The runners guide to making the marathon feel easy

I believe that one of the keys to unlocking success in the marathon, is training in a way that makes running at target marathon pace feel easy. Obviously there is a requirement to train for endurance, but the more that we can make marathon pace feel ‘easy’ the more likely we are to avoid crashing and burning! So that begs the question, how to make marathon pace feel easy? Well most of the runners I know believe that training at a pace that is quicker than marathon pace is the answer. Indeed on RunnersLife Ben Moreau wrote about the importance of ‘shorter stuff’

it’s good to add in some 5k/10k pace running just to stress different energy systems and also to reset your pace governance so that marathon pace ‘feels’ slow compared to the faster work

Some of the key aspects of my training now are sessions that involve running faster than marathon pace. This can take the form of threshold or tempo running (my coach Nick Anderson doesn’t really differentiate between the two for the vast majority of sessions) or faster stuff either on the track or in shorter races. Below I have outlined some examples based on my target marathon pace of 6 min/mile*

Example sessions

Threshold session – 75 minute run including 3 x 12 minutes at threshold pace with 3 minute jog recovery between (i.e. 15 minutes easy running to warm up then 3 sets of 12 minutes at threshold and 3 minutes jog recovery followed by 15 minutes easy running).

Hill session – Warm-up and drills then 10 minutes at threshold effort then 3 x 12 minutes continuous hills (90 seconds up, 90 seconds down) then 5 x 2 minutes hard on the flat

New River stadium where I do most of my track sessions

Track session – Warm-up and drills followed by 6 minutes at threshold pace then 2 x (6 x 400m) off reducing recovery with 2 minutes between sets. Then 20 minutes at marathon pace.

5km time-trial – Warm-up followed by 5km road or trail race (typically a Parkrun) followed by 3 x 10 minutes at threshold then cool-down

It is not revolutionary of course to build speed work into a marathon training programme, but it is not something that I used focus on particularly or if I did I had no idea why I was doing the faster stuff and what training benefit I was looking for. I recall doing hill sprints involving 20 seconds sprints up a hill followed by as much recovery jogging down as we wanted to take. Or sets of 200m sprints on the track. As coach Roy Benson says there is a “principle of specificity” which means that “if you want to develop a skill, you need to practice it exclusively” so when it comes to training for a marathon, the speed sessions should reflect the nature of the race distance.

This week’s track session

I still don’t pretend to understand all the science behind speed work (although I’m working on it!) but what I do know is that by doing sessions which develop a greater lactate threshold and increase VO2 max, we increase our capacity to operate comfortably at slower paces like marathon race pace. The proof of this was made starkly clear to me last night at the track.

After a pretty taxing session of 6 minutes’ threshold running and then 400m reps at faster than 5km pace off a reducing recovery, I set off for 20 minutes at marathon pace (6 min/mile for me) and I felt great! Despite actually going faster than target marathon pace (I was running at closer to 5:50 min/mile) I felt easy, light, in control and holding good form. I really felt that I could have kept going for much, much longer (although I was definitely in a depleted fuel state from not eating all that well during the day and the hard track session, so a gel or two would have been required to keep me going).

Suddenly I could visualise race day. I could tell how my body will feel after a taper period and with good fuel from the days before the race and the morning of the race. Add to that the excitement of race day and I can start to feel that my predicted pace will feel great. Well at least for the first 20 minutes!




* please note that these sessions are built into a plan from my coach and are in the context of the other training I am doing, so they shouldn’t necessarily be copied directly because your training is likely to differ from mine.

1 Comment

  1. I am not a scientist and there seems little point in repeating all the stuff I’ve read about speed work helping longer distances (including marathons) which makes so much sense but from my own experience incorporating speed work in my training each week definitely has a positive effect on all my running. Bearing in mind my advancing years, last year I managed to achieve significant pb times at every distance from 400 metres to 20 miles (six minutes faster – sadly I had an off-day for the marathon, but that’s another story) and a huge chunk of my improvement I’m sure is due to speed work and in that I include short distance races. The amount of time I have for training now compared to five-years ago is less, so it really matters that I make every session count.

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