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Maintaining Your Speed During Marathon Training

Incorporate these three types of workouts into your training plan to ensure you keep your short speed intact.

Building a base and improving your aerobic system is critical if you want to run your fastest possible marathon a few months from now.

But what about all those fun and competitive 5K races you have lined up? While you’re willing to sacrifice a few seconds off your 5K PR for a great marathon finish, you don’t want to completely tank all of your summer races. So, how do you keep your speed for the summer races while developing your base and ramping up the miles for marathon training? The solution is disguising your speed training.

Over the following pages we’ll explain why it’s important to keep up your short-distance speed and provide three types of workouts to ensure you run well at your shorter summer races while still focusing on the marathon.

Why Maintaining Your Speed Is Important

Experienced marathoners know the key components to race day success are a high aerobic threshold (the fastest pace you can run while still staying in the aerobic zone, which closely correlates to marathon pace) and the ability to burn fat as a fuel source. The most effective way to improve these two things is a steady diet of aerobic mileage and threshold work.

Unfortunately, these two types of training don’t directly improve your speed. That means if this is the only type of training you’re doing, you can go months neglecting an important energy system during marathon training.

Neglecting any energy system for a long time period is detrimental to your overall fitness. In particular, ignoring speed work during the marathon base building period reduces running efficiency. Speed work increases muscle strength and power in your legs, which improves economy, or how much energy it takes to run at a certain speed. When muscles become stronger, fewer muscle fibers need to contract to hit a particular pace. Thus the energy expenditure is lower, which can make running at marathon pace feel easier.

Workouts To Maintain Speed

Speed and mileage are two diametrically opposed training elements. Many runners don’t know they safely can improve both with only a few innovative, well-placed workouts. Implementing one or more of these workouts in your marathon buildup will allow you to maintain your speed this fall.

Short, Explosive Hill Sprints

Hill running is the most specific form of strength training a runner can do and, because of the mechanics involved, hill sprints are safer than lifting or speed work on flat ground. For example, running up a hill shortens the distance the foot has to fall before hitting the ground, decreasing the shock on the body.

Short hill sprints at near max intensity stress the muscles as well as the connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) without fatigue. Running up a hill provides increased resistance for the hips, glutes, and quads, which increases specific running strength and improves speed.

How to incorporate:

During your marathon base building phase, you should include short hill sprints once or twice per week after, or as part of, an easy run. Because hill sprints may be a new element to your training, start with only two or three sprints at a time. Slowly add one or two repetitions per week until you hit 10 to 12.

Ideally, you should start the hill sprints with about a mile or half a mile to go in your run. Then you can complete the majority of the distance, but still have a small recovery jog to loosen up after sprinting hard up the hill. HNot everyone has a hill within a mile of our finishing spot, however. So, if the hill sprints have to come in the middle of a run, it’s OK.

Find a hill with a 7 to 10 percent grade. Stand at the bottom and, from a standing start, sprint up the hill as fast as you can. Land on the balls of your feet and pump your arms like a sprinter. The sprint is designed to be a maximum effort, so don’t go over fifteen seconds. Ten to 12 seconds is ideal. Walk slowly and gently back down the hill, rest until you are completely recovered, then begin the next repeat.

Starting with just two or three repeats and taking a full recovery will gradually introduce your body to this new stimulus. This will keep you healthy and prevent sabotaging the base building stage’s benefits by doing anaerobic work too early.

Strides And Sprint Work

Strides are another strategy runners can use to incorporate speed work into marathon training without adding fatigue or taking away from other important workouts. Strides allow a runner to aim for short, fast bursts of speed without interrupting the physiological benefits of the base-building phase.

One of the main physiological benefits of doing strides is improving your running form. Strides allow you to focus for 20 to 30 seconds at a time on specific form changes rather than concentrating on these things over the course of an entire run. The neuromuscular facilitation and concentration can lead to improvements in overall fitness and personal bests at every distance, not just the marathon, and the risk for injury is negligible.

How to incorporate:

You should include strides after your easy runs up to four times per week. If you’re doing faster workouts in the base phase of your training, you should include strides on the day before your workout. This will not only help you work on your speed, but also help stimulate your legs for the faster running to come the next day. Strides also help to prevent injuries, as they can help loosen your legs up for faster running to follow.

Strides are to be completed after your run, not during it. Loosen up with a light post-run stretch to address anything that was tight on the run or that might be a consistent problem area.  Like hill sprints, strides also require a full recovery between each repeat. The purpose of doing strides is not getting in a hard workout or to leave you breathing hard, but rather to work on mechanics and improve speed. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Begin by easing into a fast pace over the first five seconds. It is important to ease into the pace, and not explode out of the gate, to prevent injury.
  2. After five seconds, you should reach full speed. Begin focusing on staying relaxed and letting your body do the work. Continue to stay relaxed at your top-end speed for another 5-10 seconds and gradually, over the last five seconds, slow yourself to a stop.
  3. Take a full recovery between each stride, which should be 90 seconds to two minutes. You can stop to catch your breath, walk, or slowly jog in place.

Surging During A Long Run

The long run is the cornerstone of any marathon buildup, and most training programs in general. It’s a critical training element if you want to run well in your goal race this fall. However, the long run has the potential to be more than just time on your feet with long, slow miles. Implementing planned surges during a long run can inject a quick dose of speed work into what would otherwise be a slow running day, without compromising the aerobic benefits.

Just like strides and hill sprints, including surges during your long runs may not seem like a whole lot of speed. However, add them up and they provide a powerful dose of speed work without compromising the long run’s integrity.

Surging during a long not only help improve a runner’s top end speed, but it also enhances your ability to run fast when tired while still developing the specific physiological adaptations and mental skills necessary to increase your effort and pace as the race gets more difficult. Furthermore, because surges are completed in a glycogen-depleted state, they continually develop your body’s ability to use fat as a fuel source early in the base-building period.

How to incorporate:

Long run surges should begin about half way through the long run. The length of the surge itself and the rest in between each surge are two variables you can adjust to make the workout suit your needs.

The most basic type of long run surging workout includes 60-second to 2-minute pickups that are run at 3K to 5K pace. Start about halfway through the long run and include a full five to six minutes of easy running between each surge. An example workout for a 3-hour marathoner might look something like this: 16 mile long run with 7 x 90-second surges at 6:05 pace with 5 minutes easy jogging between surges, with the first surge taking place between miles 8 and 10.

Once you’ve become accustomed to the surges, or if you’re training at a very high level, you can progress to six to eight 2-minute surges with five minutes of easy running between each.

By keeping the recovery period at five minutes or longer, you won’t accumulate a ton of excess fatigue. You should be able to include this type of workout every other long run.

Putting It All Together

Now that you’ve seen three highly effective ways to maintain speed without compromising your marathon training, how does it all come together within a training plan?

Here’s a very simple marathon base training week that includes the aforementioned workouts. This sample is designed for someone who runs 6 days per week, but you can modify it to fit your own fitness level:

Monday: Easy run with strides

Tuesday: Steady effort with explosive hill sprints

Wednesday: Easy run with strides

Thursday: Tempo run

Friday: Off day

Saturday: Easy run with explosive hill sprints

Sunday: Long run with surges

This schedule doesn’t appear to include much “speed” work, but it sneakily adds up on you. All combined, this schedule can include up to two miles of work at your top end speed (strides and hill sprints) and close to two miles at your 3K or VO2max pace (long run surges).

By including these elements in your marathon buildup this summer you can still target your training to your goal marathon while still running well at shorter distances and maintaining your speed.