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Marathon Speed Work That Works

29 March

Vancouver Sun Run 2006
Creative Commons License photo credit: kk+

The marathon is perhaps the most readily accessible human-powered challenge in all endurance sports. Successfully completing a 26.2 mile event is both a physical and mental accomplishment. Race day is, however, the result of months of training and hard work in preparation for a single attempt at the distance. As the miles and time spent training pile up, the changes of injury and fatigue increase exponentially. For many, this “hidden” part of the marathon equation proves to be the most challenging aspect.

Proper marathon training is more than just adding more miles each week until it’s time to taper. A quality program provides training stress in several ways, forcing your body to adapt (i.e. get fitter) without overloading it to the point of failure. One of the best ways to do this is also the most misunderstood: speed work.

This article will examine the value of speed work and the role it can play in your marathon training.

Fast is Misunderstood
There are many common misconceptions around speed work for marathon training. While including speed work is important, the typical marathon training program falls short in regards to being specific enough. Most marathon plans include some form of track work, with repeats ranging from quarter-mile (400s) up to one mile in duration. If you are fortunate enough to have a group to train with, you probably spend one day a week flying around the oval chasing the wicked fast folks. But to what end?

  • Without benchmarking your fitness, we have no context of what speed is for you. Chasing the fast folks simply becomes an end in and of itself instead of proper marathon preparation.
  • Run too fast and the work you’ll do won’t actually be aerobic; in other words it won’t be specific to the energy systems you need to train for race day.
  • Run too hard and you’ll earn too much stress…the fatigue means sub-optimal runs for the next few days.

Forget Speed, It’s About Threshold
Whether you are talking heart rate or pace, the concept of threshold states there’s a point of intensity at which our body switches from aerobic to anaerobic exercise. This point is also known as Lactate Threshold, as this level of intensity is also marked by an increase in the amount of lactic acid present in the blood.

You recognize this effort as marked by heavy breathing and a rapid decline in economy. Sub-threshold you can run for long periods of time; above threshold you are done (literally) in a matter of minutes. In layman’s terms the effort you put out for a 10k race is pretty comparable to your running threshold.

In-depth scientific arguments aside, training at or just under threshold is still aerobic (and therefore marathon-specific), will super-threshold efforts are anaerobic in nature and not complimentary.

Grand Unifying Theory
Inside Marathon Nation we solve the “speed for speeds sake” problem by connecting the speed work you are doing to regular benchmark runs. We start your training with a 5k test run. We then leverage Daniels’ vDOT score, part of his Running Formula, to determine your actual threshold running pace for training.

This resultant pace, based off of your tested fitness and not a randomly selected goal marathon time, is your goal repeat effort for the track workouts. Want to run faster? Then you have to earn the right to do so by demonstrating an improved test result.

We also use this vDOT score to determine your best case scenario marathon finish time, as well as appropriate training paces for the rest of your runs. This ensures that a long run’s effort is as properly correlated to your marathon goals as your speed work.

How To Do Speed Work Right

  • Test & Implement — The 5k distance is just long enough to get a decent result without crushing you in training.
  • Pick Manageable Intervals — Start with threshold work in the 5-minute range. You can eventually build up to 15-minutes as your fitness improves. All work should be done with 25% recovery (distance) or 50% recovery (by time)
  • Use Appropriately —  1-2 workouts per week of this type of effort is more than sufficient. It can be two tempo runs or an interval session plus a long run with a tempo finish. Regardless, remember that recovering from this type of work is just as, if note more important, than the work itself.
  • Transition To Race Specific — The closer to your goal race the more race-specific your workouts should become. Keep the intervals short and to a single session, driving the rest of your hard efforts into the tempo finish runs.

All of your training exists to create stress on your body; your body responds to this stress by getting fitter. Don’t get sucked into heading to the track because everyone else is, or worse yet, into chasing a marathon time that’s out of your league. Make running fast both fun and effective by doing the right type of hard work this marathon season.

[insert closing text from marathon nation here]

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