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It’s not uncommon for marathoners to get stuck at a plateau, especially if you’ve already taken large chunks of time off your existing personal best. Taking your marathon training to the next level means getting smarter and more specific with your key workouts, particularly the long run. Transitioning from slow, time-on-your-feet affairs to aggressive, energy-specific efforts that challenge the physiological systems you’ll rely on during the race are of the utmost importance.
When examining the training schedules of faster marathoners who’ve plateaued in their race times, I have found a nearly universal reliance on a greater number of moderate long runs rather than a few specific, challenging longer efforts. Over the course of 12 weeks, some schedules have as many as six or seven easy 18 to 20-mile long runs. These runs provide limited aerobic benefit once you’ve reached a certain fitness level. As famous elite marathon coach Renato Canova says, “What does a two-hour easy run have to do with the marathon? Nothing.”
It’s this shift in thinking–from believing that six 18 to 20-mile easy or moderate long runs is the best training approach to understanding that you absolutely must include hard, marathon-specific long runs–that will ultimately take your marathon times to the next level.
Get Specific With Marathon-Pace Runs
The first thing to note is that these long run workouts are not for everyone. Before transitioning to more challenging long runs, you should have a few years of training under your belt and be running at least 50 to 60 miles per week. While many coaches might argue that you need more training under your belt, I have had a lot of success with runners at this volume level. The long runs will test your limits and put you on the edge.
One of the most important elements to marathon success is being able to burn a higher percentage of fats versus carbohydrates when running at marathon pace. The longer you can maintain your glycogen stores, the farther into the marathon you can go before the brain and muscles, in the absence of glycogen, start to slow you down.
Running slower than marathon pace will burn a higher percentage of fat compared to carbohydrates, but you need to be able to do that at marathon pace to have success on race day. To accomplish this, you must run at or near marathon pace for extended periods of time. Obviously, one of the best places to do that is during the long run.
Below are two extremely specific, very challenging marathon long runs you can implement in the last six to eight weeks of your marathon training schedule that will help you break through your existing plateau.
Finish Fast: Progressive Long Runs
Many experienced marathoners are familiar with the fast-finish long run. Run easy to moderate for half or three-quarters of the run and then finish the last 3 to 5 miles at goal marathon race pace. This is a great workout and a good first step toward making your long runs more marathon-specific; however, if you’ve been training for a long time, you need to increase the stimulus and take this long run to the next level.
The 22-mile progressive fast finish long run starts with 3 miles at an easy pace to warm up. From miles 4 through 12 you’ll target a pace that is 5 percent slower than goal marathon pace. For those of you who struggle with math (like I do!), that’s usually going to be about 15 seconds slower than goal marathon pace, so not a really hard pace, but challenging enough.
Miles 12 through 18 should be run at goal marathon race pace. Not only is this a good way to practice locking into marathon pace on tired legs, but you’re also starting to teach your body to burn fat as your glycogen stores deplete and you have to continue to run at a moderate effort.
Now comes the hard part. Miles 18 through 22 should be run 3-5 percent faster than goal marathon race pace. Three percent is about 10 seconds per mile faster than goal pace for most, or just slower than half-marathon race pace, which will be very difficult. Again, you’ll be low on glycogen and training yourself to mentally and physically push when you’re tired.
Finish off the run with 5 to 10 minutes of of easy jogging to cool down. This is a hard effort and you need to recover accordingly in the following days before undertaking your next hard session.
Pick It Up: Surging Long Runs
The Squires Long Run is a long run that incorporates surges and was a staple workout of legendary Greater Boston Track Club coach Bill Squires. “The meat of the workout is a series of surges inserted into the middle hour of your weekend long run,” says coach Mario Fraioli. “Squires suggests surging for anywhere from 30 seconds to 12 minutes – the shorter the surge, the faster the pace.”
To make this long run even more marathon-specific, we can incorporate some of the principles we learned from a prior discussion of lactate clearance. We not only want to train the body to clear lactate quickly at marathon pace, but we also want to trigger high levels of glycogen depletion and further improve your ability to burn fat as a fuel source at marathon pace.
Like the Squires long run, this workout is a 22-mile long run with a series of 60-90 second surges. However, instead of running easy between the surges, you will run marathon pace as your “rest”. The surges should be between 10K and half marathon race pace. The 4-5 minute “rest” portions in between are run at goal marathon pace.
Surging at 10K pace will burn through more glycogen than running at a moderate, marathon-paced effort. As you slow back down to marathon pace, your body realizes it must conserve glycogen for these 60-90 second bursts and attempts to use fat as a primary fuel source at this pace.
For a 3-hour marathoner, the workout would look something like this: 22-mile long with 8 x 90-second surges at 6:15/mi pace with 5 minutes at marathon pace (6:45/mi) for 4 to 5 minutes in between surges, starting at mile 12. Finish the run off with a few minutes of easy jogging.
This long run will include 40 minutes of running at marathon pace and 12 minutes at 10K pace. That’s 52 minutes of hard running between miles 12 and 20. This is a workout that combines the best benefits from two very marathon-specific workouts.
These long runs are very challenging and will require a few days of easy running to fully recover and be ready for another hard session. I have athletes take no less than two easy days after a long run of this caliber and sometimes have three easy days scheduled before the next workout.
Likewise, you should only schedule two or three of these long runs during your training cycle. Spread them out by at least two weeks, with at the last one occurring no closer than three weeks before your goal race. This will ensure that you absorb the hard work and are ready to break through your existing plateau.