By pushing themselves progressively farther and faster, runners of all levels can reach performances they never dreamed possible. – The Competitive Runner’s Handbook
If you are like me, I ran my first marathon with the general goal of finishing. I had done my training guided by a 12-week, easy-to-follow guide that had me running unfocused miles. At the time this simple regimen was OK because I wanted so badly to complete the 26.2 mile distance, no matter how long it took.
On race day I ran the entire marathon stride for stride with my husband and had a huge smile on my face as we crossed the finish line together. We had done it. I felt a massive sense of pride and accomplishment; however it didn’t take long for me to begin to wonder if I could improve my time. My brain was flooded with questions like: Could I go faster? How much could I improve? What would my training look like? How would my body respond?
I started reading books, talking to seasoned veterans, and experimenting on myself. Below are the important lessons that I have learned and that are valuable to a runner as you work to improve your marathon pace.
The training plan I have provided in this article features several different kinds of workouts, each with a different goal. By mixing up the type of workout you’re doing, you can build your speed, as well as your endurance so you can push the pace in your next marathon without crashing and burning three miles before the end. Plus, it makes training way more interesting!
Definition: Known also as “speed play,” this workout uses varied paces over differing terrain and distances. This unstructured workout has you alternate moderate to hard efforts with recovery. For example, run hard to the pine tree or stop light followed by an easy effort. These runs can be fun, especially with friends because the workout is unpredictable and can be made into a game.
Objective: To develop fast-twitch muscles and to improve form. As you run, do not allow your form to degenerate; if it is, slow down until you can recover it.
Definition: Run at a determined/prescribed pace, which is typically challenging, over specified distance or length of time. The best way to describe “tempo pace” is as an effort that is hard enough that you wish you could slow down, but it isn’t full out race pace.
Objective: To improve your aerobic capacity, so you will be able to run faster and farther during training and during the race.
Definition: Short/intense efforts followed by recovery time. Unlike tempo runs, during intervals you are running to a point where you are reaching/redlining it, yet in control. They should be done faster than your race pace.
Objective: To build aerobic capacity for marathon-distance runs. By the end of the workout, you should feel anaerobic—you’re using more oxygen than your body can provide. Your arms and legs will feel heavy and numb, and you might even have a metallic taste in your mouth.
Definition: A base run that typically lasts long enough to leave you fatigued as it helps improve your endurance. The exact distance, duration and pace to achieve this moderate to severe fatigue depends on your current levels.
Objective: Long runs have the benefit of teaching your body to use fat for fuel, instead of carbohydrates, which will be helpful in the second half of a marathon when your glycogen stores are running low.
Objective: For the following slower runs, the idea is to get the blood flowing and shake out the muscles; as runners say, “motion is lotion.”
Definition: The pace where you are a little uncomfortable and having to work a bit harder. You are approximately :30-:45 seconds slower per mile than marathon race pace. You should not be gasping for breath and should still feel in control.
Definition: This is the pace where you feel like you could go forever! Okay, maybe not forever, but it’s a comfortable pace. Depending on how you are feeling, your easy pace will fluctuate from 1:30 to 2:30 minutes per mile slower than your intended marathon pace.
Definition: Short distances done at an easy pace. You should be able to talk easily during your run; it should be seen as a form of active recovery as you also get some extra miles in. I find the time after a recovery run is a great time to pull out the foam roller and work on the knots and sore spots that might be lingering.
Following is a downloadable training plan. In addition to the variety of workouts, you will also note that the days generally alternate hard/fast/long runs with easy runs or off days. This is to help prevent overtraining or overuse injuries.
As you know, a marathon is a difficult race and so is the training. Taking the risk to do your best and race for a particular time goal can be daunting yet alluring, but the amount you will learn about human potential is immense. With all that let the training begin! What follows is a training guide that is meant as a springboard to helping a runner improve his or her marathon pace/time. Everyone is different so don’t hesitate to modify the schedule to fit your needs. Just remember not to underestimate your abilities or potential.