Marathon Training

8 Key Workouts to Master as a Marathoner

These 8 key workouts for each phase of a marathon training block will help you master the 26.2 mile race at whatever level you're at.

Marathoners looking to achieve their best need more than miles: they need a quiver of key marathon workouts to hone every system and all the skills required to run strong for 26.2 miles. Achieving a level of mastery in running has always been measured by an athlete’s achievement on a single day. However, a race performance isn’t determined by a single workout in the athlete’s build up, but the accumulation of their efforts. In other words, the consistency. The workouts below require mastery of many unique properties of a skilled marathoner: from pacing, to testing nutrition and hydration plans, to tackling big hills without breaking form.

These eight workouts test every aspect of a marathoner’s ability and, when executed correctly, highlight a marathoner’s skill while exposing their vulnerabilities.

Early Phase Marathon Workouts

man running in grassy field.
Photo: Andrew Simmons

Workout: 1200m Repeats

Summary

5-6x 1200m @ 10K-5K pace; 2:00 static / jog recoveries.

When to use this workout

This is the perfect workout for early in the season to test your current fitness and measure your ability to pace yourself. The workout provides enough volume to put a moderate load of fatigue in the legs while also giving you enough rest that the paces should be manageable.

Why I like this workout

The generous amount of rest allows you to nail the goal of the workout, and the reps are longer so even if you haven’t done much speed work yet, you’re unlikely to overdo it. This gives you enough rest while still allowing for enough lactic build up so that you can use this as a jumping off point for longer tempo efforts. With 3.5 -4.5 miles of intensity, you can jump to 4-5 miles of marathon work without overextending.

Points for Success 

If you’re early in the season, take the static rest and try to progress reps. If you’re hitting this for a second round in the middle of your build up, be more aggressive in your pacing and hold a steadier pace for the recovery. Static recovery is only useful for an athlete that is returning from a long stint away from any intense work. Making the recoveries a consistent jog or aerobic run is going to teach you body how to mitigate lactate with active recovery.

Workout: 4x4x400m Repeats

Summary 

16x 400m [4x4x400m @ 5K Pace]; 1:00 recovery between reps, 3:00 recovery between sets.

When to use this workout

This workout is a great reintroduction to speed after a series of hills in your early prep phase block. The precursor to this workout is 12-16 x 200-meters on 200-meter recovery, so only jump into this workout once you can confidently finish a series of continuous 200s. This should be one of the first fatiguing efforts in your 2nd block after building a structured base. This is not a good workout to use as one of your first three workouts after a break because the volume, intensity and speed will likely overload your hamstrings. Use this workout when you’re finding it hard to find your goal pace or need a workout that won’t throw you over the edge for 2-3 days, but want some volume in your week.

Why I like this workout

This is a great workout to build an athlete’s turnover in bite size pieces. No one repetition has to be killer and he or she can progress reps within the set, or progress each set. It’s a great mental strength builder without forcing you to go to the well too many times. As a coach, I view this workout less as a top-end Vo2Max session, but more of an economy and stride mechanics workout. You should be able to run these 400s at 5K pace and just start to feel a burn and a push before a near full recovery between sets. 

Points for Success

It’s great to do these 400s broken up with near full recovery so you can get your legs under you. The first set should be conservative so you can feel your legs out — be honest and run no faster than current 5K pace/effort. If you’re still unsure of your current fitness / capacity for this intense effort, start with a static rest and move to a jog recovery between sets if you find yourself recovering very quickly. 

Mid-Phase Marathon Workouts

Man running.
Photo: Andrew Simmons

Workout: Marathon to Half Marathon Pace Progression Repeats

Summary 

3x 10:00 up to 3x 5K @ half-marathon pace, 3:00 float jog recovery between each.

