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Finish Your Second (Or Next) Marathon Faster

You've finished your first marathon. Congratulations! Now what?

You’ve finished your first marathon. Congratulations! Now what?

Most people run their first marathon with a goal of finishing. Even Olympian Shalane Flanagan stated her goal as finishing before running her first marathon in New York a few years back. Most first-time marathon finishers soon decide they want to do another one—only this time, the goal will be not just to finish, but to finish faster. Achieving this goal will require that you take your training to the next level. Here are some guidelines on how to do that.

Increase Your Mileage

In order to run a faster marathon, you will most likely need to train a little more than you trained before. Like it or not, there is a very close correlation between running mileage and marathon performance. But when you do increase your running mileage you must do so slowly and cautiously so that your body can adapt incrementally and avoid breakdown. Be patient. Even if you have both the time and the desire to emulate the training patterns of some hardcore Boston qualifier friend, you need to move in that direction step by step over a period of not weeks or months but years. This is the surest way to improve consistently over the long haul.

You can increase your weekly mileage both by increasing the number of workouts you perform each week and by increasing the duration of individual workouts. Each carries its own benefits, so you will want to do both, but again, slowly and cautiously. First work your way toward performing six or seven runs per week, plus supplemental stretching and strengthening. From there, work on increasing the duration of two or three of those runs.

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Work On Your Speed

Another tried and true means of increasing marathon performance is to regularly perform workouts involving running speeds that are significantly faster than marathon pace. Such workouts increase the body’s capacity to consume oxygen during running, so that you can sustain faster running speeds more comfortably. There are two specific types of workouts that I recommend for speed building: interval runs and tempo runs.

An interval run features relatively short segments of faster running separated by slow “recovery” jogs. For example, after warming up with a mile or two of easy jogging, run a mile at your 10K race pace, or the fastest pace you feel you could sustain for six miles. Jog a quarter-mile and then run another fast mile. After completing a second recovery jog and a third fast mile, cool down with another mile or two of easy running. Repeat the workout a week later, adding a fourth fast mile. Build up to six fast miles over the next few weeks. By the end of this process you will feel much better able to sustain faster running speeds comfortably.

Build Your Own Training Plan

One-size-fits all training plans found in magazines and books and on websites are fine for first-timers, but as you aim higher you need to graduate to more customized training—which means you need to get a coach or learn how to build your own training plans.

A training program should be 12 to 24 weeks in length. It can be shorter (that is, closer to 12 weeks) when your initial fitness level is higher. It should be longer (closer to 24 weeks) when your initial fitness level is lower. The training program should always be close to 24 weeks if you are in search of a true peak performance.

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Five basic steps are involved in creating a training schedule:

1. Choose a peak race. Your program should end on the day of your next marathon and should be structured so that you achieve a fitness “peak” on this day.

2. Divide the training cycle into phases. A marathon training program should be divided into three phases of roughly equal length. In the base phase, you will focus on building general endurance by performing a gradually increasing volume of low- to moderate-intensity training. In the intensity phase, you will mix in some high-intensity interval workouts in each discipline. In the peak phase, you will continue to do some high-intensity work but the emphasis will shift toward longer intervals that are close to race pace.

3. Set your mileage. Next you should decide how much training (on a miles-per-week basis) is sensible for you at this stage and plot a target mileage for each week of the program. Start with a mileage level that is close to the amount you do currently and increase it a little each week until you reach a reasonable maximum; from there it should hold steady. Be sure to plan a reduced-mileage recovery week every third or fourth week.

4. Plan key workouts. Key workouts are the hardest and most effective workouts you will do each week. These include your longest run and your high-intensity interval workouts. It is a good idea to schedule these sessions well ahead of time to ensure that your training program has a smooth trajectory toward peak fitness.

5. Fill in the gaps. Once your key workouts have been scheduled, round out your training program by scheduling your runs, and possibly also your stretching and strengthening sessions. There’s no need to plan them in detail. Wait until the time for each workout arrives and simply do the workout your body needs and is ready for.

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit