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The Marathon Secret: Your Skill Run, aka It’s Not All Endurance

18 August

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sukanto Debnath

The marathon is a true test of endurance that requires physical and mental strength for success. But it takes a great deal more than just fitness to get your body from the start to finish. A great marathon requires consistent training with minimal to no injuries. It requires you to be able to merge long run training with quality intervals. And it demands that you are able to recover quickly especially during the final build to your race. Each of these elements might seem unique, but they all have one thing in common: great running form.

Running is one thing, but to do it well is something else and to sustain it for 26.2 miles is another story altogether. Inside Marathon Nation, all of our training plans are built to emphasize quality, not quantity, of training. Poor running form can lead to injury, additional stress on your body, and reduce your ability to use your fitness over time. You must develop–and maintain–good running form if you are going to realize your long-distance running potential.

Marathon Training Slows You (& Wears You) Down

Summary: Lots of long, slow (or steady) running really wears down your ability to run well. Think about it: most of your long runs incur fatigue, reducing your ability to run well. This fatigue lasts beyond that single session, bleeding into other weekly runs. Your solitary goal for these runs is to go farther, not faster. This means pacing yourself physically and mentally; part of that pacing is reduced expectations around the quality of your run as you focus on the quantity…more time and more miles. There are many consequences of running with poor form, the least of which is not realizing your potential.


  1. Shin Splints & Other Maladies: Overuse injuries are some of those common among marathon runners. For many of us, marathon training represents a huge leap in the amount of running we are doing, and as such our bodies struggle to adapt to the new workload as well as the effects of all the running on our bodies.
  2. Forcing Additional Recovery: Lots of running means lots of pounding on our bodies. The more inefficient we become with our stride, the more work it takes to run. The more work it takes to run, the harder each individual session — and our training week – becomes. The harder our week becomes, the more we have to recover from it. Few of us have the time required to recover from our running on the most basic levels, leading to a sub-optimal vicious training cycle.

A Diverse Training Program Really Makes A Difference
One of the primary ways we work on running form inside Marathon Nation is through workout variety. By incorporating intervals and hill workouts almost throughout the entire training cycle, our training plans challenge your body without overloading it through volume.

These workouts encourage the development of fast twitch fibers (intervals) and leg strength (hills), both of which are critical components of good running form. We even include intervals in our long runs, as a means of both building critical race fitness but also to remind your body of what it’s like to run fast.

And we have one more solution, one of the critical Four Pillars of marathon training: a skill run.

Strides: The Skill Solution
You might already be in a training program, or maybe you are just looking for a little help. Regardless, don’t let all of the above get you down — all is not lost. You can maintain great run form even during the onslaught of miles of the typical marathon build up cycle by placing emphasis on proper running form by adding Strides both to your weekly routine but also at the end of your longer, slower runs.

The Stride Workout: Once or twice each week go to a grassy park or other soft-surface area. Find a straight are that is flat to slightly downhill. Run at faster than 5k race pace for 30 right-foot steps. Your time for 30 steps should be 18 to 20 seconds. Walk back to the start point after each one. Do five to eight stride repeats in a single session.

What Do Strides Do For You?

  1. Strides Improve Your Cadence (aka Turnover): One of the first casualties to marathon training is our stride. A longer, inefficient stride means more heel striking and less speed. Strides force you to focus your foot speed at the end of long run (or just when tired), helping you to stimulate those run faster muscles.
  2. Strides Let You Run Faster More Frequently: So many times we look to intervals or track work as the means of attaining speed. But within a marathon program you are typically working hard enough already. Instead of adding more work, doing strides will allow you to do some fast twitch muscle training without deepening the fatigue you are experiencing.

How to Add Strides to Your Program
There are a few easy ways to make sure you get the maximum benefit from strides, regardless of your training program. As with any advice, start slowly and see what works for you. Only you will know the difference; that said give strides about a four-week try to see if the benefits really show up for you.

  • First, be sure to wrap up any long run with at least five stride repeats. Yes, this means even that two hour, forty five minute slog fest. In fact that’s when it’s most critical to end the run with a fast and light feeling.
  • Second, make one of your lighter runs focused entirely on strides. Run to warm up for about 15 minutes, do your strides, then run mindfully home for a high-quality run of about 45 minutes.
  • Third, consider making strides part of your warm up routine for your interval or track session.
  • Summary: Not All Runs Are Created Equal
    Most marathoners simply run. They lace up their shoes, pick a distance and go there and back. They focus on mileage and count all time spent training as one lump sum. Regardless of your race day goals, staying healthy and running well are two critical components of any successful marathon training campaign. Best of luck to you in your training and please share your “strides” experience with us in the comments!

    Author Postscript: I specifically didn’t mention any particular “schools” of running technique in this post. There are several and each has their own particular rabid following — there is no one way. At the end of the day I think the right method is the one that works for YOU. I encourage you to review them all to find your personal inflection point:

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