Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Understanding Your Marathon Training (Part 3)

Well, here I am bouncing down the highway heading to Kentucky for this weekend's trail marathon (more on that in a later post). I promised this final post midweek, so I thought I would get this out to you on the drive. 

This post will cover the remaining types of workouts you are likely to see in an advanced marathon training program. If you have not read the previous two posts of the series, you may want to see Part 1 or Part 2. This post focuses on  interval training, marathon paced runs, and strides.

Interval Training:  Most intermediate and advanced marathon trainings, in addition to the lactate threshold workouts, include some type of interval training. Interval training works on developing your maximum aerobic capacity, the VO2 max.

Interval training involves a period of fast running followed by a period of recovery. The speed, distance, and amount of recovery will vary by program and workout. This is what most runners would think of as a typical "track" workout, but intervals can be run on almost any flat course.  A measured course is best, but you can really do them anywhere with today's GPS technology on our wrists.

Many runners mistake this type of training for running "all out." This often leads to running the interval workouts too hard, which besides not training the appropriate systems also greatly increases the chances of injury. Going "all out,"will exceed your maximum aerobic capacity and push you into an anaerobic state. That is too be avoided.

According to Pete Pfitzinger, the correct pace for running the interval workouts for marathon training is 3k to 5k race pace. However, since most of us don't run 3k races, it is best to run these at about your current 5k race pace. Pfitzinger and Daniels disagree slightly on the optimal time for the duration of the faster runs, with Pfitzinger saying 2 to 6 minutes is optimal and Daniels saying that the optimal duration is 3 to 5 minutes, but the difference is probably not that significant.

What is significant to note is the distance that these time frames permit. Although mile repeats are often a part of marathon programs, unless your current 5k pace is a sub 6 minute mile, you will be running for too long according to either of the two recommendations for optimal training.  Daniels and Pfitzinger both recommend that the distances be between 400 and 1200 meters for the fast running portions of these workouts, depending on your current running speed.  

One of the drawbacks of working with a predetermined program rather than having a coach is that you, as a self-coach, need to think about these things and adjust the program so that what you are doing is optimal training for you. If your 5k pace is slower than 6 min/mile, you should not be doing mile repeats as part of the marathon program, according to  both of the experts. If your program calls for mile repeats, you may want to adjust it down to 800/1000/1200 meters instead to stay within what most experts agree is optimal.

The rest between these bouts of faster running can also vary. The idea is to recover enough so that you can maintain your effort for the next one and also be able to complete the required number of repetitions in the workout.  Daniels recommends that recovery time be "equal to or a little less than" the bout of faster running. Generally your program will specify the recovery time.

Most marathon programs put a small number of these workouts into the program, often in the last several weeks before the taper. Too much of this type of workout can take a toll on your body and increase your risk of injury. Be very conservative with your interval workouts.  It is much better to be conservative with the pace and number and make it to the starting line, than it is too push too hard and be injured and on the sidelines for your intended marathon.

I may not make any friends with this one, but I want to warn you against group speed work. Many marathoners decide they need to run some intervals in their program, so they jump in with a local track club or other speed group. Often these groups are primarily 5k runners working on their 5k speed rather than marathoners. The tendency in these types of workouts is to run them too fast and to not run the type of intervals that are optimal for marathon training.  In addition, most group speed sessions have a predetermined workout that is not what your marathon program called for that day.  

Often these forays into group speed work in the midst of a marathon training program bring a rush of immediate satisfaction as the runner gets the boost in speed that these workouts do tend to impart, but then a few weeks later they often find themselves injured from the stress of running these too fast and intense speed workouts and then trying to also handle the stress of the mileage of the marathon training. If you are marathon training, do yourself a favor and follow your plan. Save those group speed work sessions for when pushing back your 5k PR is your primary goal.

Marathon Pace Runs: Many intermediate or advanced marathon programs will include some workouts, especially in the later stages, that are marathon paced runs. These are runs at your goal marathon pace to get you used to running comfortably at that pace. These are also an opportunity to work on your pacing. These runs actually should require more mental than physical effort, as your marathon pace should be one that you can sustain comfortably, literally for hours.

Most marathon training programs that include these will have you work up to 10 to 15 miles at marathon pace. Sometimes these are done on the down weekends between stretching out the long runs. Other programs may incorporate marathon paced segments at the end of the long run. Still others may call for a midweek medium distance run at marathon pace. What these all have in common is that they give you a chance to be comfortable with your marathon pace and practice the pacing. Resist the temptation to run these faster, even if you feel really, really good.

These marathon runs can also help you understand if you have picked a reasonable goal pace for your marathon. If you are struggling to complete a 12 mile run at marathon pace and the workout leaves you wiped out, then you may have chosen a goal pace that you are not yet ready for. These runs can help you figure out what is really doable and allow you to make adjustments.

Strides or Stride Outs: Most intermediate to advanced marathon programs will include strides. Strides are short (usually 100 meter or about 30 seconds) segments where your goal is to run quick but relaxed. You should be concentrating on quick strides and turnover.  Strides are a neuromuscular workout that help with running economy, stride rate, and running form. Be sure that you are sufficiently warmed up before doing these.

My first coach used to have me do these strides barefoot to work on form and to build the muscles in my feet and lower legs. I don't know if it is because I learned that way, but that is still my favorite way to do strides. I have also done strides in my socks and in aqua socks. One of the happiest part of spring running for me is when I can get out on the grass in my bare feet to do some strides.

This is a rather simplified explanation of the typical runs that are most often included in intermediate and advanced programs. If you are the type of person who is really not interested in an in-depth discussion, this may be enough for you to understand your program a bit more or to choose a program from those available that is based on sound principles. If you are the type who would like to read more, there are several good training books. The two I recommended in the previous post, Daniels' Running Formula and Advanced Marathoning by Pfitzinger and Douglas are two of the bests in my opinion. With that said, I will tell you that I prefer Pfitzinger and Douglas. 

This may seem like a lot to have gone through, but I think the more a runner knows about what he/she is doing, the more successful he/she is likely to be. Hopefully some of this information can help you as you move on to your next marathon success!! 

Now that we have talked a little about the programs, I'd love to hear from you. Are you training for a marathon or have you in the past? What program are you using (or did you use)?  What do you think of it? 


  1. I just wanted to add the I love this series. I am looking at my first marathon in 9 weeks, and these were encouraging and helpful.

  2. I am glad that you liked the series. I have picked up some new information about lactate threshold training in a new book I am reading now on Running Science. I will be posting soon with some alternative workouts for LT training that you might like to try. Good luck with your first marathon preparation. Which one are you running?


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