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Speed and Specificity: How To Run A Faster Marathon

24 May

Me finishing Chicago Marathon
Creative Commons License photo credit: rbackowski

The minute you cross the marathon finish line, you are most likely consumed with a mixture of emotion and relief. You did it! After months of training, you put together a solid race and made it all the way to the finish line. As you struggle to get your chip off, pick up your medal, get changed and find your family, there’s one consistent and nagging thought that hits almost every finisher.

It’s the one thing that keeps us coming back to the 26.2 mile challenge. It’s the knowledge that we can always be faster. It’s not about being competitive runner, it’s part of the human condition. The good news is, your right — you can be faster. In this article we’ll cover the Principle of Specificity and give you insider tips on how to lay the foundation for a faster future marathon.

There are essentially two ways to improve your marathon time: get faster or race faster.

Racing faster, or race execution, is a critical part of anyone’s marathon toolkit. In fact, it’s really a topic unto itself. We’ve already talked about execution a little bit over here in terms of how it relates to the PRO System, but know the right plan can help any runner — regardless of fitness or ability level — run to their potential on race day. Just because you are a beginner doesn’t mean you have to race like one!

So how does one actually get faster? It’s a lot simpler than you might think…but nobody said it was easy.

The Fuzzy Math Problem
Most runners plan for a faster marathon by reverse engineering their desired race day performance into a long run training pace. Someone looking to go from a 3:45 to a 3:30 marathon will do the math to figure that they need to run about 8:00/mile pace on race day. Suddenly 8:00 miles becomes an internal benchmark for every run: How was was my 5 mile loop today? Can I do the hilly thursday run at 8:00 pace? What about my recovery runs?

As these folks move into more race specific training, they begin to pay closer attention to the overall pace of their longer runs. How close is it to 8:00 miles? Should I run a bit faster than than in training? Is a long run at 8:15s just as good?

This simple approach overlooks the significant difference between a 5-miler and a 20-miler both done at 8:00 pace. And let’s not forget the lack of a strategic build up of effort and duration could lead to some misplaced race day expectations.

Run Faster to Get Faster
There are lots of articles and opinions around critical workouts that make people faster. Some are good, others are purely science fiction. At the end of the day we know one thing for certain: you have to run faster to get faster. No amount of running 10:00 miles will make you better at running 9:00 miles on race day.

Of course, easier training runs done at 10:00/mile pace might be a part of your regimen, but they don’t constitute the bulk of the work you do to prepare for race day. But not just any old fast will do. Left to their own devices, most runners will overachieve in the fast department, digging a hole that impacts subsequent runs and could even potentially result in injury.

Focus Your Fast with Benchmarking
The PRO System approach uses a 5k test to eliminate the fuzzy math problem. No more “I think I can” seasons or dreamlining your next marathon by magically subtracting 15 minutes from your last finishing time. And just chasing faster people around a track every Tuesday is also less than ideal. Anyone can fake some really good intervals when the pressure is on, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

By plugging your run time into the PRO System you are not only benchmarking your current fitness, you are generating an approximation of your marathon potential. Your time from this test yields a vDOT score as based on Daniels’ Running Formula (2nd Edition). A legendary running coach in his own right, Daniels created his running formula to generate approximate training paces for different distances as based off of single testing value.

The critical value we want to know is your Threshold Pace. This is the given pace you can sustain for about a 10k (6.2 miles) up to an hour. Threshold pace is an effort you can hold for a substantial time, building fitness without triggering the need for significant recovery or impacting future workouts. Use this free calculator to generate your own vDOT score and threshold pace.

Build Your Fast, Then Add The Far
Now that we know what your threshold pace is, we can begin to add more work to your training plan. Just how much threshold work you can do depends on your current training cycle and the proximity of your next race. As a runner looking to get faster, you need to rethink your season, creating two main phases: Get Fast Phase and Go Far Phase.

Getting faster happens first, as this is the truly hard work of your season. This focus can happen any time up until the last 12 weeks of your marathon training cycle. During this phase, you will do three threshold workouts during the week. Two will be done as interval runs. The third session will be your long run, which includes some threshold running at the start before you dial the pace back to a more moderate effort. The remainder of your workouts will be skill or recovery oriented.

