At first, a marathon goal is all about finishing … a challenge so big it’s hard to comprehend before it happens.
Then, after your first or second 26.2, the desire just to finish turns into a desire to finish faster. And faster.
What if I could drop below four hours? What if I could qualify for Boston?
The opportunities for improvement feel endless.
But how? How on Earth are you ever going to finish a marathon and do it with more strength, endurance, and speed?
The answer is more straightforward than you might think.
Train Fast (and Slow) to Race Fast
Have you ever heard of “junk miles”? Whether you’ve heard of the term or not, chances are you run them.
Junk miles are miles considered too fast to effectively build endurance, and too slow to help improve your speed. And unfortunately, after working with dozens of runners as a coach, I’ve discovered that a lot of runners spend most of their miles right there.
In the junkyard.
To improve your speed at the marathon distance, you must become more strategic with each run. Spend most of your time running at an easy pace building endurance and base strength, and sprinkle in speed work once or twice a week to boost your power and speed.
It’s there — during those strategically planned speed workouts — that the magic of a faster marathon begins to take shape.
3 Workouts for Marathon Speed
With every race distance there are different strategies for building speed. When training for a 5K, for example, short sprint intervals that build explosive speed and quick leg turnover are common.
When training for a marathon, the main speed workout goal shifts to longer intervals which increase your lactate threshold and endurance stamina — in other words, workouts that keep you running faster later in a long race.
Below are three of my favorite workouts perfect for marathon training:
1. Mile Repeats at Tempo Pace
Most intermediate and advanced level marathon training plans include interval workouts, and the mile repeat is always one of the toughest. A mile is long at 1,600 meters, and takes most of us well over five minutes to run.
But it’s precisely because they’re longer that mile repeats offer such a great structure for tempo training. The tempo pace is a moderately or “comfortably” hard pace, typically around the 85-90% of your max heart rate. (For most people that’s around the same effort as your 10K race pace.)
For marathoners, this type of training is crucial. Training at a tempo pace increases your metabolic fitness, which improves your ability to use and process lactate, allowing you to sustain a higher pace for a longer time.
You can add longer (20-30 minute) tempo sessions into a standard run, like a 60-minute run with 20 minutes being at tempo pace, or run a tempo workout as an interval workout with scheduled breaks in between. The breaks allow you to spend more collective time at the tempo pace.
These tempo-paced intervals are my favorite approach for mile repeats for marathoners.
The workout: 15 minute warm-up, 5 x 1 mile repeats at tempo pace with 1 minute recovery, 20 minute cool-down
2. Yasso 800s
Probably the most infamous marathon workout around, Yasso 800s were created by Bart Yasso as a way of predicting your marathon pace.
The idea is simple: your time (in minutes and seconds) for 10 x 800 meter intervals will equal your time (in hours and minutes) for the marathon. In other words, if you can sustain a four-minute-and-ten-second pace for 10 x 800 meter repeats, you’ll run a four-hour-and-ten-minute marathon.
Now, the validity of using the workout as a predictor is a little iffy — sorry Bart — but that doesn’t take away from the workout itself.
Yasso 800s are a great VO2 Max workout, and an increased VO2 Max will improve your overall fitness and speed.
The workout: 15 minute warmup, 10 x 800 meters on the track with each rest period equaling the same amount of time as it took you to run the 800, 20 minute cool down
3. Fast-Finish Long Runs
Long runs teach your body (and mind) how to handle the distance of a marathon and the challenges that come with it. For that reason most beginner marathoners aren’t (and shouldn’t be) concerned with the pace as much as getting in the miles or kilometers.
But once you’ve grown comfortable with running long, you have room to start playing with the effort and pace. The fast-finish long run is a great way to incorporate speed training in the long run.
On some of your long runs, use the last 30 to 90 minutes to increase speed and effort up to your goal race pace. For example, on a 15 mile long run, run the first 10 miles at your typical easy long-run pace. For the final five miles, slowly increase your pace until you’re at or near race pace through the finish.
Running at your desired race effort will test your mental and physical stamina by simulating late race fatigue, and teach you how to push through the discomfort to finish strong.
One quick note for this workout: I don’t recommend running all your long runs as fast-finish long runs. At the most, rotate between a fast finish and a standard long run week by week.
The workout: Run the first two-thirds of your long run at your standard pace. In the final third, or for roughly 30 to 90 minutes, gradually increase your pace until you’ve hit your desired race pace, and maintain that pace and effort through the end of your run.
You Can Run a Faster Marathon
I believe that the hardest part of running a marathon is learning how to mentally cope with the distance, and that it takes actually running that far to get the full understanding of the difficulty.
But once you do — once you run a marathon or two — the distance itself becomes much less of a challenge, and the motivating goal usually shifts to training to do it faster.
By strategically sprinkling one or two speed workouts per week into your training, you’ll quickly see results in your overall speed and stamina.
And that new personal best suddenly becomes a reality.