How To Add Speed Workouts To Marathon Training
You know the saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint?” It may be used as a reminder to stop moving at warp speed and stay present, but it’s also clearly inspired by the idea that you can’t run 42.2 kilometres at an all-out, 110 percent effort. But just because you run a marathon at a slower pace than your fastest kilometre doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add speed workouts to marathon training. Logging speed will still come in handy when you’re working your way to a PB.
Why Add Speed Workouts to Marathon Training?
Speedwork is actually one of the most crucial parts of marathon training (in addition to endurance and strength training, of course). “It gets you out of your comfort zone, forces you to run with more efficient form, teaches you recovery tools, and prepares you for the rush of adrenaline you’ll experience on race day,” says Jerry Snider, an exercise physiologist and USATF-certified coach.
You know long runs are important, but speed workouts are important for marathon training, too. “Doing volume doesn’t make you faster, it helps you resist fatigue,” adds Joan Scrivanich, a certified strength and conditioning coach, exercise physiologist, and running and triathlon coach at Rise Endurance. “And if you always train at the same speed, you can’t expect to race any differently.”
What Are the Benefits of Speed Workouts?
While you can resist fatigue for a large part of a marathon, it’s eventually going to hit. And that’s where your speed training comes in. Think about your form when you sprint: Your knees drive high, your legs kick back toward your butt, your arms pump to propel you, every step is about precision…That’s good running form. “As you learn proper form, you’ll run more efficiently at all speeds and distances,” says Snider. “That form helps you conserve energy, prevent injury from wasted movements, and breathe properly when your body is stressed.” Like, at the end of 42.2km? Exactly.
Speaking of breathing, speed workouts also help increase your VO2 max, or how efficiently your body uses oxygen. “That’s a very important piece of the equation for a distance runner,” says Snider. “The more oxygen you can consume and use properly throughout your run, the longer you’ll be able to hold a pace.” Speed workouts teach your body to consume more oxygen simply because you can’t continue the workout without it. You know when else your body needs more oxygen? After running 20-plus miles.
“The stress from running fast also helps build leg strength and a higher lactate tolerance,” says Scrivanich – so when you start feel the burn on race day, you’ll be able to push past it. It’s hard to replicate what kilometres 32-42.2km feel like in a race, but running a speed workout will stress your body in a similar way in a shorter amount of time and distance.
What Kind of Speed Workouts Should You Do?
There’s another saying: “To run fast, you need to run fast.” It’s not quite that simple, but there are a couple of different speed workouts you can do, and each has its own benefits. Here are some workouts you do to do train to run a marathon faster.
This drill will help improve your form and mechanics, and you can do it at the beginning or end of any workout. “Striders are short accelerations where you start slowly, quickly build up to about 95 percent of your max speed, then slow down,” explains Scrivanich. “The total length can be anywhere from 50 metres to 100. The focus isn’t so much on speed as it is quick leg turnover. Think ‘fast feet.’”
During these workouts, you have a defined rest period between speed repetitions. “Your intervals could be kilometre repeats, 400-metre repeats, or a set of different distances,” explains Snider. “For kilometre repeats, you might do 8 x 1km with 4 minutes in between each interval. That rest could be either jogging or walking, depending on how your legs feel.” Just don’t forget to do a proper warmup and cooldown before doing the workout.
Swedish for “speed play,” fartleks aren’t necessarily a structured workout; it’s more of a way for you to play with speed. “Once you’re warmed up, pick up the speed to a moderate to moderate/hard effort level for as long or as short as you feel like going,” says Scrivanich. There is no set structure.
“You can use a landmark goal or time goal to run until, or just go by feel.” Then give yourself some time to recover and do it again. Since you never stop, it’s more difficult than it sounds – but it will increase your stamina.
Tempo runs are the easiest to explain: “Simply decide on a distance or time, then run at your race pace or slightly faster for that distance of time,” says Snider. That distance or time should be sandwiched by a one- or two-kilometre warm up and cool down, and you should be running faster than a conversational pace. The point: to increase your lactate threshold so you can run faster more easily.
Looking for a more specific workout to try? Susan Paul, exercise physiologist, running coach, and program director for the Orlando Track Shack Foundation recommends these three speed workouts for marathoners:
- Run two sets of 6 x 400 metres at 5K pace; jog 200 metres for recovery. Take 4 minutes recovery between sets.
- Run 6-8 x 800 at 10K pace; jog 200 metres for recovery.
- Kilometre Repeats: Run 4 x 1km at 30 to 45 seconds faster than your goal race pace. Take 3 minutes recovery between kilometre repeats. Do these on the road, not the track. Paul recommends all track workouts be no longer than 8 kilometres. For longer workouts, head to the road.
When Should You Do Speed Training?
You should begin your training by focusing on building your mileage first. Increase your weekly mileage (typically by no more than 10 percent per week) and lengthen your long runs to expand your aerobic endurance base. “Once you have a base, your body will be better prepared to take on the challenge of increasing speed,” says Scrivanich.
After you increase your weekly mileage for three to four weeks, plan a “cut back” week where you drop your mileage volume by about 30 percent for recovery purposes. That’s a great time to start adding in speed work. “I recommend starting with one or two speed workouts,” says Snider. “Then about eight to 10 weeks before your race, start adding them in with more regularity – two or three times a week.” Kilometre repeats and long fartleks are great staple workouts to start with, then gradually move on to workouts built for more speed.
“The further out you are from a race, you want to work on speed endurance: hard efforts with short recoveries,” says Scrivanich. “Closer to the race and during your taper, you want to work more on straight speed – still a hard effort, but with longer recovery periods.”
But listen to your body, and always be prepared to sacrifice a speed workout for the greater good of the upcoming race. “If your workout isn’t going as planned – either you’re not hitting the pace you want, or you simply don’t have the energy to keep going, stop the workout and just run,” says Snider. “It’s far worse for your legs to run a mediocre workout than it is to simply run mileage and come back in the next day or two and try again.”