I absolutely love the Marathon distance. I think it is uniquely challenging and those 26.2 miles are just as much of a mental and nutritional puzzle as they are a physical challenge. It's also unique in that it's the only (non-ultra) distance that you can't train for by running the distance itself in training. In fact, going out and doing runs over 22 miles ends up being counter-productive to racing 26.2 miles.
Rather, to attack the marathon and truly race it, you have to sneak up on it. You have to develop the right fitness in other ways that you can recover from in training, but also give you the confidence to apply that fitness on race day. The marathon requires mental toughness. Often people slow late in the race not because their bodies have to, but rather because their mind gives up. Toughness is a major component of being successful at this distance.
So without further ado:
#1 - You Need More Volume AND Specificity
Beware the "Run a Marathon on 3-4 Days Per Week" training plans. If you have a strong running base already built up, then you can certainly sharpen with intensity and run a single PR. But to consistently string together a progression of PR's in the marathon, you need to attend to both volume AND intensity.
You first need to figure out what you currently have under the hood. If your weekly long runs are consistently hitting 16+ miles every few weeks or so (e.g. 12 14 16 12 14 16...) and you are running these with the last 1/3 of the 16 miler no more than 30 seconds off your goal marathon pace - AND - in the past you've accumulated the 20 20's (20 or more 20+ mile runs in the last 5 years), then you probably have a decent base and should focus more on making those longer runs faster and finishing them stronger.
If on the other hand you smoke 5K and even 10Ks, but can't smoke the 1/2 marathon - then you need more base work first.
I'm not going to go into a detailed training plan since everyone is going to start from a different place. But most often when I talk to folks trying to run the marathon faster, they need to bump up BOTH volume and specific intensity.
I'm a big fan of both aerobic volume (Maffetone Method, Lydiard) AND specific intensity (Renato Conova). These guys are brilliant and you should read everything you can find written by them. They are very different on the surface, but once you start to understand them, you start to see how they fit together.
If you're not into all that research and just want a plan, then I'd suggest:
"Run Faster: From the 5K to the Marathon. How to be Your Own Best Coach"
by Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald
These guys are spot on with regard to how to structure your training and the book includes various training plans for 5K through the Marathon. Better yet though - once you've read the book, you'll know *why* you are doing each workout and how to adjust to suit you specifically.
I've used the plans in this book as the basis for 10K's, 1/2 marathons and marathons. They are very 'Conova' like in their prescribed workouts (which I love). The more I worked through the plans and reflected, the more I realized just how much thought they had put into it. For example - why was one workout doing 2K repeats and another doing 1mi repeats? Simple - 2K is a 'bit more' but also, doing a workout in kilometers changes your mindset a bit and makes you think. It makes it interesting. Like I said, brilliant.
Certainly there are coaches that say that if you are really serious about racing the marathon, then you need to be running a minimum of 60-70 miles over 6 days per week. Talk to the top age groupers in your category and you'll find with few exceptions - they run a lot and they do a lot of marathon, 1/2 marathon and 10K paced runs to really lock in proper pacing. There's just no getting around volume for the marathon. Well - 'proper' volume balanced with 'specificity' :-)
Note that I'm not advocating zooming your mileage up. Ramping suddenly from 30mi per week to 60mi per week is a sure way to injure yourself. What I AM saying is that no matter where you are, chance are you need to bump up BOTH volume AND specific intensity. For example; if you're currently running 30mi over 4 days per week - then getting it up to 45mi over 5 days per week in a season is not an unreasonable goal. Then bumping that to the low 50's over 5-6 days per week in the following season would be a good next step. Within 3-4 years, you'll be far better equipped at competing in the marathon. Sorry - no quick fix here. The marathon requires multiple years to really get good at it.
#2 - Sneak up on Speed with the 10K and 1/2 Marathon
Sometimes people get so focussed on the marathon that they ignore how important it is to become a versatile runner. Many long distance folks just keep more volume but in the process keep slowing down. Don't fall into the 'marathon shuffle' syndrome by just doing volume. Remember the balance of specific intensity I talked about?
Go out and spend a season racing 10Ks and 1/2 Marathons. Work at those paces. You'll recover much faster from those distances and your gains will stack up pretty quickly and safely. And those gains translate DIRECTLY to improving your marathon performance, provided of course you build marathon training on top of that newly developed speed. You do this by running longer and longer intervals at marathon pace or really long segments (like 12+mi) at your target marathon pace plus 10-20 seconds.
For example; 4 weeks out from Chicago I ran a 73mi week that ended with a 20mi run that was structured as 1mi warm-up / 18mi at Marathon Pace + 20s / 1mi cool-down. It was a tough run - more mentally than physically and followed an 8mi easy run the day before. I felt great the next day and felt pretty well recovered two days later. It was a culmination of weeks and weeks of training to get to that level of fitness and it put me in a great position mentally for Chicago 3 weeks after that run.
