Whether you’ve run one marathon or 20, chances are you have a goal common to many other runners. You want to improve your marathon time.
I ran my first marathon, in Honolulu, in 4:10. After that, my time actually went up to 4:25 in my fourth marathon, then gradually came down until I set my personal record of 3:16:38 at the St. George Marathon, an improvement of over an hour, or about two minutes and 20 seconds per mile.
Before you read on you need to know this: It was hard. I’m not going to lie, the training was hard and the racing was hard. If you want to improve your marathon time, you need to commit yourself to the training, push yourself beyond your comfort zone, find the strength inside you that will help you carry on, even when most people would stop, slow down, give up.
Are you still with me? Good. One more thing, though. This is not a workout for beginners or for first time marathoners unless you have a solid base of racing behind you. Everyone’s results will be different. This training won’t necessarily make you a 3:16 marathoner, but if you follow the program, stay healthy, and commit, you will improve your marathon time.
I’m not going to break this into a week by week program. I will make suggestions for workouts, define some training terms and break each aspect of training into separate sections with tips on individual workouts and ideas of how the workouts will fit in your marathon training plan. I’ll be happy to answer any questions that you may have in the comments.
When I trained for the St. George Marathon, I took about 16 weeks to train. At my starting point, I had just completed a marathon, taken a couple weeks of recovery, so I was in pretty good shape at the beginning. You may need more time based on your current fitness levels.
8 Tips that will Improve Your Marathon Time
1. Weekly Mileage
My weekly mileage was about 55-60 miles by the time I started my taper. While that may sound like a lot to some, it is moderate by marathon training standards. And remember that was the highest point in my training. Be wise when increasing your mileage. Use the 10% rule to avoid injury: Increase your daily running distance by no more than 10% per day, and your total distance by no more than 10% per week.
2. The Long Run
My long runs were epic. When I was training for St. George, my longest run was 27 miles. This worked for me, because each time I ran a long run, my lungs, meaning my exercise induced asthma, seemed to adapt to the longer distance and I was able to avoid the breathing problems. It worked for me, but it may not be necessary for you. I would suggest a maximum long run of about 23 miles.
My format for long runs was to increase the mileage for three weeks in a row, then, in the fourth week cut back the mileage (by about 25%) but run faster. For example, one of my favorite cutback week workouts is to divide the distance into thirds. For the first third of the run, do it about 30 seconds slower than your goal marathon time. For the second third, run at your goal pace. Finally, for the last third, run at 30 seconds faster than your goal pace.
I also liked to fit in a bit of marathon pace running within a regular long run, generally toward the latter part of the run. Long runs are usually quite a bit slower that your race pace, so picking up when you are tired is a challenge, but also trains your body to push through that tiredness. Even two or three miles at race pace will have positive effects.
3. The Second Long(est) Run
During the course of the week, with a couple days separating it from the long run, I would do a run that I gradually built up to about 12 miles. Because it was during the work week, that meant I had to get up and be running by 4:30 in the morning. Refer to above: “It is hard.” If you want it you do it.
Within this second longest run, I would add one of my speedwork sessions, usually either hills or a tempo run (see below for details of the speed workouts). As an alternative to adding speedwork, a marathon pace workout, running the entire distance of your second longest run at your goal race pace, is an excellent way for your body to learn what your race pace should feel like.
4. Speed Workouts
For this post, I am lumping together all the different speed workouts that I did during my training (including hills, because as we all know, hills are just speedwork in disguise~Frank Shorter). I would do two speed workouts a week, varying them to keep it interesting, gradually increasing either the intensity or the distance of the workout.
Hill Workouts: There are many ways to do hill workouts. If you live in a hilly area, simply run your regular route, but instead of slowing down on the uphills, push yourself up and over. The distance for this type of workout will vary as your running distances increase but try to push for two to five miles during the course of your run.
Another hill workout, if you live in a flat landscape like me, is to find a hill that has about a 6% to 12% grade, and long enough that you run up for 30-90 seconds. Do 4-8 repeats, starting at the low end at the beginning of your training and increasing both the number of repetitions and the distance as you advance. Push yourself, but you don’t have to go all out. The incline makes the workout.
