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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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16 Responses to “Marathon Speed Work That Works”

  1. zach March 5, 2011 at 7:30 am #

    I enjoyed reading this a lot and I really hope to read more of your posts in the future, so I’ve bookmarked your blog. But I couldn’t just bookmark it, oh no.. When I see quality website’s like this one, I like to share it with others So I’ve created a backlink to your site (from my website, and don’t worry it is a do-follow one) you can see it here if you want to: Anyways I hope you keep up the fantastic work!

  2. Patrick September 3, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Matt, that’s a killer improvement! Remember that a rising tide lifts all boats…faster at threshold means you’ll be faster at your long run / marathon pace as you go. Keep up the good work!

    ~ Patrick

  3. matthew September 3, 2010 at 4:26 am #

    Couldnt agree more. Ive been using the threshold run idea for 5 months now. Ive seen some dramatic improvement. Ive gone form a 830 pace to a 800 pace.

  4. Patrick June 29, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    @Sam – We use the 5k vDOT score to personalize each workout’s pacing for athletes who are on the Team via their training plans. That said, we won’t be publishing any workouts or plans here to the blog on a consistent basis. Thanks!

  5. John Valente June 27, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Thanks for the speed work tips. It makes a “lot of sense” and is what I have been lacking. I will incorporate in my training for the disney marathon.

  6. SamK June 27, 2010 at 1:24 am #

    Will you be posting or offering these types of workouts specifically for each person’s ability and race goal?

  7. Joe Garland April 27, 2010 at 12:28 am #

    I posted the following comment on the NYCRuns site:

    It’s difficult to have a single post that adequately describes the building blocks of a successful training regime, for any race distance. How does one mix the three elements of speedwork that Jack Daniels discusses, those of repeats, intervals, and threshold runs, each of which has its own purpose, own pace, own distance, and own recovery. (This post seems to use “interval” and “threshold” interchangeably when they mean completely different things.)

    Anyone interested in becoming a runner, or, better, a racer, will do well to pick up a good training book. Not for the training schedules per se but for the stuff in the beginning, which explains the basic principles of training and all the various types of workouts. Daniels’ Running Formula is one of the most well-regarded. It costs under $20. The formula simply takes a recent race result of any distance as a proxy for fitness and translates it into appropriate paces for all the various types of workouts, from repeats to easy runs and has different approaches for different target races, from 5K to the marathon (since a marathoner should not be doing the same workouts as is a 5Ker).

    The key to successful training, as this piece suggests, is stepping back and understanding how things work and figuring out the best way to get where you want to go.

  8. Patrick April 23, 2010 at 1:21 am #

    A –

    Great question. You want to run the 5k such that you want to stop at about the 2.5 mile mark but can get it done for that last 1/2 mile (and a bit). I personally run the first mile slightly conservative relative to my goal time / pace. For example, if I want to run an 21:00 5k, I need to put in about 6:45 minute miles. I would do the first mile at about 6:50, second at 6:45, then let it rip. Good luck!

  9. agh April 22, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Hello, sorry if this is a daft question, but how should I run the 5k test-run? I understand “as fast as I could”, even if at times touching the anaerobic threshold, but would like this confirmed.
    Thanks a lot,

  10. physician assistant April 11, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  11. Annette LeDuc April 9, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    Thank you for your comments. This 5:15 marathon runner would like to run a 5:00 again. I got tired of chasing faster runners on the track each week and I found it just did nothing for my running times at all. Your approach sounds much more sane. Annette


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