There are only 6 men in history who have broken 4 minutes for the mile and 2 hours and 8 minutes for the marathon. To put that into perspective, there are close to 1500 men worldwide who have broken 4 minutes for the mile and a quick search shows that an astonishing 331 men ran the marathon in 2:08:00 or faster in 2017 alone. Now there are numerous reasons that club is so exclusive, certainly many of those sub-4 and sub 2:08 athletes never attempted to race the other distance, but the point is that the speed required to run fast in a mile is not a prerequisite to running faster over 26.2 miles. However, mixing in some faster workouts between marathon training cycles helps improve running economy, prevents burnout and staleness, and can have a positive impact on performance.
For the marathoners out there who prefer long runs to shorter, faster workouts it is easy to get lulled into the rhythm of constantly training for the next marathon with little variation from training cycle to training cycle. I am a firm believer in routine and putting in the longer work for marathon training, but it is important to change up your training stimulus some throughout the year. It is common for many marathoners to run a spring marathon and a fall marathon as their two primary races of the year. The challenge many run into with that type of racing schedule is how to fill the awkward time between those races. Rest is important and should be the first order of business after a marathon, but after 2-3 weeks of recovery there may still be 20-25 weeks until the next marathon.
Jumping right back into a long marathon buildup is one option, albeit one I’m not a huge fan of because that length of time, 20+ weeks, is too long for a runner who runs regularly to spend training specifically for a marathon. The pattern of constantly training for the next marathon can lead to burnout both mentally and physically. And a 20 week + buildup for a well trained runner will often lead the athlete to being stale and tired by the time of the race.
The best way to maximize the time between marathons is to slowly build your volume back up and then spend a few weeks working on some shorter workouts. This change of pace improves running economy and keeps the legs fresh entering the final 12-14 weeks of marathon training where you want to focus more on marathon specific training. The key to these workouts is to keep the faster portions to 2 minutes or less so that you are not introducing too much intensity in this early stage of preparation. It is important to get in at least a 12-15 minute easy warm-up run before attempting any of the workouts listed below, and remember for each of them that you should finish feeling like you could have run a little faster or farther. Incorporating one of the following workouts once a week for 4-6 weeks is a fantastic way to bridge the gap between marathon training cycles
Hill repeats are the best way to introduce some faster work into your early marathon preparation. Uphill running, particularly quicker uphill running, reinforces proper running mechanics, builds strength in the hips, and helps increase turnover and decrease ground contact time. Start with 4-8 repeats of 30 seconds in length and as you progress you can work up to 8-10 repeats of 60 seconds in length. Find a hill that moderately steep, 4-6%, and as you run up the hill focus on getting your feet off the ground quickly, driving your arms, and keeping your spine tall and long. Take an easy recovery jog to the bottom of the hill between each repeat.
Short Fartlek Runs
Fartleks are a fun, easy way to add some speed into your weekly routine. The goal with a fartlek is to run continuously alternating between faster and slower running. A great place to start is the 45 seconds “on” / 90 seconds “off” fartlek. For this run 6-10 sets of 45 seconds on / 90 seconds off with the 45 second pieces run at or 5-10 seconds per mile quicker than your 5k pace and the 90 seconds off run 10-20 seconds per mile slower than your normal easy day pace. This workout is a good opportunity to focus on good form and be sure you finish each 45 second piece feeling like you could run a little faster or farther. An advancement of this workout is to run 6-10 sets of 1 minute on / 2 minutes off with the target paces the same as the 45 / 90 workout. And the most demanding version that is appropriate for this transition window is 6-10 sets of 2 minutes on / 1 minute off with the quicker 2 minutes run at roughly 5k pace and the 1 minute run very slowly.
Tempo 400’s is another workout where the paces are fast but the effort remains moderate. It is important to keep the paces controlled so you can focus on good form and finish a touch quicker than where you start. Depending on your training level and experience, run anywhere from 2-4 sets of (3-4 x 400m). The recovery should be 45 seconds – 60 seconds between repeats and 2:00-2:30 minutes between sets. Start the first set at 10k pace and finish the final set at 5k pace or a few seconds per mile quicker.
These types of workouts aren’t the key to successful marathons when it comes to the final 12 weeks of marathon training. But adding some shorter repetition workouts to your training, particularly between marathon training cycles can breathe new life into your legs and leave you more refreshed and energetic when it comes time to put in those bigger marathon workouts and long runs.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the February 2018 Issue of Running Journal