Other favorites of mine or 3x6mi at 5 seconds faster than marathon pace with 2-3 minutes in between. Start out doing 3x3mi with 3 minutes easy running (NOT jogging) to recover and work up to 3x6mi at 5 seconds faster than MP with only 2 minutes in between. The longer intervals are actually more to build mental toughness. By the time you work up to them your body is more than capable of physically handling them.
#3 - Dial in Your Race Day Nutrition
Everyone is different in this regard, and you really need to practice your race day nutrition on your long runs and C and B races. It's better to get cramps and have to pee on your 20mi training run than trying something new on your race day. Learn what works best for you.
I had a nutritional epiphany after reading some of the Hammer Nutrition articles that I documented here:
And here is how it applied specifically for Chicago (scroll down to the nutritional side-bar):
I had practiced that EXACT same nutrition for Chicago on perhaps 4-5 long runs (probably more) prior to pulling the trigger on it in Chicago. It's that important.
I've tried a bunch of different combinations and timings, both for shorter and longer races. I've figured out what works for me, and I stick with it. I don't vary. It's boring and not very exotic - but it works and that's that.
#4 - Have a Race Plan and Use it to Stay Present in the Race
I used to drift off even during a 10K. Somewhere around mile 4 or so and I'd just zone out. When I'd look at my splits, it showed. I would drift off pace, just enough to mess up my race.
In the marathon it's even harder. It's been said that a marathon is really a 10K race after a 20 mile run. That's about right. If you have done your training and are pacing right, the first 10 miles or so are downright pedestrian and boring. It's easy to get caught up in the moment and go out too fast. It's darn near impossible to positive split a decent PR.
Miles 16 to 22 are equally boring, but they start to hurt if you're doing it right. People talk about 'ignoring the pain' and 'going to your happy place' or something like that. That's the wrong approach because that zoning out means you aren't paying attention and you're bound to make a mistake. You'll fall off pace, run a corner wide, let your form slip or not notice a little headwind and forget to tuck in behind someone. The marathon is all about the little things that add up. People think about their form come mile 18 or so when they feel it start to fall apart. But it's those wasted movements in the early miles that you should have cleaned up - and now it's too late. The glycogen has burned from your body and now you're in survival mode.
You shouldn't be 'ignoring the pain' you need to learn to embrace the pain. To get used to the discomfort that comes with running fast over long distances. By making friends with that feeling of discomfort you become mentally better prepared to deal with it in a race.
The best way to stay present is to have a race plan. There are a lot of ways to create a focus with a plan. You can break up the marathon into 6 mile segments and try to run the first segment 1s per mile slower than your target pace and the next segment 1s per mile faster. Alternate like that and see if you can hit it. Or do it every 3mi. It doesn't matter - it's just keeping you thinking about your pace.
You can break the course up into segments based on their profile. Maybe it's Boston and you're breaking up the first downhill segment, then the flatter segment, then the Newton Hills (not just Heartbreak, but ALL the hills), then the last steep downhill and the near 10K segment to the last couple of finish turns down Boylston St. Maybe you'll throw up your arms as you hit the big crowds to get them to scream.
Or maybe it's Denver and you'll make sure and be up front for the start and run the sidewalk on the downhill towards LoDo to avoid the bottleneck. Remember to set up for the first big left turn and let it fan into the sweeping right behind the Pepsi Center. Then set up all the turns through the city - cut them at the best angles and don't get cut-off running a steady pace 5s less than target pace. Then on the straight downhill to City Park let your stride relax and pick those seconds back up again. Then there is the Colfax out and back (uphill / downhill) - make sure and account for your pacing and your form.
The point is - have it in your head. Study that course and know every turn. Run some of the tricky sections on your training runs. Run the last 3mi at the end of a long run to know what it's going to feel like - try to fast finish on that training run and practice staying loose even though you're tired.
For Chicago my plan was to hit every mile at a dead even pace. There were clocks at each mile marker. I knew what my start time was and during the mile I'd calculate what that clock needed to read as I passed over the mile marker. I made a game of seeing how close I could come and then pick up or *treat* myself by falling off pace a bit to hit that number EXACTLY. That was my plan and I stuck with it - even as it got harder.
Finally - have a plan for what to do when things are outside of your control. You might have a bad day. You might have to hit a port-o-let. Your shoelace might come untied at mile 18. It might be hot, raining, cold, snowing. You might just not have it that day. For Chicago, if it was going to be hot like some previous years - I wasn't going to try and hit paces. I was going to use the race just to see the city and enjoy the run. As it turned out the weather was flawless. I don't remember a lot of the course or sights.
If you have a plan and you're staying 100% present - you're not going to have much time for anything else. Maybe that's not your thing and you don't want to miss out. That's cool too - but work it into your plan. You can still PR - but come race day, you shouldn't be doing a lot of thinking. You should be just executing your plan and adapting.
#5 - Run Even Splits
There are certainly people that can negative split a marathon and they set world records. Mostly they are elites. The distance isn't as much an issue for them - it's the intensity. They are also racing others and they have to play out tactics that may work to the advantages they've trained in.
