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12-Week Training Plan to Improve your Marathon Speed

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.

  • Build a Solid Base. First of all, you want the foundation of your training to be strong. Skipping steps is a gamble that typically ends in injury or undesired results. By building aerobic endurance and comfort with spending time on your feet first, your body and mind will be more prepared for workouts.
  • Be Consistent. You don’t have to run every week of the year to improve your marathon time, but consistency in training is vital. Try to avoid sporadic running and stick to training your predetermined number of days per week. Do your best to stay disciplined and determine how many days and miles a week really works best for you since it’s all really a balance with life, work, kids, stress and training. With this said, do not neglect injuries, illness or energy levels in order to not miss a day. Taking care of the little things before they become big issues is the best practice.
  • Varied Training is Key. Training to improve your marathon time requires varied workouts.  Each type of workout has a specific objective, as described below. As you perform a specified workout keep in mind what the parameters and objectives are so you stay focused.
  • Don’t Go it Alone. I also find it beneficial to drag along a running partner out with me during different workouts.  This helps me push myself and aids in motivation as I strive to achieve the next level.

marathon training
Four-legged running companions are among the best

  • Invest in Recovery. With all the work you are putting in recovery is essential and without it the rewards of your effort will not be maximized.  Recovery starts immediately after your workout and calories should be taken in.  A carbohydrate/protein ratio of 3 or 4 to 1 helps to replenish glycogen stores.  Stretching, foam rolling, adequate sleep and physical therapy as needed also helps keep you hitting your stride smoothly.
  • Recognize Signs of Overtraining. If caught early, overtraining can be remedied fairly easily. But if you ignore the signs, you might need need to take off a rather extended period of time from all physical activity. Some common signs are, but certainly not limited to: Higher resting heart rate, moodiness, susceptibility to sickness, disturbed sleep patterns, trouble completing workouts, decreased energy, and loss of desire to train and/or race. If you think you are overtraining, stop training immediately and evaluate all components of training, racing, nutrition, sleep and life. If taking a few days off doesn’t remedy the issue, seek out medical advice.

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.

Tempo Runs

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.

Long Runs

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.

Slower-Paced Runs

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.”

Moderate Pace

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.

Easy Pace 

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.

Recovery 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.

12 Week Training Plan (click on program to download)

12 Week Training Plan

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.


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