Marathon training is usually associated with long runs and high mileage – and for good reason. Training to complete this challenging distance requires a really solid running base with plenty of training runs and fueling practice. But with so much emphasis placed on mileage, it’s easy to overlook another important element of marathon training: speed workouts.
Regardless of your goals for the marathon, incorporating speed workouts and intervals into your training plan will help improve your overall fitness, stamina and mental endurance – all of which are key for success during the marathon.
Many runners sign up for their first marathon with a single goal in mind: complete the distance. And while distance training should be the priority (especially for first time marathoners), strategically throwing in a few marathon speed workouts will help your body prepare for the stress of race day.
Key marathon workouts differ from speed workouts for shorter distance races in a few ways. For one, the overall distance of the training run is usually longer during marathon training, requiring a lengthy warm up and cool down.
Oftentimes during marathon training, speed workouts involve intervals thrown into longer runs to increase your turnover for a certain amount of time, before returning to your regular pace.
Any quality marathon training plan involves a few weekly intervals, completed at paces that are quite a bit faster than your goal race pace, mixed in with long runs and easy miles completed at a pace that is significantly slower than your goal race pace.
You may be surprised to find that during marathon training, you are running at your goal pace very infrequently.
Throwing in a few marathon speed workouts throughout training is an excellent way to test your mental strength, improve your fitness, and prepare your body for the physical strain of race day.
Marathon workouts often involve these four elements: 400s, 800s, mile repeats and tempo runs. Each interval and workout is completed at a different speed depending on its length, and is always followed by a recovery period.
Check out the 6 essential marathon speed workouts to run a faster marathon and get your next PR!
6 Essential Marathon Speed Workouts for a New PR
10 x 400s
These short, 400 meter intervals are a great way to practice increasing your turnover and being in complete control of your speed. Each 400 meter interval is followed by a 400 meter recovery interval, and continues to alternate throughout the workout.
In the beginning of training, you’ll want to start off with less repetitions and gradually work your way up to ten 400 meter repeats by the last few weeks of training. Start of simple with 4 x 400s and increase the number of repetitions every few weeks as your stamina increases.
Yasso 800s are a staple in many marathon training plans, and have been for years. This simple marathon workout can be used to help predict your overall finish time. Simply complete 10 x 800s and take the average time of completion for each 800 to determine your marathon finish time.
For example if your average time for ten 800s is 3:57, this translates to a predicted finish time of 3 hours and 57 minutes. This prediction is said to be most accurate with 10 repetitions – if you are just starting out with 4 x 800s, take a few weeks to build up your stamina and increase the number of repetitions until you reach 10.
Complete each 800 meter interval at a pace that is faster than your goal race pace, and recover with 400 meters at an easy pace. While the concept might be simple, the 800 meter interval is just enough to really test your ability to hold on when you are running paces that are much faster than usual. Not to mention the fact that the 400 meter recovery period feels like it flies by!
Adding a few simple mile repeats to a regular week day run is a great way to incorporate some marathon speed workouts into your training. The simple idea of running a mile at a fast pace, followed by an 800 meter recovery period and repeating is easy enough to implement into just about any run.
These mile repeats are a great way to push your body outside of its comfort zone and really test its ability to hold on when things get tough. You’ll want to complete at least a mile warm up before beginning your mile repeats. Challenge yourself to complete each mile repeat about 60 seconds faster than your goal pace for race day.
1 x 400, 1 x 800, 1 x 1, 1 x 800, 1 x 400
This simple pyramid workout is a great way to mix things up both mentally and physically. The interval distance gradually increases to a mile before decreasing back to just 400 meters during this workout. Each interval should be completed at a different pace, running faster the shorter the distance.
Aim to complete 400 meters at a pace that’s about 90 – 120 seconds faster than your goal pace, 800 meters at a pace that’s about 60 – 90 seconds faster than your goal pace, and 1 mile about 60 seconds faster than your goal pace.
When the interval is shorter than a mile, it may take a bit of math to calculate your pace based on your interval time.
For example, if your goal pace on race day is 10 minutes per mile, try running your mile repeats at a 9 minute/mile pace.
Your 800 meter intervals can be completed at an 8:30 – 9:00 minute pace, which translates to completing 800 meters in 4:15 – 4:30. Your 400 meter intervals can be completed at an 8:00 – 8:30 minute pace, which translates to completing 400 meters in 2:00 – 2:08.
1 x 1, 1 x 800, 1 x 400, 1 x 800, 1 x 1
This reverse pyramid workout utilizes the same concept as the previous marathon workout, but in reverse. This time, you’ll begin the speed workout with your longest interval, decrease to a 400 meter interval, and then increase back up to a mile.
This marathon speed workout really tests your mental endurance, as you’re forced to build back up again after completing the first half. Aim to complete each interval using the same pace calculation as mentioned in the previous workout, with a 400 meter recovery after intervals shorter than a mile, and 800 meter recover for mile long intervals.
Incorporating tempo miles into long runs is a great way to test your speed on long runs when your legs are fatigued. Complete these tempo miles consecutively, in the middle of a long run. Throw them in on long runs every other week or every few weeks to test your turnover and pickup when you’re fatigued.
Begin with just 2 or 3 tempo miles near the beginning of training, and build up to about 6 tempo miles as you near the end. These tempo miles should be completed at a pace that’s about 45 seconds faster than your goal pace, which will feel unusually fast compared to the slow, easy pace of your long runs.
Regardless of whether you’re training for a marathon simply to complete the distance or to set a new PR, these speed workouts are essential for any runner. From your first marathon all the way to your fiftieth, incorporating workouts on a regular basis is a great way to improve overall fitness, increase VO2 max and gain some much-needed mental strength.
Training for a marathon is one of the most rewarding experiences, whether or not you accomplish your goals. The challenge of increasing your mileage, hitting new distances and staying healthy through it all requires more than just a physical effort.
With each challenge that you overcome, your body and mind gain strength and willpower that will propel you through the miles and pain on race day. Incorporating simple intervals and workouts throughout training will provide a much-needed mental boost, knowing that you have completed paces far faster than your goal pace.
Whether you include one or all of these workouts into your marathon training plan, your body and mind will be better for it.
More running speed workouts:
- The 3 Best Running Workouts to Increase Your Speed
- Running Hill Training: Why, How and 3 Workout Ideas
- The Ultimate 400 Meter Interval Running Workout
- 4 Variations for Your Next Tempo Run