Tempo Runs: Another term for Lactate Threshold runs, these workouts are great to help you run farther faster. They are run at a pace just below the point at which your body can no longer process the lactic acid that is building up, which makes you have to slow down. Tempo runs help you increase your lactate threshold, and thus improve your stamina.
In my training, I would do my tempo workouts within my second longest run. I built them up to six-eight miles of running at my half marathon pace, about 25 seconds per mile faster than my goal marathon pace. That is quite a long distance for a tempo run, which is usually around three to four miles, but since it is specific to marathon training it is a little slower.
Track/Interval Workouts: Track workouts are all about speed. They are run at a faster pace than tempo runs, and because you are on a track you can focus simply on yourself, your pace, your gait, your breathing. The two workouts I did the most during my training were mile repeats and Yasso 800s.
Mile repeats are simply four times around the track, run at about your 10k pace. Start with 2-3, build up to 5-6. Recover from each repeat with a 400-meter jog. (Remember to warm up for about a mile before you turn on your speed switch.)
Yasso 800s can be used as a marathon time predictor, or as workout in itself. Here’s how you do it: take your goal marathon time and translate it to minutes. For example, my goal time was 3 hours and 20 minutes, so my 800 time should be 3 minutes and 20 seconds. After the warm up, I’d pace myself and run my 800 meters as close to 3:20 as possible, then recover by jogging for the same amount of time, 3:20. Do this as many times as possible (I think I topped out at 10). Some say Yassos are a bit optimistic as a marathon time predictor, but it is still a great workout.
This is not a workout but is as important as one to help you improve your marathon time. When I was training for the St. George Marathon, I ran six days a week. On that rest day, I really rested. The body needs time to recover so that it can get stronger. During this very challenging training, you may need another day off from time to time. My suggestion is to take it. Listen to your body. If you feel tired or sore, it’s trying to tell you something. Listen.
Tapering also relates to rest because it is the time prior to your race that you will cut back on your mileage and allow your body to recover and get strong so that you can toe the line at your race fresh and ready to go. Do not be afraid of the taper. You will not lose your fitness.
I prefer a two-week taper, meaning I would run my last long run two weeks before my race. Some folks prefer a three-week taper. After my last long run, I would basically reduce the mileage on all my runs by about 30% the first week of the taper. One week before the race, I would cut my long run distance by 50%. The final week would start at about a six-mile run, then a little less each day, taking the last one or two days completely off or just taking a short jog to get the blood flowing.
As for intensity, the first week of the taper I kept in two speed workouts but reduced the total distance by about 50%. During the first part of the final week, I did a short tempo run, picking it up to marathon pace for two or three miles.
7. Nutrition and Hydration
If you want your body to give you everything you want, you need to feed it right. Your body is your automobile and your food is your fuel. Give it the best that you can.
I always made a training schedule when I was planning my marathon program. Starting from day one, all the way until race day, I had the whole thing planned out and I tried to stick to it as much as possible. While the distances and intensities increased, a one week chunk of my schedule basically looked like this:
Monday: Easy day (depending on where I was in training and how I was feeling, my easy days ranged from three to eight miles at a moderate pace.
Tuesday: Second longest run/tempo
Wednesday: Easy day
Thursday: Track Workout
Friday: Easy day
Saturday: Long run
(Sometimes Saturday and Sunday got switched, but that still works. I do like running the long run on Saturday because you then get the rest of the weekend to recover, rehydrate, and refuel.)
In my next post, I will discuss race day strategy, again drawing from my own experience (and my strategy wasn’t perfect so you can learn from my mistakes).
If you are interested in a more personalized program, I do offer individualized coaching. Please see my coaching page for more information.
Disclaimer: While I am a personal trainer and a coach, I am writing the story of my training and what worked for me. Only you know your body and you should work within the range of your fitness and capabilities.
Any questions? Are you training for a marathon right now? Trying to qualify for Boston? Just set a PR?
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