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Having coached marathoners both in person and online for well over a decade, I can safely say the change every runner has needed to make in their training is to focus on specificity. Specificity simply means that you’re training for the specific pace you are hoping to run on race day. While most runners also need to lengthen their long run, do more general strength and mobility after their run, and do strides on most days that they run, it’s specificity that is the first element we need to adjust.
Specific training starts from the beginning of training. Running strides — for just 20-30 seconds — just two or three days a week, starting in your first week of training, is a first step towards being able to put in a lot of work at marathon pace.
The old model of building a big aerobic base, then doing some speed work for a few weeks, and then “peaking” is dead. Today all these elements are present throughout training.
I love using a car metaphor to simplify training: you need to build your aerobic engine with long runs, fartlek runs, progression runs, and threshold runs. You need to strengthen your chassis with general strength and mobility (and possibly some more work in the weight room). And you need to rev the engine with strides, at 5k pace or faster. It’s this last element that is rarely part of a marathoner’s plan in their first two weeks, and that’s a problem.
Specificity Starts with Strides
Will you get injured if you do strides the first week of training? No. Strides at your 5k PR pace are relatively slow and a completely reasonable addition on the second or third day that you run. Let me explain, and please bear with me with one paragraph of math. I promise it won’t hurt!
Let’s assume we have a runner who has run 3:25 for the marathon and wants to run 3:20. If you choose any of the online performance calculators, you’ll find that this runner, when they’re in 3:20 shape, should be able to run 1:36 for the half marathon, roughly 43 minutes for 10k, and just under 21 minutes for 5k. Specifically, a 20:50 5k time is 6:40 per 1,600m, or 1:40 per 400m if we had this athlete run on the track. So 100m at this pace is 25 seconds (what a nice, clean number that is).
And that’s what we’ll use for this athlete – 25 second strides which need to be done at 5k effort. If you’re serious enough to do all the hours it takes to be a good marathoner, and you’re serious enough to be reading PodiumRunner, then you’ll want to go to the track and run 5 x 100m strides in your first week of training. For this athlete this means running 280m easy (most of the way around the second curve), then accelerate for 20m, then running the 100m straightway in 25 seconds. Repeat four more times. This helps you “groove the pace” and with just one more day on the track, you’ll be able to run this pace on your favorite path or road rather than finishing a run at the track.
Think about this: this is just 500m of running at 5k pace, which is one-tenth of the race distance. Obviously, this athlete could run an entire workout at this pace with just a few weeks of training.
From there, the 3:20 marathoner needs to get comfortable at half marathon pace. For this athlete that’s just under 7:20 a mile. Again, 7:20 pace, if you’re only running for a few minutes a time, is not challenging, even in the first or second week of training. And when you’ve done some running at 7:20 pace, goal marathon pace, which is 7:38 per mile, feels a lot easier.
That’s the key to all of this – we want 3:20 pace to feel easy, yet for most marathoners, running more than 7-10 miles at this pace in the first month of training feels hard. My experience shows that when you have all three of these paces in your training in the first few weeks of your program, you’ll run a much better marathon. The problem for most marathoners is in their quest to run a marathon PR is that they’re never running 5k pace.
Learning to Feel the Pace
Runners often ask me, “Should I learn to run by feel?” Yes! You do need to learn to run by feel. This is one of the few skills you need to learn as a runner.
Unlike your friends who play golf or tennis, or mountain bike or fly fish, and need to learn a variety of skills to have a good time, you only need one primary skill, which is running by feel. The recipe is then very simple: so long as your strides are at 5k pace (and you should be doing 4-5 strides at least three days a week) then you can run both half marathon pace and marathon pace by feel in the first month of training.
The first workout you’ll do is a fartlek, specifically 30–40 minutes alternating 2 minutes at half-marathon effort with 3 minutes steady. What’s steady? It’s simply a pace that’s faster than your easy run pace, but slower than your threshold run pace. I know, that’s a big window. For many runners it’s a pace you would run for an early season long run, say a 10-12 mile long run that you might do in week 1 or 2 of a 20-week marathon program, slow enough to recover slightly while keeping the overall effort steady.
The next workout toward learning to feel a specific marathon pace is a progression long run. I think most long runs should be progression runs, which are simply long runs where you speed up a bit as the run goes on. An example is a 90-minute run where you run 60 minutes easy, then 15 minutes a bit faster, then 10 minutes a bit faster than that. You’re now at 85 minutes and you can back off just a bit for the last 5 minutes, then go directly to your general strength and mobility. Going straight into the non-running work is a great way to continue to get an aerobic stimulus. Each Strength and Mobility routine (aka SAM) is designed to have the harder exercises early in the routine, with the exercises getting easier, making this the perfect way to cool-down from a harder run.
If at this point you may be thinking, “Wait. Earlier you said there was a ton of math, and now you’re talking about ‘steady,’ ‘a bit faster,’ and ‘back off just a bit.’ How am I going to know if I should run paces off my Garmin or run by feel?”
Wonderful question, and it’s the crux of this article.
When I work with an athlete for 20 weeks to prepare to run a PR in the marathon, they’re running mostly effort-based workouts for the first 6-8 weeks. I let type-A runners check their paces after the workout to make sure they’re not running too fast for the segments where marathon pace is assigned. Again, if you’re serious about running a fast marathon and you’re serious enough to have read this far, the chance that you’ll run slower than marathon pace in a 40–50 minute fartlek run is low.
I firmly believe you need 20 weeks to prepare for a marathon, or at least busy adults with hectic lives do. Careers and children and life will undoubtedly cause some hiccups in training, and 20 weeks allows for a few 4-5-10 day periods of sub-optimal training.
Over the course of 20 weeks there is plenty of time to both learn to run by feel early in the training, and then run enough work at marathon pace to run a PR. You will need to run lots of work at both marathon pace and half marathon pace to properly prepare to run a marathon. Yet, so long as 5k pace strides are in the training the first week, marathon pace and half marathon pace will feel comfortable.
20 weeks is a long time, so the shift from effort-based training in the first 40% of the training, to a strong focus on marathon pace training in the last 60% of the training keeps things fresh. And what allows for this smooth transition is running strides in the first week of training, and continuing to run them throughout training.
About the Author
Jay Johnson, M.S., is the author of Simple Marathon Training: The Right Training for Busy Adults with Hectic Lives. He helps adult runners at CoachJayJohnson.com.