How to run a fast marathon
Training for a marathon
Training for a marathon is going to be long and laborious at times so if you are going to commit yourself to this great event, you had better get the training right.
We have worked with Alan Storey, the UK’s ex National Endurance Coach and a coach to many international marathon runners, to give us the basics and a formula that could work for all.
Setting your pace for a marathon
The sessions shown below can be adjusted in terms of distance and pace to accommodate the level of starting fitness.
To estimate a sensible race pace for the marathon take a personal best 10K time and multiply by 5. For example a 10k time of 35 mins would see an overall time of 2hrs 55 mins. Using a half marathon time multiply by 2 and add on 10 mins.
Depending on the level of fitness and once a race pace had been decided, a 10 mile run should be undertaken once a week. A mile should be added every two weeks up to a distance of 20 miles. The following examples show a mile pace and a finishing time.
6 mins per mile = 2hrs 37 mins
7 " = 3hrs 03 mins
8 " = 3hrs 30 mins
9 " = 3hrs 58 mins
The best sessions for a marathon
Alan Storey suggests that there are four key sessions that should be included in a training schedule and done on a regular basis. Each session should be followed by a recovery day of very easy paced running for 30/45 mins and done preferably on grass.
Run at the speed required to reach the marathon target. If the target time is 2hrs 30 mins the mile pace will be 5.48, if 3hrs 30 mins then an
8 min mile pace. The intention should be to reach an 18-mile run at this target pace. Again, this should be a building process beginning with 10 mile runs or less but eventually reaching 18 miles.
Run for a period equal to the estimated total time to run the marathon. If the aim is a 3-hour race then the run should be for 3 hours. A build up routine would be to begin with a one hour run adding 10 mins each week. Over a 12-week period the three hours would be reached. This should be continued for a 12-week period the three hours would be reached. This should be continued for a further 6 weeks. The use of a heart rate monitor using the formula shown later can be used to determine a sensible pace for this session.
Develop a repetition session where a total of 10k are run. The pace for the session should be at 10k race pace. For example if the 10k race pace is 35 mins then the session would be 13 x 800m in 2 mins 48 secs with 1 min recovery, or 8 x 1200 in 4 mins 12 secs with 1.5 mins recovery. To calculate this divide your 10k time by 1000, then by 100. This will give you a time for 100m then multiply up for 800m, 1000m, or 1200m. This session will produce a higher heart rate than that required for the marathon but will provide a physiological and psychological cushion for the additional effort required in the race situation.
A hill schedule. The hill should be moderate, i.e. not too steep, not too flat. The session should equal 6 miles up hill. The return is the recovery and should be walked or jogged depending on fitness level. A hill of 800m is ideal for this session. Again, a lower mileage should be used to begin with eventually reaching 6 miles.
A key feature of these sessions is that should the target times fall below previous sessions, then an extra day of easy paced running should be taken.
Easing down for a marathon
The ten days before the marathon should see a reduction in training of at least two thirds with no training activity for the 48 hours prior to the race. Training during this wind down period should contain some repetition work 25% faster than the target marathon time. This ten-day period will allow the body to go into semi resting mode, recovering to some extent from the strenuous training programme. Carbohydrate loading to build up muscle glycogen stores requires a 15 mile slow run 7 days before the race followed by a 24 hour fast taking in only quality water.
After the fasting period 700 grams of carbohydrate should be consumed daily.
What is a good racing weight for a marathon runner?
Eating the correct balanced diet will see you though all the training. Check out our detailed formula here.
Getting the pace right - VO2 Max
As mentioned previously, your heart rate supplies essential information of effort and energy expenditure. Improvement in physical performance is associated with an enhancement of what has been labelled by physiologists as VO2 max. This is the standard measure of what is called aerobic fitness and indicates the maximum amount of oxygen that can be taken from circulating blood and used by active tissues for a specific period. It is measured in millilitres of oxygen consumed per minute adjusted for body size. A sedentary male would show a reading of 35 to 50 ml/kg/min. An elite runner would be something in excess of 70ml/kg/min.
Physiologists estimate that the greatest fitness gains come from work at between 80/100% of VO2 max. To calculate VO2 max it is necessary to know the maximum possible heart rate. Laboratory testing uses a treadmill for this assessment. A formula can be used which it is claimed has a 0.8 correlation with a laboratory test.
For a 25yr old female, assume a maximum heart rate of 209 beats per minute (bpm) minus 0.7 for each year of age e.g. 209 minus 25 x 0.7 = (17.5), therefore, 209 minus 17.5 = 191.5 bpm. Assuming 80% of heart rate for what is called the lactate threshold run, would require a consistent effort of 153 bpm. It is claimed that this would be the minimum for a modest increase in VO2 max.
For a 25yr old male athlete, take a maximum heart rate of 214 bpm and a minus of 0.8 for each year of age and the example would be 214 minus 25 x 0.8 = (20) therefore 214-20 = 194bpm. 80% of this would require a consistent effort of 155bpm. There is some controversy on maximum heart rate with some physiologists claiming that using this formula, a maximum heart rate of 200bpm is more realistic.
The number and duration of lactate threshold runs undertaken should be a subject of discussion between the athlete and the coach and would obviously relate to an athletes level of fitness and experience, but 2 sessions would be the norm.
- Running a good marathon takes a long build-up, this plan is not a ‘get around’ plan.
- Get to a reasonable level of general fitness.
- Set your marathon race pace based on your 10k or half marathon time.
- Work out your VO2 max and threashold pace – see also this article, it gives info on working out max heart rate.
- Run long once a week, increasing mileage from 10m by adding a mile every two weeks until you get to 20m.
- Incorporate all 4 sessions in to your training regime. BUT, build up over time.
- Ease right back and follow the pre-race training programme advice.
- Get your diet right – make sure you are not too light, not too heavy.
- Carbo load.