Adding far means more stress on your body, but it’s not a difficult phase. After all, countless runners simply add 10% more miles each week to build up their endurance. The critical difference here is that you want to hold onto your “fast” for as long as possible. You should make the switch to “add far” training when you hit the last 12 weeks of your marathon training program.

Since the primary focus of this phase is to extend your new fast pace to the full distance of the marathon, we cut your threshold intervals down to two limited workouts.

There’s the regular weekday interval session (which remains basically the same as before) and the long run. During the long run, we now start with a more appropriate long run or race specific pace, then add the threshold intervals at the end to test your mental and physical strength as race day approaches.

Sample Threshold Workouts:

  1. 8 x 1/2 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 2′ of rest after.
  2. 2 x 1 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 2′ of rest after.
  3. 2 x 1 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 4′ of rest after; then 2 x 1/2 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 2′ of rest after.

Sample Long Run Workouts:

  1. 6+ mile run as: 4 miles @ z1/LRP, 1 mile @ Z4 / TPace, 1 mile @ z1/LRP.
  2. 12+ mile run as: 10miles @ z1/LRP, last 2 miles at z4 / TPace.
  3. 14+ mile run as: 8 miles @ z1/LRP, then 3 x 1 miles @ Z4 / TPace. Each rep followed by 1 mile @ z1 / LRP.

Remember, being faster on race day is the result of quality training and good execution. Just going harder isn’t enough; test your fitness to ensure you are doing the right training and targeting the right race day goal. Once the gun goes off it’s all up to you!

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4 Responses to “Speed and Specificity: How To Run A Faster Marathon”

  1. Jamie April 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    So apparently I have been floundering around, just trying to get faster with no real training plan. I have run 2 marathons, both using the run/walk method. Marine Corps in 5:30, and Chicago in 5, but I want to get much faster. I just ran a half in 2:26 just running non stop, and barely made it through. I averaged 10 min miles until the last mile and then just about fell apart… Would love to finish my next marathon (October) in under 4, but I need a plan.

    The workouts listed above are a little confusing to me… z1/LRP? Z4/TPace? hat does all that mean? I guess I’m not even speaking the same language.

    Help?!?!?

  2. Patrick September 15, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    Brian –

    I think you should do 2 x threshold workouts for sure, and I’d pick the shorter ones for now given your race isn’t until February. I’d also keep that Sunday long run to no more than 90 minutes, and feel free to put some intensity in there too. So imagine running Wed/Fri/Sun as quality, with maybe an easy Tuesday effort in there to get loose. Wed+Friday would be 45 mins, all “work.” Sunday is 90-minutes max, as first half easy with some hard efforts at threshold (or at least tempo pace) in the second half. If you can find some fun 5k or 10k races to do, feel free to rip those as well. You’ll have plenty of time to add the volume later in your prep cycle! Good luck and keep us posted…

  3. brian September 14, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Coach Patrick,

    Sample Threshold Workouts:
    8 x 1/2 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 2′ of rest after.
    2 x 1 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 2′ of rest after.
    2 x 1 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 4′ of rest after; then 2 x 1/2 mile repeats at Threshold Pace, each with 2′ of rest after.

    Based on this plan to run 3 times a week, how many miles a week should I run. It doesn’t seem that many miles if I do 2 of the above per week. I am training for my second marathon (Pasadena, CA) for next Feb. I have been running (interval, hills, tempo) for around 30 miles a week. 4 or 5 miles on Tues, 6 miles on Wed, 8 miles on Friday, and have been running about 14 miles on Sundays. My actual training starts in early Nov with 1st week of 26 miles. Am I over-training and should I cut down to 3 times a week til Nov? I kind of feeling unmotivated/bored or perhaps worned out.

    Thank you in advance for your comment/advice.

  4. PRIMOZ JAZBEC August 11, 2010 at 7:58 am #

    very clear and precise suggesstion

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