Marathon Training

3 Pro-Style Workouts That Will Make You Race-Fit (If They Don’t Destroy You)

An amateur who trained with a top elite team shares three of their multi-pace killer workouts plus lighter versions for mortals getting marathon-fit.

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On July 7, 2017, I packed my car full of running gear and drove from my home in northern California to Flagstaff, Arizona, where I spent the entire summer training with Northern Arizona Elite, a team of professional runners. Forty-six years old at the time, I hadn’t been an elite-caliber runner even in my prime. But my goal in joining NAZ Elite as an honorary member for thirteen weeks was not to qualify for the Olympics. Rather, it was to find out what happens when a middle-aged mortal lives and trains like a young Olympic hopeful.

The experiment succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. Throughout my time in Flagstaff I seemed to age in reverse, and at the end of those 13 weeks, a completed the Chicago Marathon (wearing an elite bib, thanks to some string-pulling by the team’s agent, Josh Cox) in 2:39:30, smashing a nine-year-old PR by two minutes. Of course, I was delighted with this almost miraculous-seeming outcome, but I was also somewhat humbled by it.

You see, I joined NAZ Elite thinking I knew my stuff. I had run competitively for more than 20 years, coached for more than 15 years, and written numerous books and countless articles on running. I thought I was already doing pretty much everything right even before I arrived in Flagstaff, but my experience as a “fake pro runner” taught me otherwise. Although the training I did under NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario wasn’t radically different from the training I’d done previously on my own, it was different enough to make a difference.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression in using this space to highlight the three most epic workouts I did with the real pros. I believe my improvement resulted from many factors, from living at 7,000 feet of altitude to losing nine pounds by emulating the immaculate eating habits of Matt Llano, an NAZ Elite member at the time in whose home my wife and I (and our dog) stayed that summer. But there’s no doubt that long, hard, multi-pace workouts like these were a factor as well, and one that I’ve continued to sprinkle into my training since returning to California.

Photo: courtesy Matt Fitzgerald

Workout #1: The Lung Scorcher

The single most painful workout I did as a fake pro runner was the one I remember as the Lung Scorcher. It consisted of seven one-kilometer efforts at lactate-threshold pace (the fastest pace a runner can sustain for about one hour, between 10K and half-marathon race pace for most runners) followed by a 1500-meter time trial.

Like all of the high-intensity workouts I did in Flagstaff, this one took place on the road—specifically in a development called Mountain Shadows, which happens to feature a flat, horseshoe-shaped street of precisely 1500 meters’ length. Ben Rosario seldom has his runners train on the track except when they are preparing for track races (and during the winter, when conditions force them indoors). Seven members of NAZ Elite were ramping up for fall marathons while I was with the team, so we were all spending plenty of time on pavement.

During my first few weeks in Flagstaff, Coach Ben gave me slightly watered-down versions of the workouts the pros were doing. On this occasion, however, I did exactly what Scott Fauble and Matt Llano (who were training for the Frankfurt Marathon) did—except slower, of course. Specifically, whereas Scott and Matt were given a target time of 3:05 for their 1K repetitions, I was aiming for 3:40.

Coach Ben likes to have his athletes do plenty of work in the moderate-intensity range—which spans from critical velocity (the fastest pace a runner can hold for about 30 minutes) to steady-state pace (the fastest pace a runner can keep up for about 2 hours)—during marathon training. But this particular session had the added twist of a 1500m race-level effort at the end, which Coach Ben included for both physiological and psychological reasons.

“It’s a chance to practice running hard on tired legs,” he says. “And on the mental side, it’s an opportunity to go to the well. Let’s face it—in order to race your best you need to be willing to suffer, so it’s important to practice that.”

One of the biggest differences between how the pros train and how most non-elite runners train, quite honestly, is the warm-ups. Our warm-up for this particular workout was typical. Step one was stretching and activation exercises (e.g., warrior lunges), which each of us did independently. We then jogged together for three miles and completed a series of drills (skips, butt kicks, and so forth) and strides (short, relaxed sprints). That’s a full workout for some runners, but we were just getting started.

Because I was too slow to actually run with the real pros outside of warm-ups, cool-downs, and easy runs, Coach Ben often recruited local amateur runners to keep me company. On this occasion I was partnered with Bob Tusso, a 2:45 marathoner who became a good friend of mine during my time in Flagstaff. At home I do almost all of my running alone, and it doesn’t bother me, but in Flagstaff I saw and gained an appreciation for how much of an advantage it is to train with a group day in and day out. The camaraderie, support, and, friendly competition lift everyone to a level they probably couldn’t reach on their own.

As usual, I started the main workout before the real pros so that the others wouldn’t finish way before me and have to wait around for me. In this instance, it so happened that Bob, Matt, Scott, and I completed our seventh at final 1K repetition at precisely the same time, which put me in the interesting position of starting the 1500-meter time trial with the real pros. In essence, I was racing them.

I lost, of course. Scott clocked 4:08 (the equivalent of sub-4:00 at sea level), Matt ran 4:19, and I straggled to the finish cone in 4:48, my esophagus raw from hyperventilating oxygen-poor air. But I was far from disappointed. My goal had been to break 5 minutes, and after just one month of training with the pros I was already significantly fitter than I’d been when I left California.

Here are the details of the workout, along with a lighter version that’s more appropriate for the average non-elite runner.

