5 Marathon Workouts

With summer mercifully in the rearview mirror it’s time to turn the months of fighting through the heat and humidity into fast fall racing. There is no greater feeling than those first weeks when the weather breaks with cool, crisp air. The blood-plasma-boosting heat of the summer makes those first few weeks of fall feel like you could run forever. Now it’s time to take advantage of that in training and racing. One of the challenges in preparing for fall marathons is dealing with the summer heat early in training that can make long runs and workouts difficult to execute. Even if you’ve struggled with those longer workouts over the summer there is still time to cap off your fall marathon training with some fitness boosting workouts over the final few weeks of your prep.

Focus on Improving Anaerobic Threshold

The focus of workouts in preparation for marathons, and frankly any distance running event, should be on improving your anaerobic threshold. The vast majority of a marathon is run at a pace slower than anaerobic threshold and improving it will, in turn, quicken your marathon pace. For those that train with heart rate monitors your anaerobic threshold is between 85-90% of maximum heart rate. The easiest way to view these workouts in terms of effort is that they should be hard but never so hard you couldn’t do more or run faster. That ensures you’re getting the most out of your training and are able to recover for the long run on the weekend. The following are 5 of my favorite marathon workouts. They can be used throughout marathon training, but here they are laid out for the final 5 weeks leading into race day, including what you should do the week of the race.

Week 1: Progression Run

Progression runs are one of my absolute favorite workouts for marathon runners. The progression run stimulates the anaerobic threshold, but it also teaches patience, the most valuable racing skill for the marathon. Most athletes tend to start workouts too fast, which stunts improvement in performance as well as reinforces a habit that will be hard to break on race day. The progression run tempers this problem because the intention is to start out slowly and gradually progress through the workout. Learning the discipline of being patient and methodical during training sessions translates to races, and developing those skills is the hidden benefit of the progression run.

A progression run should start 10-15 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace and move evenly forward a few seconds per mile each mile so you are finishing the final mile 5-10 seconds per mile slower than 10k pace. Depending on your experience level and total weekly mileage this run could be anywhere from 3-8 miles.

Week 2: Tempo Miles

The purpose of this workout is nearly identical to a traditional tempo run, but this is a great twist that breaks up the workout to make it more manageable, and allows you to run a touch quicker at the same effort. The workout is simple: 3-6 x 1 mile repeats with 90 seconds to 2 minutes easy jog or walk between each repeat. Start at half marathon pace and work down to 10k race pace for the last 1-2 repeats. Aim to run a little quicker each repeat, and if you do this session multiple times as your fitness improves, decrease the rest before increasing the speed.

Week 3: Descending Tempo Fartlek

Aim to make the last big 20 + mile long run 3 weeks out from the race and include 8-12 miles of running near marathon pace within it. The timing of the week 3 workout means it will take place a few days after that long run, and so this week is often best spent running easily to ensure proper recovery. However, for more experience runners this is a perfect time for a light fartlek run. Fartlek runs are another great example of a workout that can be utilized throughout a marathon buildup. The fartlek is a continuous run alternating between pieces of quicker running and easier running. This workout is traditionally based on time rather than distance and therefore is conducive to listening to your body and not worrying about a specific pace, ideal a few days after a big long run. For this fartlek run 2 sets of the following: 4 minutes at half marathon effort, 90 seconds easy jog, 3 minutes a little quicker than the 4 minute piece, 90 seconds easy jog, 2 minutes a little quicker than the 3 minute piece, 90 seconds easy jog, and 1 minute a little bit faster again with an easy 3 minute jog between the sets. The easy recovery jogs should be at your normal easy day pace and the 1 minute piece at the end should be in the 5k – 10k effort range.

Week 4: 4-Minute Repeats

This workout is similar to the mile repeat session, but now just a week and a half out from the race the intervals are a bit shorter and just a hair faster. This will be the final workout that will improve your fitness for race day, but it’s important to finish this with a little gas in the tank. The workout is 6-10 repeats of 4 minutes each with 90 seconds easy jog between each repeat. The 4-minute repeats should start 5-10 seconds per mile slower than 10k pace and finish at or 5-10 seconds per mile faster than 10k pace.

Week 5: Race Pace

For the week of the race it’s important to stick with your normal routine, including doing something a little bit faster, albeit faster this week is nothing more than marathon pace. The idea with this workout is to engrain race pace in your legs and do something faster so you don’t feel stale on race day. The workout is 3 x 1 mile at marathon pace with a 3 minute easy jog between each repeat.

Use these workouts to add fitness heading into fall races and to build confidence as you see the paces pick up in the cooler fall weather!