Four Effective Marathon Workouts

Four Effective Marathon Workouts

Each workout in training should have a purpose – and marathon workouts are no exception. Marathon training is tiring and demanding, so you do not want to waste energy on workouts that aren’t specific to your goal.

(That’s not to say that there are “useless” workouts, but that certain workouts produce more adaptations specific to the goals of the marathon for the time you invest in them. For example, 400-meter repeats will improve your VO2max, but VO2max only goes so far in marathon performance.)

Every coach will have their philosophy on marathon training. I believe that every workout should have a purpose. Marathon-specific workouts (done in the 10-16 weeks before a marathon) should serve the purpose of (1) improving endurance, (2) improving lactate threshold and aerobic threshold, (3) callously the mind and body to fatigue, and (4) improving running economy and supporting good biomechanics.

I also believe that variety is beneficial, both psychologically and physiologically. The more variety you can have in your runs, rather than repeating the same 4-mile tempo run and 800-m repeats every week, the better. Marathon workouts will work a variety of training zones, so that you do not leave behind any aspect of bioenergetic or biomechanical fitness.

If you were to peek into the training plans of my athletes, you may or may not see these workouts. When coaching, I adapt workouts to the demeanor of the runner, their goals, their fitness level, and the profile of the race they are running. Some runners will do hill repeats to prepare for a hilly race, others run short intervals to maintain leg speed. However, these effective marathon workouts appear often through many of my marathon training plans. 

If possible, do these workouts on the road, not the track. The road mimics the demands of the race, including varying terrain, while the track is almost too monotonous. 

These workouts are best for intermediate to experienced runners. If you are training for your first marathon or following a low-mileage plan, these workouts may not be appropriate or may need to be scaled to your needs. 

Four Effective Marathon Workouts

Threshold Intervals

Purpose: Lactate threshold is a predictor of marathon performance. Continuous bouts of moderately-hard running are one of the best ways to improve your lactate threshold. However, long continuous tempo runs can be too fatiguing for some runners during marathon training. Long tempos have their place, but done too often, they can lead to biomechanical breakdown and excessive strain on the nervous system.

Threshold intervals build a small amount of recovery into the workout, thus reducing overall training fatigue. The short recovery intervals also allow you to maintain better running form during the workout. Since the work intervals are shorter, you can typically spend more time at this intensity than if running a continuous tempo. 

Sample Workout: 
10-20 minute warm-up
4-6 x 1 mile at threshold (1-hour race effort), with a 1-1.5 minute recovery jog in between
10-20 minute cool down

Marathon Pace Progression Long Runs

Purpose: If you have a significant time goal for the marathon, you need to learn how to sustain your goal pace on tired legs. The volume of running at marathon pace may not seem significant, but it is enough to mimic the demands of the race and practice pacing without turning your long run into a race effort. 

This type of long run also prepares you for race day pacing. With the taper and excitement, the first few miles of a marathon (if done at marathon pace) will feel relatively easy. You want to learn how to keep your legs under control at the start and then push hard at the end. The marathon pace progression long run teaches you how to pace. If you start out too fast, you will struggle to hit marathon pace at the end. 

Sample Workout: 
18 mile long run, with the first 12 miles easy (1-2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace) and the final 6 miles at marathon pace

Cutdown Workout

Purpose: The marathon demands that you increase your effort as you become more tired. Even if you are not aiming for negative splits on race day, simply maintaining marathon pace will become more difficult in the final 10K. Cutdown workouts – workouts in which the intensity increases as the workout progresses – train you to run faster as you become more tired. You can structure cutdown workouts in a variety of formats. The best cutdown workout for the marathon will start at marathon pace and progressively cut down the pace from there. 

This type of workout also increases your pain tolerance and mental toughness. This is not an easy workout nor always a pleasant one, but you will feel stronger at the end of your marathon as a result. 

Sample Workout: 
1-3 mile warm-up
3 miles at marathon pace
½ mile recovery jog
2 miles at half marathon pace
½ mile recovery jog
1 mile at 10K pace
1-2 mile cool down

Marathon Pace/Interval Combo Workout

Purpose: Muscle fatigue is inevitable during a marathon. When your slow-twitch (endurance) muscles fatigue, your body recruits your fast-twitch muscles (typically used for speed) to take on more load. This workout trains you how to recruit those muscle fibers – and then keep holding marathon pace when these fibers have been used.

Another benefit of combo workouts is how they train multiple physiological systems within one run. During marathon training, you are trying to balance high mileage, long runs, goal pace training, hard workouts, and strength training. One track workout and one tempo run per week is not always feasible nor advisable. Combo workouts train both of those systems while leaving enough time in the week for recovery, long runs, and high mileage.

Importantly, the intervals in between the marathon pace segments should be smooth and controlled. You don’t want to hit VO2max or a pace that leaves you gasping for air. Depending on how long the intervals, between 10K pace and half marathon pace is most appropriate.

Sample Workout:
10-20 minute warm-up
15-18 minutes at marathon pace
3 minute recovery jog
4 x (
90 seconds at 10K pace/90 sec easy – 3 min total after last rep)
15-18 minutes at marathon pace
10-20 minute cool down

By no means are these the best marathon workouts out there – or the only ones I use in coaching. There are dozens of workouts that will prepare you for the marathon – and no single workout is magic. Other staple workouts in marathon training include critical velocity intervals, strides, long run workouts, various tempo runs, and more. Do workouts that challenge you and are specific to the demands of the race – and you will feel ready on race day.

Are you training for a marathon? Learn more about my coaching here

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4 Responses

  1. I like your marathon training philosophy. I am currently training for Marine Corps Marathon and I use a training plan that incorporates some training runs very similar to the ones you describe. I need variety in my marathon training.

  2. I’ve talked a lot about my unconventional marathon training–I trained using a plan developed by my CrossFit coach, but she incorporated a lot of what you talked about here. I did a weekly ‘speedwork’, which started with 800s and progressed to 1, 2, and then 3 mile repeats; there was 1-2x/week HIIT workouts that were specific to tiring me out (lol); and the running, of course, with specific instructions for pacing each one. It was effective and it was fun! I loved the variety and I was strong, running a PR on this plan. Best of all, no injuries and no wall!

  3. I love all of these workouts! My favorite marathon workout is similar to the progression long run. I usually do it during a cut back week for my long run. First three miles about 30 seconds slower than marathon pace. Next three at marathon pace. Next three about 30 seconds faster than marathon pace. Last two easy to cool down.

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