Speed Workouts Between Marathons

As of 2018 there were only 4 runners in US history who had broken 4:00 for the mile and 2:10 for the marathon. To put that into perspective, there are 594 who have broken 4:00 for the mile and 25 sub-2:10 marathoners. There are numerous reasons that club is so exclusive. Certainly many of those sub-4 and sub 2:10 athletes never attempted to race the other distance. But the point is, the speed required to run a fast mile is not a prerequisite to running a fast marathon. However, mixing in some speed workouts between marathon training cycles helps improve running economy, prevents burnout and staleness, and can have a positive impact on performance.

Speed Workouts for Variance

Tristin doing a speed workout.

It is easy to get lulled into the rhythm of constantly training for the next marathon. And with that can result in little variation from training cycle to training cycle. I am a firm believer in routine and putting in the longer work for marathon training. However, it is important to change up your training stimulus some throughout the year. It is common for 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 time between those races. Rest is important 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. For a runner who runs regularly that length of time is too long to spend in marathon training. The pattern of constantly training for the next marathon can lead to burnout both mentally and physically. A 20 week + buildup for a well trained runner will often lead the athlete to being stale and tired by race day.

Shorten the Build-Up to Maximize Results

The best way to maximize the time between marathons is to build your volume and then spend a few weeks running some shorter workouts. This change of pace improves running economy and keeps the legs fresh entering the final 12 weeks of marathon training where you want to focus is on marathon specific training. The key to these workouts is to keep the faster portions relatively short so the intensity isn’t too high early in the training cycle.

It is important to get in an easy warm-up run before attempting any of the workouts listed below. Remember for each of them, 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

Hills are the best way to introduce some faster work into your early marathon preparation. 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. As you progress you can work up to 8-10 repeats of 60 seconds in length. Find a moderately steep hill of around 4-6%. As you run up, 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.

Fartlek Runs as Speed Workouts

Short 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. Run the 45 second pieces at or 5-10 seconds per mile quicker than your 5k pace and the 90 seconds off 10-20 seconds per mile slower than your normal easy day pace.

This workout is a good opportunity to focus on good form. 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 similar target paces. The most demanding version that is appropriate for this transition window is 6-10 sets of 2 minutes on / 1 minute off. For this workout run the 2 minutes at roughly 5k pace and the 1 minute very slowly.

Tempo 400’s

This 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 progressing throughout. 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 shorter speed workouts to your training 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.