The majority of conventional wisdom goes to the even splits though for us mortals. Save your negative split attempts for the 10K or even the 1/2 marathon.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have negative splitting in your plan. Just don't start messing with your pace until your past mile 22 or so. If you've really spent the time training and testing your pacing, you'll know within 2-3s what you should run at.
It also doesn't mean that you won't go out a bit fast and positive split the last 10K by a few seconds per mile. Nothing is perfect. But if you see you're out fast in the first 5K, you ought to be working to reel it back in. And in those last few miles, you ought to be working to pick up even 2-3 seconds per mile, EVERY mile. I'm always amazed at how mentally tough it is. I always finish saying that the reason I couldn't pick up the seconds was because I wasn't mentally strong enough. I believe that 100% and it's what I need to keep working on.
Finally - this should tell you that learning to pace by feel is everything in the marathon. In your training, you should come to know what your marathon pace (MP) feels like. You should be able to feel it to within a couple seconds. If you have a GPS, try running for 1/2 mi and checking to see if you can hit it. Then try it again. Try to run at 5 seconds faster than MP. Then 10s faster. Then 5 or 10s slower. Do 'in and outs' (5s faster / 5s slower) over 800s or miles. Learn what your equivalent pace is on packed dirt trails (mine is 5-7 seconds slower than target pace depending on the condition of the trail). Learn what a hill does to your pace in very specific terms. If your course has hills - you should work downhill running until you can smoothly pick up the 'free' seconds you get from doing it right.
Pacing is key. Did I mention that enough times?
BONUS TIP - Hit Your Race Weight at the Right Time
Yep - some people are already at a good race weight. Losing any additional weight could actually hurt their performance. Statistically - you're probably not one of them.
The real trick though is figuring out your ideal race weight and then hitting that during the final few weeks heading into your 'A' race. You can't stay at an ideal race weight all year long. You just need to stay in striking distance. In fact - many people get better training adaption at a slightly heavier weight than race weight (say 3-4% heavier).
So how do you know what your ideal race weight is? Again - you have to experiment. And you want to move that weight down VERY slowly as you get lean. You don't want to drastically restrict calories when you are training either. If you are lean and losing more than a 1/2 lb a week - then that's probably too fast. If you're 155lbs - try getting down to 153lbs before your next race in 6 weeks. See how that race goes. Run a few more at that weight. Let your body adjust. You have to get to know your body.
It's also not always just about losing fat. If you're committed to going faster, then you want to lose anything that's not helping your running. You might like having big biceps - but those aren't helping you run dude. I'm not saying the ideal running body is healthy. I'm just saying it's efficient. Look at cyclists. They look emaciated. It's strength to weight ratio.
If you're interested, there's another couple books on the subject by one of my favorite authors, Matt Fitzgerald (also mentioned earlier):
- Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance
- Racing Weight: Quick Start Guide (companion to the above)
Ok, so maybe you don't want to do all this stuff. Maybe you were looking for the silver bullet like, "Go Minmalist", "Meditate", "Start Taking 12g of Fish Oil Every Day". I didn't say these were easy things to do. I didn't promise that they'd be things you'd even *want* to do. Maybe they'd take the fun out of running. In any of those cases - don't do them. I'm not evangelizing I'm just sharing what I've learned from hundreds of hours of reading and experimenting. Sharing concrete things that work - not just for me, but in general tips that I've gleaned as common threads in what respected coaches advise their athletes. Hopefully, something here will work for you.
About me: A Little Street Cred:
I realize there are people out there that have run more marathons than I have (7 of them to date).
However, for every one of those marathons, I had the same specific purpose - to go faster each time (PR - or Personal Record). And for every single one, I've accomplished that.
Starting with my first marathon in 2008 where my goal was to run sub-4 hours in the Denver Marathon (I made it by 3 seconds) to qualifying for The Boston Marathon (and running Boston the following year), to running a 3:03 in the Chicago Marathon a week before turning 49 years old (last year) - I've pursued the marathon distance with one goal. To consistently keep running faster, even as I got older. I still haven't given up on my ultimate goal, to run sub-3 hours.
Getting consistently faster hasn't been an accident, nor has it been just a result of time on the road; although luck and putting in the miles certainly does come into play. But because I had this goal of getting faster, I've spent a lot of time reading, experimenting and thinking about how to cross those 26.2 miles as fast as my genetics will allow.
I will also say that I'm not particularly genetically gifted. I also don't have a high school or college running background. I've been racing as an endurance athlete for a while, starting as a mountain bike racer in the late 80's, but my entry into serious running didn't start until 2004. Prior to that, I simply ran to stay in shape for cycling - probably no more than 10mi per week.
But in the years specifically pursuing the marathon (starting in 2006), I've learned a ton and I just wanted to share it with those of you that might have a similar goal - even if it's just to run one last PR or to start stringing out a line of PRs at the marathon distance. For me personally, I think there is still fruit to bear in this approach because I shaved no less than 7 minutes off each of my last two marathons.
Ok. Hopefully by now you'll at least find me credible. And hopefully some of this will help you.