workouts while reducing the risk of injury and overtraining.Easy runs also help teach your body to burn fat for fuel as opposed to glycogen. Glycogen stores in your body are limited and running low on glycogen results in teh dreaded "wall" that marathoner hear about so much. Keeping your easy and many of your long runs at a comfortable pace will teach your muscles to burn fat, preserve glycogen and help delay the dreaded wall.

So, having said all that, how do we set up a training program to include all of these elements? I like to have at least 2 days between hard workouts and to alternate the different types of long runs in each week so a sample 2 week plan would look as follows :

Week 1

Mon- easy run

Tues- Stamina run 20-45 min at 20-30 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace

Wed- easy run

Thu- easy run

Fri- speed workout 10-15 reps of 1 min fast, 1 min slow

Sat- easy run

Sun- easy long run gradually build up to 20-22 miles at a comfortable pace

Week 2

Mon- easy run

Tue- Stamina run 6 reps of 1 mile at 20-30 seconds faster than marathon pace with a 400m jog in between.

Wed- easy run

Thu- easy run

Fri- speed workout - 10reps of 1 min fast, 1 min slow

Sat- short, very easy run

Sun- Long run 15 miles with the first 10 miles at an easy pace and the last 5 miles at marathon pace.

Always remember to warm up and cool down for your speed and stamina workouts with a 15-20 minute jog before and after the workout.

Good luck with your marathon training and please feel free to sign my guestbook leave me a comment and let me know how your training is going, and if you've found my advice to be helpful.

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other - Reflections on 30 Years of Running

If you like this lens, you might be interested in my new book, Putting One Foot in Front of the Other. I've been a competitive runner since I joined my first track club at the age of 11, and ran for my high school and university track teams. I've also run 14 marathons as an adult runner, including the Boston marathon in 2003 and 2007.

Here's a review of the book:

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other - Lessons Learned in 30 Years of Running is a compilation of time-tested advice for getting the most of your runing.

Inside you'll find tips on many of the "soft skills" of running that experienced runners learn over time, but that many "how-to" running books don't cover. The book includes chapters on such topics as how to build your confidence as a runner, how to recover properly from your workouts, race tactics, and how to avoid and treat common running injuries. You'll also find sections on the most common training tools that runners use such as how to design an interval workout, how to include hill training (one of the secrets of the top African runners) in your program, and the answer to the common question of, "How fast should I go on my daily runs?"

Whether you're a new, intermediate or advanced runner, Putting One Foot in Front of the Other offers tips that will help you get the most out of your running.

You can order the ebook or print version from by clicking below.

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    • agoofyidea profile image

      agoofyidea 6 years ago

      A great schedule. I probably don't do enough easy runs. The Spirit of the Marathon is a great movie. I suggest every runner should own it. Excellent lens.