4 Must-Do Marathon Workouts

This is part of a series of posts I’m doing focused on marathon training. To get “The .2” posts in your inbox, sign-up here!


If you want to complete a marathon, the key is to get plenty of long runs in and prepare your body for the distance. If you want to run your BEST marathon, you’ll need to add speed work to the mix.


There are four training zones that contribute to a successful marathon performance (for full details, check out my critical training elements chart). Below is an example workout from each of those four training zones: aerobic endurance, lactate threshold / clearance, VO2 max, and running economy.


Of course there are hundreds of different workouts that you could do to work these training zones, but these are some of my favorites to assign to the runners I coach. Insert these into your training, or use them as a jumping off point for your own variation.


Workout #1 — Marathon pace finish long runs


Focus: Aerobic Endurance


Purpose: Teach the body to practice running hard when it’s tired; improve coordination and efficiency running at race pace


Rationale: Marathons are pretty easy at the beginning. It’s those final miles where the proverbial poop tends to hit the proverbial fan. Trying to maintain pace when you’re fatigued is both mentally and physically difficult. And like most things that are difficult, you can get better at it with practice.


simulate late race fatigue and get your mind and your body used to working hard when they’re tired


Since you can’t race a marathon multiple times during your training cycle (well, I guess you COULD — but definitely not recommended), this is a good way to simulate that late race fatigue and get your mind and your body used to working hard when they’re tired.


I put together an info graphic a few weeks ago about marathon pace finish long runs, so check that out for more details on this staple of marathon training if it is something new for you.


Example workout:


  • 16 miles total
  • 4 miles easy (~60-90 seconds per mile slower than goal marathon pace)
  • 12 miles @ goal marathon pace
  • Run this workout on a similar course to what you’ll face on race day to get the most out of it



Workout #2 — Cruise mile repeats


Focus: Lactate Threshold / Clearance


Purpose: Trains the body to be able to handle higher intensity work without accumulating lactate; improves the body’s ability to clear lactate from the blood and muscles


Rationale: The energy that your body uses during a marathon is 99% produced by the aerobic energy systems. So we want those systems to be as well-trained as they can be! Specifically, we want the aerobic energy systems to still be the primary source of energy even at faster speeds. The way that we accomplish that is by using workouts that focus on lactate threshold — workouts like tempo runs and cruise repeats.


we want the aerobic energy systems to be the primary source of energy even at faster speeds


You can think of cruise mile repeats like a tempo run that’s been broken into bite-sized pieces. Taking that approach does a couple of things:


1) it gives you a little bit of a mental break after each mile to refocus


2) by taking some rest, you can run more volume at that effort level than you might be able to in a traditional tempo run — and more work means more stimulus for improvement.


Traditional tempo runs still have a place in your marathon training since cruise mile repeats ARE easier mentally. It’s good to work on the mental toughness that tempo runs require, too.


Example workout:


  • Warm-up as usual for your workout
  • 4-7x mile @ ~25 sec slower than current 5k race pace
  • Rest for ~60 seconds for every 5 minutes you spend running (i.e. 90 sec rest if running 7:30 pace)



Workout #3 — Blessing’s hills


Focus: VO2 Max


Purpose: Improves how efficiently your muscles use oxygen; improves leg strength and power


Rationale: VO2 max has a much smaller role in how well you perform in a marathon than aerobic endurance or lactate threshold, but it is still a factor in a successful race.


VO2 work plus leg strength and power without doing two different workouts


By combining this type of work with a hill workout, we’re able to get the added bonus of some leg strength and power work in without having to do two different workouts. It’s going to be tough to combine hill work with cruise repeats or marathon pace finish long runs, so VO2 max work is a great choice for this combo approach.


Traditionally for VO2 max work, you would take a rest interval that is 50-90% of the amount of time that you spent running. If you jog back down the hill after a hill repeat, obviously it will take longer than running hard up the hill. So in a perfect world, you would do this workout on a hill that has a side trail back to the start that is shorter. But in the real world, I’m fine with some extra rest knowing that VO2 max work is less of a priority than the other workouts on this list.


Workout details:


  • Warm-up as usual for your workout (may want to add a mile to your normal warm-up given the low volume in this workout)
  • Run a moderate grade hill (~5%) for 1:30-2:00 at tempo effort
  • Mark the spot you ran to, and jog back to the start
  • Repeat, running the same duration but aiming to go farther each rep
  • If you fail to reach your previous best mark, the workout ends (workout also ends if you reach 10 reps)
  • By forcing you to run harder to “get” to run more reps, this workout is great at working on the mental side of working harder when you’re tired



Workout #4 — Baker’s dozen 400’s


Focus: Running economy


Purpose: Improves neuromuscular coordination and the efficiency of turning energy into movement


Rationale: If you have two runners who are equally fit, the runner who is more efficient will win the race. So if we can boost your efficiency, we can improve your marathon performance — without improving your fitness at all.


running significantly faster than marathon pace provides a boost to your running economy


This is something that you can/should be working on several times a week in the form of post-run strides, short hill sprints, and light plyometric work. But it can be useful to do a targeted workout every 3-4 weeks, as well. Not only will running repeats significantly faster than marathon pace provide a boost to your running economy, it breaks up some of the monotony of marathon training, as well.


Workout details:


  • Warm-up as usual for your workout (may want to add some additional strides so that your legs are ready for the speed in this workout)
  • Run 4×400 at current 3k race pace w/ 10-15 sec less rest than your 400 time (i.e. 60 sec rest if running 75 sec 400’s)
  • Rest 3 minutes
  • Run another set of 4×400 at the same pace, taking 10 seconds less rest than in the first set (i.e. 50 sec rest if running 75 sec 400’s)
  • Rest 3 minutes
  • Run another set of 4×400 at the same pace, taking an additional 10 seconds less rest than in the second set (i.e. 40 sec rest if running 75 sec 400’s)
  • Rest 3 minutes
  • Run a final 400 close to, but NOT, all-out (~95%) — making sure to focus on good form and staying smooth and relaxed



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, Men’s Fitness, and Competitor. For information on his coaching services, click here.