Marathon Specific Workouts

Marathon Specific Workouts

The marathon is simple to train for if your goal is just to finish: run more miles. However, if you are looking to improve your time or qualify for the Boston Marathon, you need to train in order to run a faster marathon – which means incorporating marathon specific workouts into your training. 

Marathon Specific Workouts

One of the most popular marathon training workouts seems to be Yasso 800s. Running coach Bart Yasso developed this workout, which is supposed to predict your marathon finish time. It’s a simple workout: after a warm up, you run 10 x 800 meters as fast as you can while maintaining the same pace for each repeat. Your average time in minutes and seconds should predict your marathon finish time in hours and minutes. So if I went out and ran 10 x 800 meters in an average time of 3 minutes and 30 seconds, then theoretically I would be in the shape to run a 3:30 marathon. If you added Yasso 800s to your training, you would run them in every week and begin with 4-5 Yassos and build up to 10 throughout your training cycle.

Now, Bart Yasso is an incredibly gifted runner and intelligent person who knows significantly more than I do about marathons and running, so I by no means am bashing him or the Yasso 800s. However, in the limited time of marathon training, you may want to focus on different workouts than Yasso 800s, especially as you approach the final few weeks before your race. Why?

What are Marathon Specific Workouts?

Many runners swear by Yasso 800s, while others find that Yassos predict a time 5-10 minutes faster than their finish time. Why is this? First off, each runner is gifted with a different percentage of fast twitch and slow twitch muscles. Runners with more slow twitch muscles are excellent distance runners and can sustain a moderate pace for a long time, while those with more fast twitch muscles can push themselves hard and fast for a short amount of time. That’s why some runners can run a 3:30 marathon yet struggle to break 20 minutes in the 5K, while others can easily run sub-20 minute 5Ks without getting close to the 3:30 marathon barrier. Runners with more fast twitch muscles are likely to do really well at Yassos but then not perform according to their prediction come marathon race day.

Beyond this, 800 repeats are simply a different physiological demand than the marathon. Even a long speed session such as 10 x 800 requires speed, not endurance; you can blaze through 10 repeats of half a mile but not have the endurance necessary to run a fast marathon. Nor do Yasso 800s train you for the specific demands of the marathon, as this Runners Connect article explains.

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Marathon Specific Workouts

Marathon Specific Workouts

One of the primary rules of race training is the law of specificity. Your training should be tailored towards the specific physiological demands of your event. If you’re running a 5K or 10K, which are 10-15% anaerobic, you must develop both your aerobic and anaerobic fitness. This can be done through VO2max speed workouts such as 200, 400, 800, and 1600 meter repeats at 5K pace or faster.

The marathon, however, is almost a completely aerobic event. It is, after all, a true endurance race, rather than a near-sprint effort as the 5K is. While speed work does play a role in marathon training, it should not be the primary focus of your workouts. To run your best time at the marathon, you want to train at paces closer to your goal marathon pace, which include your easy running pace, a moderate/marathon pace, and threshold pace. 

So what are some marathon specific workouts? Think long: long intervals at threshold pace, long runs with progressing to marathon pace, long steady state/marathon pace runs. These workouts will build your marathon specific speed, increase your endurance, and, most of all, mentally prepare you for the demands of the marathon.

Progression Long Runs: This variation on the traditional long run will optimally prepare you for the marathon-specific demand of running on tired legs (they’re also a great workout for half marathoners!). Fast finish long runs are performed exactly how they sound: you finish your long run at a fast pace, in the range of half marathon to marathon pace. For example, begin an 18 mile long run at an easy and conversational pace for the first 12 miles and then pick up the pace to marathon pace or slightly faster for the final 6 miles.

Long Marathon Pace Runs: Many of the great marathon coaches—Pfitzinger, Daniels, Canova—incorporate long runs at marathon pace in the last few weeks of their training. The Hansons Marathon Method, for example, builds you up to 10 miles at goal marathon pace, and Pfitzinger’s 18/70 plan peaks at a 17 mile run with 14 miles at marathon pace. Marathon pace runs (also known as steady state runs) will physiologically prepare you for the precise demands of the marathon, namely, holding a moderately hard pace for an extended period of time. These runs teach you not to go out too fast and how to maintain your pace when fatigue sets in.

Some methods, such as the Daniels’ Running Formula or Brad Hudson’s Run Faster from the 5K to Marathon, utilize long repeats at marathon pace throughout the long run, rather than continuous running at race pace. Long repeats at marathon pace prevent a long run from turning into a mini-race itself – and thus prevent overtraining or peaking too early. 

Long Repeats: One of the rules of Canova’s extended specific endurance training is that all track workouts render physiological adaptations that are directly transferable to the marathon. The length of your speed intervals should directly correspond to the length of your goal race: short intervals for 5Ks and 10Ks, long intervals for the marathon and half marathon.

The Hansons Marathon Method and the Jack Daniels Running Formula, along with other plans The volume of these intervals is high as well, totaling 6 miles of hard running. An example of long interval workouts is 2 x 3 miles at threshold or half marathon effort, with enough warm up and cool down to total 10-12 miles. Longer intervals done closer to marathon pace are much more specific to the demands of the marathon than shorter intervals at 5K pace.