When to use this workout

This workout can be run in the middle of a buildup when you are feeling fatigued, with a static 3:00 rest — or it can be done late term as a final confidence build 10 days out, with a faster run or jog between, to push the legs a final time. The key is to use this workout when your legs can manage longer bouts of marathon-paced work. Use this only once you’ve completed a 22-24-minute continuous tempo at marathon goal pace or faster. The range of 10:00 to 5K really depends on the capability of the athlete. A seasoned athlete is going to be more capable of 3 x 5km while a new runner will be stretched at 3x 10:00. 

Why I like this workout

This is a great “feeler” as you can get gritty in the last 5K if you pace yourself well. It can be either a confidence booster or a reality check if you have been sitting out a few sessions. There is no hiding from this workout because the accumulated fatigue will have your legs noticeably loaded in the first rep.

Points for Success

If you’re new to the marathon, start with the 3x 10 minutes workout – even if you’re aiming for a sub-3:00 marathon. The 3x 5K is a stout workout and will replicate the later stages of the race if you’ve had a big week to go along with this workout. Progression is everything here and we’re looking for a big negative split. Start at or slightly slower than marathon pace and work down to half marathon pace. This will allow you to build confidence with each rep and push harder and harder without going over the top too early.

Workout: 3K-2K-1K Ladders

Summary 

2x [3k at half marathon pace, 2K at 10K pace, 1K at 5K pace]; 2:00 recovery between reps; 4:00 recovery between sets.

When to use this workout

This workout is best used when you’re needing a different stimulus from longer marathon-paced efforts, your legs are feeling “slow” and you are also in need of volume. This workout is a great way to insert some speed and work on efficiency, race day pacing, and general mechanics. This workout is best used in the middle of your build up or a transition workout when prepping for a half marathon or 10K tune-up race. 

Why I like this workout

I like this workout because it requires you hit different energy systems and effectively have to “change gears” each rep. This workout is a dynamic shift away from marathon pace work and will give you a good sense of your current 5K/10K fitness as well as helping you understand how “easy” marathon pace should feel. Lastly, this workout is long and allows you to get in a big effort below marathon pace, which will pay dividends a few weeks out. 

Points for Success

Know your paces and be a little conservative through the first set. Take the entire 4-minute rest and don’t cheat yourself even if you feel good in the first set. The second set will have you working through heaviness in your legs. Pushing through that fatigue is paramount for success in miles 22–26 of the marathon, so this is a workout worth mastering.

Workout: Race Simulator Tempo 

Summary

15-20km tempo run at marathon pace, or half marathon race at marathon pace.

When to use this workout

This is for when you need to know if your race pace is reasonable. This is a workout for a seasoned athlete as a midweek tempo in your biggest training block, or as a final “test” in the middle of a long run to determine the capacity of your legs. This workout is intended to be a controlled effort, but will undoubtedly work you over if completed on a week of heavy mileage or big workouts. The goal is to get comfortable and build confidence at race pace without burning your matches and peaking too early.

Why I like this workout

It’s an absolute “empty the tank” effort that will show you your strengths, weaknesses and everything in-between. Making sure you nail down your hydration and nutrition plan in advance of this workout is a key outcome that will give you great intel for your goal race. I like this workout because it requires you to commit to a pace and be dialed in. Even if it goes completely upside down, you’ll have valuable information about where your fitness is. 

Points for Success

Don’t give up when it starts to get hard. This workout is about stretching your limits to peek over the wall at what you’re capable of. I have found that when you take a progressive approach to an “all-out effort” you often find that there is more in the tank. This is especially liberating when you can hit the final 5K ahead of pace and smash your expectations. Go in with a defined nutrition and hydration plan — take great notes before and after so you can replicate the positives and tease out the negatives.

End Phase Marathon Workouts

Man running.
Photo: Andrew Simmons

Workout: 25 to 5-minute Cut-Downs

Summary

25-15-5 (or 25-20-15-10-5) cut-downs at marathon pace with 2:00 float jogs recoveries in-between.

When to use this workout 

This is best used in the intro week of your final marathon training block as a way to get comfortable with marathon pace. This workout can also be used in the middle of a long run as a way to test your legs for final stages of marathon fitness. 

