Three practical tips you can use to improve at the marathon distance
It’s marathon training season. With races such as London Marathon, Berlin Marathon, and New York City Marathon scheduled for October and November – June, July, and August are key months for training. There is a wealth of information on the internet about marathon training from free training plans to articles on the best workouts you need to do. After 14 years of coaching, I’ve realized marathon training is complex and highly individual. You need to find what works for you. With that said, there are some key tips that often go unspoken. Here are three tips that will help you nab your next marathon PR.
1. High mileage training works but there’s a good chance it’s not the best choice for you.
Often talked about is how much professional marathon runners run in a week. Most being at least 100 miles per week. We also tend to fixate on the running friends who run the most distance in training. It’s never a good idea to model one’s training based on what someone else does. Let me demonstrate the danger in this.
Athlete A is a 25-year-old professional marathon runner. She started running competitively at the age of 12 and has been training consistently for 13 years now slowly increasing her weekly mileage. She earns enough money from sponsorships and race earnings to train and race full-time. She is not married and has no children.
Athlete B is a 45-year-old recreational marathon runner who started running at the age of 39. She ran half marathons for the first 3 years and in the last two years has stepped up to the marathon distance. She works full-time as an accountant and has two school-aged children. Athlete B has less experience running and more commitments that demand time and energy away from her run training. The weekly mileage for these two athletes should and must be vastly different.
One research study I conducted for my PhD looked at training load in 19 marathon runners (see table 6.3.1). They were competitive recreational athletes. Their weekly running mileage was extremely varied and only three out of the 19 athletes had mileage over 100 km per week. Weekly mileage ranged from 45 – 106 km per week with an average of 69 km per week.
Adequate mileage is a key component in endurance training, but you need to determine what mileage you can consistently maintain without suffering training setbacks or injuries.
2. The Long Slow Distance run will only get you so far
To achieve success at the marathon distance, you will need to include your goal marathon race pace within your training. This becomes more important the closer the race gets. If you did all your long runs at an easy intensity, race day will be a shock to the system. However, you certainly don’t want to run all your long runs at race pace. It should be carefully planned with your specific needs in mind as well as periodizing the key workouts, so you are in peak form at the desired time. There are three key workouts that I find beneficial to marathon training:
- 5 km time trial or race
Endurance runners often refer to the 5 km distance as a sprint, and don’t see the value in including races of this distance in their marathon preparation. However, from a physiological standpoint any race distance that takes you more than 2.5 minutes is predominantly aerobic in its demands. Your 5 km race time can help you predict your marathon race potential. Also, racing at intensities higher than your marathon pace can help improve your paces at longer distances.
- 20 km run at goal marathon pace
About six to eight weeks before marathon race day, a key workout includes a 20 km run at goal marathon pace. Besides offering an opportunity to run at goal race pace for an extended time, it also is a great session to practice race nutrition at race intensity. A good substitute for this session is a half marathon race where you run at goal marathon pace or slightly faster.
- 150 – 180 minute run with marathon pace work
The longest run with race pace work should ideally be anywhere from three to five weeks before race day. Approximately 25 – 33% of the running duration should be spent at roughly 10 seconds faster per km than goal marathon pace. Proper fueling is another key component of this workout.
3. Race day nutrition is your secret weapon
Perhaps you nailed all your run training in preparation for the marathon, but if you don’t have a good nutrition plan for race day you will not race to your potential. Taking in nutrition during a marathon will help you run at your desired pace for longer. We wrote a previous blog about how to fuel your long run.
The race day figure below is an example of what an athlete took in during his marathon race. He recorded what he took for nutrition and at what time points in the race he ate or drank. In the left side of the figure in the gray area we calculated his nutritional intake for each hour of the race. It ranged from 205 – 234 calories per hour and 33 – 52 grams of carbohydrate per hour. In the second figure we compared his intake to recommended intake based on research. We can see that he did fall within the recommended ranges of intake for calories per hour (180 – 260) and carbohydrate (30 – 90). It is important to note the wide range in recommended intake, and this is simply because physiology is variable depending on the individual.
Intake will vary depending on weather, race terrain, and exercise intensity. In addition, each individual will have unique GI tolerances.