Fasted Long Runs: Coach and sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald suggests this long run for marathoners and half marathoners in his book The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition. Relying too heavily on supplemented carbohydrates during all of your long runs will improve your fat-burning capacity, which in turn will make you a more efficient endurance runner and less likely to hit the wall on race day. Fitzgerald suggests doing half of your long runs in the hour to two hour range (so 7 to 16 miles for most runners) without any carbohydrates during the run.

Whether you opt for glycogen depletion runs or a more moderate and safer approach of training low carb on your long runs, learning to run without fuel can help your body break through the wall on race day – especially if you follow Fitzgerald’s approach of high-carb fueling for races. 

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Questions of the Day:
Have you done Yasso 800s before? How did they work for you?
What marathon specific workouts do you include in your training?
Have you ever done fasted long runs?


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21 Responses

  1. I’ve never done the full build up to 10 yasso 800s but I have included them in training from time to time….I actually use them more to build up to longer workouts like mile repeats and tempo runs. They are a tough workout but I agree that they are not marathon specific. I also have a feeling if I did yasso 800s they would predict a race time 5-10 minutes faster than I could run a marathon.

    1. 800s are definitely a great build up workout – I think it did them once or twice early in my Hansons training to prepare for longer and more specific work. I’ve heard it’s common for them to predict too fast marathon times!

  2. I agree with this philosophy completely, it’s how I structure my own training and the training for my runners. I always include speed work early in a training cycle and then switch to more marathon specific workouts in the final phase before taper. Right now I’m in the marathon specific phase and I love it….doing speed work in the summer was so rough!

  3. I typically fast for any run under 16 miles. It’s a little different now with the coaching (as I run down there and then have a banana), but I still rarely take in nutrition while we are out there. Great rundown!

  4. I don’t do Yasso 800s because I don’t do marathons, but one of my favorite speed workouts is 6 x 800m. I am doing speed workouts for 5K-10K though. I don’t see how anyone thinks 10 x 800m is marathon specific because you are running and “practicing” a pace much faster than your marathon pace. It probably does more harm than good because people will run them fast to try to reach the time they want for the marathon (whether they’re capable or not) and also just sets people up to think they can run that when a ‘thon requires way more endurance. Not to mention recovering from a workout like that, especially if you run it too hard.

    My favorite workout for half marathons is long tempo run (6-7 miles) at goal pace. I am definitely a Hansons follower in that respect and think that’s more important than long slow distance ;). I do my morning runs fasted (5-8) but usually if I am going 10-12, I eat…

    1. Yes, yes, I totally agree with you! Practicing pace is so important, and 6 x 800m is a great way to practice pace for 5K/10K but not longer races. There’s a huge difference between having the speed to do Yasso and having the endurance for a marathon. I love the half marathon long tempos also – so excited to start training for half marathons again!

  5. Great post! I did all of these during my last marathon training and I swear by them. While I never purposely did a “fasted” long run, many of my long runs are like this because I find I just don’t really need that much fuel when I run (although I went through two packs of Shot Bloks during the race!).

    I agree about Yasso 800s. I’ve never understood why they have such a cult following. I much prefer mile repeats during training, they felt like really good marathon prep plus I found them much easier to pace (albeit more grueling!). I did some 800s during my first marathon training and the prediction was about 10 minutes too fast for me (although I never went up to the full 10). There was an article on Competitor Running that basically stated a lot of what you said; the accuracy people get from the Yasso 800s predictor is basically just a coincidence, there’s no actual science behind it.

    1. They really do have such a cult following! My husband Ryan was saying the same thing – there’s no actual science or conversion of units, just coincidence for enough runners for it to catch on. Mile repeats and longer are a much better workout!

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah! I make a lot of naturally gluten free recipes – oats, rice bowls, squashes, potatoes, and veggie based dishes – but I don’t make any of my breads or baked goods gluten free because of the role gluten plays in baking and the fact that gluten doesn’t bother me. There are a lot of gluten free meals in the ebook, but all the breads are whole wheat.

  6. I love Yasso 800s! I mean, I hate them and love them. They’re so effective. I learned how to do fasted long runs when I was training for my ultra. They hurt, but they work.

  7. I’m a slow twitch runner and my yassos have never predicted my marathon times. I’ll struggle with yassos and don’t do them anymore because they make me doubt myself, and even push too hard to where I hurt myself. I love fast finish long runs and also do a few fasted long runs, up to 18 miles. As time consuming as it is I think I was meant for distance 🙂

  8. Another awesome post. I haven’t done Yasso 800s altho I have a lot of friends who do them. My coach has me do mile repeats, 2m repeats, and the dreaded 3m repeats…Her thought is that the goal is a long run with endurance. I’m finding this kind of speed work to be very effective!

  9. Great article, a good summary of the similarities in many marathon training systems. I’m a 57 year old triathlete who also runs marathons for training (seven races between 3:04 and 3:22 in last two years). In the winter (I live in an extremely snowy area) I sometimes run from 2-3 hours indoors, mostly jogging, but a few miles strung together here and there at 8:00 to 7:45, and an occasional mile at 7:20 or so with a jogging mile afterwards, to break up the monotony. This in a period when I’m mostly snow biking and Nordic skiing, but then when I hit the roads in March I feel pretty good.

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