Target your marathon training

This is part of a series of posts I’m doing this spring focused on marathon training. To get these “Marathon Monday” posts in your inbox, sign-up here!


Last week I talked about the stress-adaptation curve and why it has such big implications for how you should organize your training. This week I want to look at another foundational concept in training theory: that specific training creates specific adaptations.


Your body created the philosophy of “work smarter, not harder.” It is very efficient with how it responds to training stress. So it will work hard to repair itself and adapt to stress, BUT only the stress that it’s given. It’s not the type to do optional extra credit work.


“Your body created the philosophy of “work smarter, not harder.”


A big-picture way to think about this is that the fitness that you gain from running is not universal. You can be in great running shape and still get winded walking up the steps. You can be a great runner and still have your legs hurt after a moderate bike ride.


On a smaller scale, not all types of running and workouts are universal, either. That’s why being in shape to run a great 5k may not mean you’re ready for a good marathon. Because of that, it’s really important that your training is geared specifically to what you are trying to get ready for.



“On a smaller scale, not all types of running and workouts are universal, either.”


These are the key concepts to keep in mind as you apply this concept to your marathon training:


1) Pick your workouts carefully
You only have a limited amount of time and energy to spend on training (and recovering from training). So you need to make sure that the majority of your time is spent working on the aspects that are most beneficial to preparing you for the marathon.


That means long runs and workouts focused on endurance (steady states, tempo runs, cruise intervals, etc.) should be your primary focus. Those workouts most closely simulate the needs of the race and will help your body adapt in the ways that are most productive for the race. Other workouts will still be helpful, but they should not be done at the expense of these types of workouts.


2) Marathon pace runs are key
Nothing is more specific than running race pace for the full race distance. Of course if you can do that right now, then there’s no need to train for the race.


Instead, focus on getting a lot of work in at goal marathon pace. It’s the next best thing, and it will help prepare you physiologically (boosts the systems used when running marathon pace), mentally (improves focus and concentration for long, sustained efforts), and neuro-muscularly (your body learns how to turn muscles on and off efficiently and improves muscular coordination at race pace).


3) Train for the course
Each marathon course has its own unique challenges, including surface, elevation profile, and start time:



Aim to do a minimum of 30% of your weekly mileage on the surface the race is on (either roads or trails). That can be done all at once in a long run, or spread out throughout the week. At the very least, plan to get 2-3 of your longest long runs done on the surface you’ll be racing on.


Elevation profile

A race course with a lot of elevation change will require practicing on hills before the race. That can mean adding hill repeats (and DOWNhill repeats, too), or doing tempo runs and other workouts off the track and on a hilly course. It is especially important to do your marathon pace runs on a route with a similar elevation profile. Your marathon pace on a hilly course will feel very different than it does on the track and that will limit a lot of the benefit of the marathon pace runs if you’re not running a course that is similar to the race profile.


Start time

As much as possible with your work and life schedule, try to do long runs and hard workouts at a similar time of day that you’ll be racing. Even if you can’t make that happen for every run, aim to get a least one key workout and one key long run in starting around the same time your race will start.

If you apply these concepts to your marathon training, you’ll get to the start line trained specifically to do a specific task — just the way your body wanted it.


About Coach Carl
Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, and Competitor and is a regular contributor to Running Times.