The Perfect Training Guide for Marathon Prep

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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The Perfect Training Guide for Marathon Prep

Whether you’re training for your first marathon or your 40th, getting your training plan just right can be an ongoing challenge. You need to stay healthy, build up your mileage, incorporate specific pace work and try not to lose your leg turnover and speed all at the same time.

Daunting? Perhaps. But a well-thought out plan, such as MapMyRun’s Premium Training Plans, can incorporate all of these elements and help you run a strong marathon.

In order to prepare effectively for the 26.2-mile journey, there are several essential types of workouts to include in your training. They can vary in length and intensity depending on your experience level, but all of them will get you to the starting line feeling well-prepared, and maybe even help you earn a new PR.

1. Be Specific: Long Runs with Marathon-Pace Miles

When it comes to marathons, long runs form the backbone of a training plan. Long runs should be part of your weekly training, with an optional reduced mileage cutback week scheduled every 3–4 weeks. Early in the season, you can afford to do long runs at an easy effort. But as you get closer to race day, it’s important to include some marathon-specific pace work.

Unfortunately, many runners neglect the principle of specificity in their training. That may sound wonky, but it’s a pretty simple concept: During your training, you need to practice exactly what you plan to do on race day. If you only run your long runs at an easy pace, your body won’t be adequately prepared to handle a faster goal pace for 26.2 miles.

The simplest way to incorporate marathon pace training into your long runs is to finish with several miles at goal marathon pace. If you are relatively new to marathon training, start with 2–3 miles at your goal pace once you have already established some solid base training.

As you gain fitness and get further along in your training plan, you can continue to increase the number of GMP miles at the end of your run. More experienced runners can run the last half of their long run, or approximately 10 miles, at goal pace.

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2. Improve Your Stamina: Tempo Workouts

No matter what type of race you’re training for, tempo runs should be part of your plan. First, let’s clarify exactly what a “tempo run” means, since this term often gets interpreted in a variety of ways.

There are three common definitions for tempo runs:

  1. “Comfortably hard.” If you’re an experienced runner who’s used to running by feel, this definition may work well for you. Your pace should feel more challenging than just “moderate” but not quite pushing into the “hard” zone.
  2. The pace you could race for an hour. For many, this translates into a pace just slightly slower than their 10K race pace.
  3. 85–90% of your maximum heart rate. If you frequently train using a heart-rate monitor, this is an easy way to calculate your tempo effort.

Tempo runs can take a variety of forms, but the type you’ll most commonly use during marathon training is a lactate threshold run. Your lactate threshold is the point at which your body is starting to accumulate lactate, but you’re still able to clear it from your system.

Run faster than this, and you’ll no longer be running aerobically. Fatigue will accumulate quickly, similar to how you might feel at the end of a short, hard race. The key to gaining the most benefit from these runs is to stay right on the edge of your lactate threshold.

Since lactate threshold has a direct correlation with endurance and fitness, these workouts are an excellent indicator of race performance. Tempo runs are challenging both mentally and physically, and they will help teach you to hold a strong pace even when you’re fatigued. Performed regularly, tempo runs are particularly effective at improving your overall stamina.

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3. Maintain Your Speed & Turnover: Strides, Hills & Fartleks

During marathon training, your focus will typically move away from interval-type workout sessions to focus on greater mileage and endurance-oriented workouts such as those described above. But maintaining speed, good form and turnover are still important parts of running your best marathon. Fortunately, there are several easy ways to incorporate these into your training and still have time for long runs and tempo workouts.

One of the easiest ways to maintain some light speed work is with strides. These are simply accelerations at the end of an easy run. You’ll start at an easy pace, build to about 95% maximum speed, and then gradually slow back down over approximately 100 meters. Strides are a simple concept, but they’ll help loosen you up after an easy run, reinforce good running form and efficiency and prepare you for faster running.

Hills are often referred to as “speedwork in disguise,” and this is especially true when it comes to hill sprints. Hill sprints (as opposed to longer hill repeats) should last about 8–10 seconds but should be run at maximum speed. Allow to yourself to recover fully in between repeats with about 2 minutes of walking. Like strides, hill sprints should feel challenging without creating a significant amount of fatigue. They should also be performed as close to the end of your run as possible and limited to 6–10 repetitions.

Finally, structured fartlek intervals are another way to incorporate some speed during marathon training, especially when used during longer runs. These are timed intervals with specific rest periods, usually run around 5K pace or slightly faster. When used during the middle of a long run, they’re similar to strides in how they can improve your running form and efficiency, especially when you’re beginning to feel fatigued.

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Training for a marathon is a significant undertaking, and performing your best requires a balancing act of a variety of workouts. By incorporating specific long runs, tempo workouts and supplementary speed sessions, you’ll head to the starting line of your next marathon ready to perform your best.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.

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