Speed Workouts Between Marathons

There are 77 men in history who have broken 2:05 in the marathon. There are 75 men in history who have broken 3:50 in the mile. None of those men are on both of those lists. There are numerous reasons that club is so exclusive. Certainly many of those athletes never attempted to race the other distance. Regardless, the point is that the speed required to run a fast mile is not a prerequisite to run a fast marathon. However, including speed workouts between marathon training cycles helps improve running economy, prevents burnout, and can have a positive impact on performance.

It’s easy to get lulled into training for the next marathon with little variation from one to the next. I am a firm believer in routine and putting in the longer work for marathon training. It is imperative. But it is also important to change up your training stimulus some throughout the year. It’s common for many marathoners to run a spring marathon and a fall marathon as their two primary races of the year.

Time Between Marathons

The challenge many run into with that type of racing schedule is how to fill the time between those races. Rest is important and should be the first order of business after a marathon. However, 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. Although it’s one I’m not a huge fan of. For a runner who runs regularly, 20+ weeks is too long 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.

Structure of Workouts

A great way to maximize the time between marathons is to slowly build volume back and then spend a few weeks on shorter speed workouts. This change of pace improves running economy and keeps the legs fresh entering the final 12-14 weeks of marathon training.

The key to these speed workouts is to cap the faster portions at 2 minutes or less. This safe guards against introducing too much intensity in this early stage of preparation. It’s important to get in an easy warm-up run before attempting any of the workouts listed below. And remember, the goal is to 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.

Speed Workouts: Hills

Hill Repeats are the best way to introduce some faster work into your early marathon preparation. Uphill running, particularly quicker uphill running, provides a number of benefits. It reinforces proper running mechanics, builds strength in the hips, and helps to 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. Find a moderately steep hill, roughly 4-6% grade. 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.

Speed Workouts: Fartlek

Dan doing some speed workouts on the track.

Short Fartlek Runs 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/mile quicker than your 5k pace. Run the 90 seconds off 10-20 seconds/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 the target paces the same as the 45 / 90 workout. 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.

Speed Workouts: 400’s

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 finishing 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 refreshed and energetic when it comes time to put in those bigger marathon workouts and long runs.