The Truth of Marathon Training

This is an exciting time of year. The struggle of training in summer weather is real, but so is the dream of fast races this fall.


But when it comes to marathon training, there is something important to remember — a fast marathon isn’t really all that *fast*.
Let me explain …
A question that comes up a lot when I write marathon training for a first-time client is “shouldn’t my workouts be faster?”
And aside from the fact that long-time clients know my workouts often look easier on paper than they feel in the moment, the answer is “not really.”
Let’s look at this question from the physiological side and the practical side:
Physiological Side:

The vast majority of the energy you’re using to run a marathon comes from your aerobic energy systems — like 99% of it.
What that means is the effort you’re running at allows your body to process the lactate that’s being produced and not let it accumulate. The anaerobic energy systems are contributing very little. Not nothing, but very little.
The rule of “specificity of training” tells us that specific stimuli produce specific adaptations in your body / fitness.
Or, in other words, if the thing you need to get better at is running really long at moderate efforts, then that is what you need to practice!
So does speed work at 5k pace help your marathon? Not a lot — it will help improve your VO2 max, but that’s not a primary factor in marathon performance.
Sticking to speed work that’s between half marathon and marathon pace (and includes a lot of miles!) will make sure that your body has the stimulus it needs to adapt for the demands of the marathon.
Practical Side:

Now, think about your goal marathon pace. It’s not really that fast is it?
I mean, yes, running it for 26.2 miles will give you a fast marathon TIME, but the pace itself isn’t that fast. You could probably go run for 1, 3, 5, even 15 miles at that pace right now.
So it’s not your speed that we need to improve — you can run the pace, probably pretty comfortably, already — it’s your ability to maintain that pace that we need to work on. And that means (you guessed it!) lots of moderate miles rather than speed workouts focused on shorter, faster reps.
As The Godfather himself, Arthur Lydiard, said way back in 1961 …
“The fundamental principle of training is simple, which may be why it needs repeating so often: it is to develop enough stamina to enable you to maintain the necessary speed for the full distance at which you plan to compete.”
So here’s to many moderate miles ahead in your marathon training — knowing you already have the speed you need!


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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.