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Become A Faster Miler To Become A Better Marathoner

Have you allowed yourself to become a "one-gear runner"?

Have you allowed yourself to become a “one-gear runner”?

Ryan Hall, who became the fastest American marathoner in history in April of 2011, running 2:04:58 in Boston, competed in the USA 1 Mile Road Championships in Minneapolis this past summer. He finished 13th in 4:17.2. Hall says he ran the race on the advice of Rod Dixon, a New Zealander who achieved rare success in both the mile and the marathon, winning a bronze medal at 1500 meters in the 1972 Olympics and winning the New York City Marathon 11 years later.

Hall says he ran the mile in Minneapolis because, as a college miler at Stanford, he dreamed of breaking four minutes in the event, and still does. But he’s also doing it because, as Dixon suggested to him, becoming a faster miler will make him a faster marathoner.

How, specifically? “Answering surges, running faster times,” Hall told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Probably all the guys who beat me in Boston were in better mile shape than I was.”

More from Don’t Let Marathon Training Steal Your Speed

Are Dixon and Hall right about this? Only time will tell, but probably so. Marathon training tends to diminish middle-distance racing performance capacity. In other words, as a runner’s marathon performance capacity improves through endurance-focused training, his mile performance capacity slips as a consequence of a necessary deemphasis of speed training. This is unavoidable to some degree. While running is running, the mile and the marathon are different enough that no single runner can be optimally trained for both distances simultaneously. If you’re in shape to run your best marathon, you are almost by definition not in shape to run your best mile, and vice versa.

However, marathon runners commonly give up a little too much speed or anaerobic capacity in their training. Many experienced marathoners are familiar with the experience of becoming “one-gear runners” as they near peak marathon fitness. They can sustain an 85 percent effort seemingly forever, but as soon as they try to run faster, they fall off a cliff. You see the one-gear runner phenomenon manifest oftentimes when marathoners run shorter tune-up races ahead of a marathon and find themselves able to run only marginally faster than their marathon pace over those shorter distances.

Hall has done just that a few times. For example, in 2007, he ran the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships 10,000 meters, finishing 7th with a time of 28:51.  That’s 4:38 per mile, or just marginally faster than the pace he was capable of sustaining for another 20 miles a few months later, when he won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:09:02.

Given his success at the marathon distance, it’s impossible to argue that Hall hasn’t trained right for the event. But, as he looks for ways to take his marathon performance even higher, Hall seems to have identified the “one-gear” phenomenon as a limiting factor that he would like to address.

But if it’s impossible to be in peak mile shape and peak marathon shape simultaneously, how is one supposed to become a better marathoner by becoming a better miler? The answer that many runners have found is to focus on training for shorter races (usually the 5K and 10K, not the mile) during the first part of a marathon buildup, and then use the second part to layer endurance on top of the speed developed in the first part. Some speed will still be sacrificed after that pivot occurs, but if done right, this approach will allow the runner to arrive on the start line with all the endurance he needs to go the distance plus an extra gear that could make the difference between an average finish time and a PR.

A number of noteworthy runners have used this approach with success lately, including Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan. In 2008, Goucher ran her debut marathon in New York just a couple of months after running the 5,000m and the 10,000m in the Beijing Olympics. The result was an American debut marathon record. Flanagan made her marathon debut in New York last year after a successful track season, which she credited for setting her up for her second-place finish in Central Park.

Hall is now looking to do something  similar. As a fan, I’m happy to see it. Not only is there a good chance that focusing on shorter races this summer will help him run better marathons in January’s Olympic Trials and next summer’s Olympics, but I expect that, if all goes well, Hall will turn in some great performances in those shorter races.

Age-group marathoners are even more prone than elites to give up too much speed in preparing for marathons. So, regardless of how Hall fares today in his first mile races in five years, take a cue from him and spend some time getting fast for short races before you build endurance for your next marathon.

Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick-Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.