Why I like this workout

I like this workout because it’s about finding a comfort zone. Mastering this workout means that marathon pace is coming easy and you can sustain it comfortably for at least an hour to 75 minutes. This workout demands your focus and attention, by completing it you can be confident you could run a half marathon as a tune up at marathon pace, if not much faster!

Points for Success

Mastering this workout requires that you break the work down into pieces and stay honest with yourself! If you are completing this workout mid-week, it’s best to start at a conservative marathon pace and work down to your dream goal pace. Make the recovery jog a true jog and let your legs simmer down, if you’re doing it right, each effort should build up to be fairly difficult in the final quarter of each rep, letting you know that you are working hard.

Workout: Fast-Finish Long Run

Summary 

Close out the final 30-45:00 of your long run at a sustained marathon pace.

When to use this workout

This workout is best utilized in a late training phase as a part of your long run to build confidence in your ability to maintain marathon pace at the end of the race. This should not be the first time you run at marathon pace for 30+ minutes and should only be used once you’re confident with your marathon goal pace. Use this as a final workout in a block as it can be extremely taxing at the end of a 16+ mile run. Proper recovery after an effort like this is essential as this workout is extremely taxing. 

Why I like this workout

This workout requires grit, proper fueling strategies, and confidence in your ability to run fast on tired legs. I like this workout because it can pay dividends on future weeks with proper recovery. This workout is a cornerstone of late-stage marathon prep because it also tests your proposed fueling strategy for the marathon. I believe this workout is essential to race-day success because it will bring forth every weakness, from late-race mechanics to fueling, and expose your current fitness.

Points for Success

This requires a significant amount of stamina and focus — this is not a workout to attempt when you are overly stressed or deeply fatigued coming in. Longer efforts like this require you to go to the well and can lead to injury if the body has already been hit a few times earlier in the week. Use this workout sparingly — only 1-2x per training cycle — as the depth you have to dig can dull the race day blade and lead to extensive fatigue. I believe that this workout is best performed with a 1-day taper or by simply giving yourself an easier lead-in than you might for your normal long run. 

Workout: 3-Minute Hill Reps

Summary 

8 x 3:00 hills @ marathon pace (moderate grade hill @ 4-6%); jog down the hill for recovery.

When to use this workout

Use this workout at the end-phase of your training especially for hilly courses where you need to confidently move over the hills at pace. Three minutes is an extensive amount of time to be running at this intensity so your marathon pace should be fairly comfortable and come easy. This workout is best used once you have confidently completed reps of at least 2 minutes uphill. 

Why I like this workout

This is a great reminder of how to breathe efficiently and lock in your running form on hills. These hills are long, so they cannot be at max effort, and should be seen as a strength workout and confidence booster. The goal of this workout is to maintain a steady pace up the incline, so find a solid continuous hill without too much change in its steepness. I like this workout because long hills build tolerance to lactate and are a great way to get comfortable with discomfort in short bouts. 

Points for Success

This isn’t intended to be an “ease into it” type of effort — you should be focused on finding pace early and staying in that groove. You should aim to lock in pace and focus on good mechanics with big arms and proper hip extension (arms and legs driving back). These hills are a great time to practice your breath work and hold off strained, high-chest breathing as long as you can. This workout is great practice for staying cool under pressure.

Part of the Larger Puzzle

This is only the tip of the iceberg as far as good buildup workouts go. However, over years and years of coaching I have found that these staple workouts help build confidence throughout the training cycle and give me a great understanding of my athletes’ fitness and capabilities. Similarly, these workouts are adaptable to athletes of nearly every ability and provide valuable feedback about structural concepts like pacing, physical literacy (how well they know their capability), and general fitness cues (heart rate values, pace values, etc.). Use these workouts to assess your athlete’s mastery of different concepts and determine their readiness for interim and “A” races. 

Andrew Simmons is head coach of Peak Performance Running and Lifelong Endurance.