The Lung Scorcher

Pro Version

• 3 miles easy

• Drills and strides

• 7 x 1 km @ lactate threshold pace with 1:00 rest after each (2:00 after the last one)

• 1500 meters all-out

• 3 miles easy

Lighter Version

• 1 mile easy

• Drills and strides

• 5 x 1 km @ lactate threshold pace with 1:00 rest after each (2:00 after the last one)

• 1500 meters all-out

• 1 mile easy

Photo: courtesy Matt Fitzgerald

The Groin Shredder

The members of NAZ Elite received their training prescriptions from Coach Ben through the internet, usually in two-week blocks. When this particular workout showed up on my calendar, I could hardly believe my eyes. It contained everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, and was so complex in structure that, doubtful I could keep it all in my head, I created a small crib sheet for it that I laminated with scotch tape and carried in a pocket of my shorts during the session. Fourteen miles in total length (including warm-up and cool-down), it featured hard efforts ranging from a 0.25 mile to 3 miles.

Underneath all this complexity, however, was a simple rationale. “Whether you’re training for a marathon or anything else,” Ben Rosario says, “you need to hit a variety of paces to avoid having soft spots in your fitness. But there’s no law that says you can’t hit them all in one workout.” Not only is it efficient to visit a spectrum of intensities in a single run, he points out, but it also challenges a runner to “shift gears” effectively, as is often required during tactical races and on event courses with varied terrain.

I call this workout the Groin Shredder because at the very end of it I strained a hip abductor tendon on the left side. It felt like a nail-gut shot, so painful it stopped me dead in my tracks literally within sight of the finish cone after having crushed the workout up to that point. Having experienced my share of injuries over the years, I was absolutely certain my fake pro runner experience was over. But I’d forgotten: I was on a team of real pros, hence able to call upon all of the resources, expertise, and support they use to get back in the game quickly when a setback occurs. Within two hours of the injury I was receiving treatment at Hypo2 Sport, a local facility that provides physiotherapy and other services to NAZ Elite, and over the next few weeks I made a recovery that I wouldn’t have believed possible.

Anyway, let that be a warning to you. Unless you’re extremely fit and highly durable, you’ll definitely want to start with the light version of this one.

The Groin Shredder

Pro Version

• 3 miles easy

• Drills and strides

• 3 miles @ steady state pace

• 4:00 easy

• 4 x 0.5 mile @ critical velocity/1:00 rest (2:00 after the last rep)

• 2 miles @ lactate threshold pace

• 3:00 rest

• 4 x 0.25 mile @ VO2max pace/1:00 rest (2:00 after the last rep)

• 1 mile @ 90% effort

• 3 miles easy

Lighter Version

• 1 mile easy

• Drills and strides

• 3 km @ steady state pace

• 4:00 easy

• 3 x 0.5 mile @ critical velocity/1:00 rest (2:00 after the last rep)

• 2 km @ lactate threshold pace

• 3:00 rest

• 3 x 0.25 mile @ VO2max pace/1:00 rest (2:00 after the last rep)

• 1 km @ 90% effort

• 1 mile easy

Pace Key:

Steady-state: The fastest pace a runner can sustain for about 2 hours—between half-marathon and marathon race pace for most runners.

Lactate threshold: The fastest pace a runner can sustain for about one hour—between 10K and half-marathon race pace for most runners

Critical velocity: The fastest pace a runner can sustain for about 30 minutes—between 5K and 10K race pace for most runners

VO2max: The fastest pace you could sustain for 6–8 minutes—between 1-mile and 5K race pace for most runners

90%: 9 out of 10 RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort)

Photo: courtesy Matt Fitzgerald

The Rude Awakening

In the last several weeks before the Chicago Marathon, Coach Ben had me do a lot of workouts at or near marathon pace. He wanted me to get very efficient and comfortable at this intensity. But not too comfortable—hence this workout. Originally, Ben prescribed the workout I call “the Rude Awakening” as three times three miles at steady-state pace. But then he decided to try replacing the middle segment with a set of cutdown miles—that is, three times one mile at progressively faster speeds—to shake things up a bit.

“I like it because it shows you that you can always run three miles at marathon pace, no matter what’s come before,” Ben says.

Naturally, this only works if you’re fit enough to handle the session. That’s why Coach Ben had me do it eighteen days before Chicago. And, as an extra measure, we even drove to Camp Verde for it. Situated 30 miles south of Flagstaff and nearly 4,000 feet lower in elevation, Camp Verde is where NAZ Elite runners often go to do key workouts in the final weeks before an event. As intended, I felt terrific in the thicker air down there, completing all three parts of it below the target times Ben had given me.

Unlike the Lung Scorcher and the Groin Shredder, this is a workout that I recommend all runners do more or less the same way the pros do. After all, a marathon is the same distance for everyone, and if you’ve trained appropriately for an upcoming 26.2-miler, you ought to be able to handle this workout two to three weeks before race day, and if you can, you will certainly benefit from it. To make it a bit more manageable, just shorten the warm-up and cool-down as in the lighter version.

The Rude Awakening

Pro Version

• 3 miles easy

• Drills and strides

• 3 miles @ steady state pace

• 1 mile easy

• 1 mile @ lactate threshold pace

• 2:00 rest

• 1 mile @ lactate threshold pace minus 4 seconds

• 2:00 rest

• 1 mile @ lactate threshold pace minus 8 seconds

• 3 miles @ steady state pace

• 3 miles easy

Lighter Version

• 2 miles easy

• Drills and strides

• 3 miles @ steady state pace

• 1 mile easy

• 1 mile @ lactate threshold pace

• 2:00 rest

• 1 mile @ lactate threshold pace minus 4 seconds

• 2:00 rest

• 1 mile @ lactate threshold pace minus 8 seconds

• 3 miles @ steady state pace

• 2 miles easy