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ZAP Your Marathon Fitness: Exclusive Interview With Pete Rea

Want to run a better marathon? Train the ZAP Fitness way.

ZAP Fitness head coach Pete Rea.

Want to run a better marathon? Train the ZAP Fitness way.

Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald

ZAP Fitness coach Pete Rea has coached runners to success at all distances, including the marathon.’s Matt Fitzgerald is currently visiting with the emerging elite runners of ZAP Fitness and he sat down with Rea and asked him to share some of the methods he uses with his marathon runners that could work for you too.

Matt Fitzgerald: First of all, how much time should a runner devote to training for a marathon?

Pete Rea: I always say that the length of a marathon buildup should depend on how fit you are when you go into it. If you’re fairly fit going in—you have a lot of miles in your legs and you’re not coming off injury—then you not only can do a shorter buildup but in many cases should do a shorter buildup. When these people train 16, 18, 20 weeks for a marathon, often they’re ultra-fit 12 or 13 weeks into it and by race day they’re actually a little stale.

The other side of the coin is that if you’re someone who hasn’t been training particularly intensely, and you’re not all that fit even in terms of easy aerobic running, you might need 16, 18, 20, 22 weeks to train for a marathon. So I think you have to ask yourself that question before you start a marathon training cycle: How fit am I?

What place does high-intensity training (speed work, supra-threshold interval training) have in marathon training?

That element of the training, whether you’re trying to run a 2:15 marathon or a 4:15 marathon, I believe is the least important type of training. So we wait to introduce it and when we do it is very much the minority as opposed to the majority.

What type of training should represent the hardest workouts a runner does in marathon preparation?

Threshold-based work. If we’re talking about heart rate, work at 80 to 85 percent of someone’s maximum heart rate for sustained periods. When I say sustained periods, I’m talking about 8, 10, maybe even 12 miles where you’re running at 80 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. Or close to marathon pace or occasionally maybe even a hair faster than marathon pace for a third to even half the distance of a marathon. Or, if you like to break things up mentally, three or four two-mile pickups where you run a hair quicker than marathon pace.

Could you share a couple of peak workouts that would be appropriate for the experienced runner chasing a marathon PR—something on the intensity side and something else on the endurance side?

On the endurance side, a long run that we use here in marathon prep as a fitness booster and a fitness indicator is a long run of 6 miles, to start, that are run very slowly—a minute to a minute and 15 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace. From mile 6 to 12, run 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than whatever your goal marathon pace is. So it’s going to feel fairly hard, but it’s still in control for you. Then the next 6 miles should be at or perhaps even a hair faster than your goal marathon pace. That takes you from 12 to 18 miles. Then take one mile easy, where you run as slow or more slowly than you did the first 6 miles. And then you run 2 to 3 miles as hard as you can to finish, from miles 19 to 21 or 19 to 22.

This is something that you would do once. And you would want to have at least three weeks until your marathon, if that’s the last long run you do, and I wouldn’t even encourage you to make that your last long run.

For something more on the intensity side, I know it’s bread and butter for a lot of people: mile repeats. But mile repeats with a tad more recovery. So instead of threshold miles—running them 10 to 15 seconds faster than marathon pace—you’re running miles more at, say, 10K race pace. And when I say more recovery, I mean 2 or two-and-a-half minutes after each one of them rather than 45 seconds to a minute, which you might do if you’re looking at a true marathon threshold workout.

Finally, how do you recommend that marathoners approach tune-up racing?

I was having this discussion with the former Athletics West coach Bob Sevene recently. He commented that everyone seems to want to run a half marathon now in marathon prep, and that’s a fairly new phenomenon. If you go back to the heyday of U.S. marathon running in the early ‘80s, you didn’t see that phenomenon. But back then, people raced all the time.

I am a fan of racing in the marathon buildup, and—sorry Bob—I am a fan of running the half marathon prep four or five weeks out. But I think athletes need to be of the mentality where they are okay that they might not knock one out of the park. If you’re in marathon training there’s a good chance that you might be heavy-legged.

One of the things I do with most of the people I coach outside of ZAP is I’ll have them run goal marathon pace the first eight miles and let them race the last 5 miles. A lot of people end up running well just by doing it that way.

So, to answer your question, I think running one longer race—a 10-mile, a 20K, a half marathon, or if you can find one, an odd distance like a 25K—that’s a good idea. But I also think it’s a good idea to use it as a marathon pace tester. Also, one or two shorter races like an 8K or a 10K, if for no other reason than to replace one of your normal tempo runs. And for fun—put a number on it.