As I mentioned in my last post , my marathon time went from 4:10 in my first 26.2, actually went up to 4:25 in my fourth marathon, then gradually came down until I set my personal record of 3:16:38, an improvement of over an hour, or about two minutes and 20 seconds per mile.
I am writing this post to tell you how I did it. Before you read on you need to know this: It was hard. I’m not going to lie, the training was hard and the racing was hard. If you want to set a personal best time at any distance, you need to commit yourself to the training, push yourself beyond your comfort zone, find the strength inside you that will help you carry on, even when most people would stop, slow down, give up.
Are you still with me? Good. One more thing, though. This is not a workout for beginners or for first time marathoners unless you have a solid base of racing behind you. Everyone’s results will be different. This training won’t necessarily make you a 3:16 marathoner, but if you follow the program, stay healthy, and commit, you will improve your race times.
I’m not going to break this into a week by week program. I’m going to tell you the workouts that I used to improve my time, the miles that I covered, make some suggestions for workouts, and define some training terms. I’ll be happy to answer any questions that you may have in the comments. I plan to break each aspect of training into separate sections with tips on individual workouts and ideas of how the workouts will fit in your marathon training plan.
When I trained for the St. George Marathon, I took about 16 weeks to train. At my starting point, I had just completed a marathon, taken a couple weeks of down time, so I was in pretty good shape at the beginning. You may need more time based on your current fitness levels.
The Long Run
My format for long runs was to increase the mileage for two weeks in a row, then, in the third week cut back the mileage (by about 25%) but run faster. For example, one of my favorite cutback week workouts is to divide the distance into thirds. For the first third of the run, do it about 30 seconds slower than your goal marathon time. For the second third, run at your goal pace. Finally, for the last third, run at 30 seconds faster than your goal pace.
I also liked to fit in a bit of marathon pace running within a regular long run, generally toward the latter part of the run. Long runs are usually quite a bit slower that your race pace, so picking up when you are tired is a challenge, but also trains your body to push through that tiredness. Even two or three miles at race pace will have positive effects.
The Second Long(est) Run
Within this second longest run, I would add one of my speedwork sessions, usually either hills or a tempo run (see below for details of the speed workouts). As an alternative to adding speedwork, a marathon pace workout, running the entire distance of your second longest run at your goal race pace, is an excellent way for your body to learn what your race pace should feel like.
Hill Workouts: There are two ways to do hill workouts (well, probably more, but for this post there are two). If you live in a hilly area, simply run your regular route, but instead of slowing down on the uphills, push yourself up and over. The distance for this type of workout will vary as your running distances increase, but try to push for two to five miles during the course of your run.
The other way, if you live in a flat landscape like me, is to find a hill that has about a 6% to 12% grade, and long enough that you run up for 30-90 seconds. Do 4-8 repeats, starting at the low end at the beginning of your training and increasing both the number of repetitions and the distance as you advance. Push yourself, but you don’t have to go all out. The incline makes the workout.
Tempo Runs: Another term for Lactate Threshold runs, these workouts are great to help you run farther faster. They are run at a pace just below the point at which your body can no longer process the lactic acid that is building up, which makes you have to slow down. Tempo runs help you increase your lactate threshold, and thus improve your stamina.
In my training, I would do my tempo workouts within my second longest run. I built them up to six-eight miles of running at my tempo pace, which was about my half marathon pace, and about 25 seconds per mile faster than my goal marathon pace. That is quite a long distance for a tempo run, which is usually around three to four miles. Keep that in mind when you are creating your program.
Track Workouts: Track workouts are all about speed. They are run at a faster pace than tempo runs, and because you are on a track you can focus simply on yourself, your pace, your gait, your breathing. The two workouts I did the most during my training were mile repeats and Yasso 800s.
Mile repeats are simply four times around the track, run at about your 10k pace, or about 30 seconds per mile faster than your goal marathon race pace. Start with 2-3, build up to 5-6. Recover from each repeat with a 400 meter jog. (Remember to warm up for about a mile before you turn on your speed switch.)
Yasso 800s can be used as a marathon time predictor, or as workout in itself. Here’s how you do it: take your goal marathon time and translate it to minutes. For example, my goal time was 3 hours and 20 minutes, so my 800 time should be 3 minutes and 20 seconds. After the warm up, I’d pace myself and run my 800 meters as close to 3:20 as possible, then recover by jogging for the same amount of time, 3:20. Do this as many times as possible (I think I topped out at 10). Some say Yassos are a bit optimistic as a marathon time predictor, but it is still a great workout.
I prefer a two week taper, meaning I would run my last long run two weeks before my race. Some folks prefer a three week taper. After my last long run, I would basically reduce the mileage on all my runs by about 30% the first week of the taper. One week before the race, I would cut my long run distance by 50%. The final week would start at about a six mile run, then a little less each day, taking the last one or two days completely off or just taking a short jog to get the blood flowing.
As for intensity, the first week of the taper I kept in two speed workouts but reduced the total distance by about 50%. During the first part of the final week, I did a short tempo run, picking it up to marathon pace for two or three miles.
Monday: Easy day (depending on where I was in training and how I was feeling, my easy days ranged from three to eight miles at a moderate pace.
In my next post, I will discuss race day strategy, again drawing from my own experience (and my strategy wasn’t perfect so you can learn from my mistakes).
If you are interested in a more personalized program, I do offer individualized coaching. Please see my coaching page for more information.
Disclaimer: While I am a personal trainer and a coach, I am writing the story of my training and what worked for me. Only you know your body and you should work within the range of your fitness and capabilities.
Any questions? Are you training for a marathon right now. Trying to qualify for Boston? Just set a PR?