How and Why to Include a Speed Segment in Marathon Training

How and Why to Do a Speed Segment in Marathon Training

If you follow my training for the California International, you may have noticed that I did some unconventional workouts for marathon training: short fartlek runs and hill repeats. The first five weeks of my marathon training were spent doing a speed segment with a focus on shorter, faster intervals at 3K-5K pace. I had built my base back up after I sprained my foot and was wanting to regain any speed I had lost during my time off.

The training plan I designed is based on the training philosophies of Brad Hudson. One aspect Hudson’s plan emphasizes is training all areas of fitness during the introductory and fundamental phases of training – including speed during marathon training. 

Six weeks into marathon training, the focus on speed development has paid off: I ran my fastest set of mile repeats this week and my tempo paces are back to my pre-injury fitness. 

Should you do a speed segment in your marathon training? Every runner is different, so what works for me may not work for you and vice versa. Today’s post will cover how and why to do a speed segment in marathon training. 

How and Why to Include a Speed Segment in Marathon Training

The Benefits of a Speed Segment:

1. Improve your running form and economy

Efficient running form matters during the marathon. You don’t want to waste energy because you slouch or shuffle your feet during the marathon. Speed work will increase your cadence, reduce inefficiencies in your stride, and teach you to maintain good form even when you’re tired (like at the end of a marathon).

2. Prevent you from peaking too soon

We have all gotten excited about a goal race and starting running lots of miles at goal pace from day one. Even if you’re following the hard/easy principle of training, doing too many miles at goal pace too far out from your race can cause you to peak early and feel flat on race day.

With a speed segment, your focus is on running workouts faster than goal pace. You won’t peak too early in the marathon when you’re not running too many marathon paced miles in those first few weeks of training.

3. Increase your speed

So this is a very obvious benefit but certainly one worth reiterating: a speed segment will help you run faster. When marathon long runs build up to 17+ miles and your quality workouts focus on practicing goal race pace, you won’t have the time or energy to build speed. Nor should you in those later weeks of highly specific race training – short and fast intervals are not specific to the marathon.

The early weeks of marathon training provide you with a bit flexibility in terms of your workouts, particularly if you are training for 16-20 weeks. If you are aiming to PR in your next marathon, the speed segment is your opportunity to jumpstart some speed into your legs to help you reach that goal.

How and Why to Include a Speed Segment in Marathon Training

How to Do a Speed Segment:

Before all else, a speed segment hinges upon your aerobic base. If you are newer runner who has not spent at least a year building your aerobic base through easy runs, focus on your base and save the speed segment for later marathons.

Marathon training can be divided into phases. Depending on whether you use linear or non-linear periodization,  your phases will vary. If you employ linear periodization, your speed segment may be devoted completely to speed development (such as Hansons Marathon Method’s speed phase). I personally utilize non-linear periodization, so my speed segment still had a sprinkle of progression runs and marathon paced runs. 

Since the overarching goal of marathon training is to build your endurance and improve your aerobic threshold, a speed segment should last no longer than 4-6 weeks at the start of marathon training. Training in the 12 weeks before the race should focus more and more on marathon specific fitness.

1. Keep your mileage moderate.

The speed segment is not the time to jump up to those high volume marathon training weeks. You can gradually increase your mileage (particularly if you have run that mileage before). But increasing both intensity and volume at once can be a recipe for injury.

That said, you don’t want to sacrifice mileage for speed workouts. This is still marathon training and you want to get in the appropriate volume even 3-4 months out from the race.

During my speed segment, my mileage hovered around 38-40 miles. This is less than the 50-55 miles per week I plan on sustaining during my sharpening phase. However, this isn’t low mileage; for me, this is still decent weekly mileage.

2. Keep your workouts manageable.

Since this is marathon training and not 5K training, you don’t need to do gut-busting track workouts. A little bit of faster running goes a long way in terms of speed development and won’t fatigue your legs before your long run.

Even though you aren’t running very high mileage yet, you don’t want one hard speed workout to wreck your legs and cause a decrease in mileage during that week. A speed segment is a balancing act of volume and intensity, and you should always keep your ultimate goal in mind.

3. Prioritize recovery.

We distance runners tend to forget just how hard running fast can be on the body. There’s the temptation to think, “oh, that’s only two or three miles of hard running, no big deal.” But when you are running a good two or three minutes per mile faster than your easy pace, those miles add up quickly.

Plus, distance runners aren’t always used to the stress of fast running and may be more sensitive to fatigue after those hard workouts. It’s the same effect if a 5K runner was to do a long marathon paced run; no matter how fit you are, a new stress on the body will feel very difficult until your body adapts.

Types of Workouts during Your Speed Segment

Every runner is different: from recovery profiles to muscle fibers to goals, no runners will respond to the same progression of workouts in the same way. Ideally, you would want to work with a coach when incorporating a speed segment into your marathon training, so that you don’t overstress your body or turn your marathon training into 5K/10K training.

That said, these are the types of workouts that are best for recreational runners looking to add a speed segment into the early weeks of their marathon training. The workouts still are catered to the demands of marathon but aren’t entirely marathon specific. 

1. Faster and Shorter Long Runs

None of my long runs during my speed segment exceeded 15 miles. However, 3 out of 5 long runs were challenging long runs: progression runs finishing at half marathon pace and long runs with extended segments at marathon pace.

Arguably, many marathoners put too much emphasis on long slow distance and not enough emphasis on running at a good pace over a long distance. If you’re training for a particular marathon goal time or have your sights set on a BQ, long slow distance runs will build your aerobic fitness but they won’t build your race specific fitness.

You will have plenty of time in the last 12 weeks of marathon training for steady long runs of 16-22 miles. Enjoy the shorter long runs of 12-15 miles while you can!

2. Short Fartlek Intervals

Short fartlek intervals done at 5K pace or slightly faster will improve your turnover and running economy. For marathoners, this is beneficial because it will help you run faster over longer distances and avoid any wasted energy (which will help you avoid the wall). 

The benefit of fartleks over short track intervals is that you can’t as easily track your pace. Some distance runners lose speed after years of continuous marathon training. Not knowing your exact pace will keep you from stressing out about your fitness. Instead of worrying about pace, fartleks teach you to tune into effort – which is essential for the rest of your marathon training cycle and setting appropriate marathon goals.

Increasing the number of repetitions is one way to make short intervals more appropriate for the early weeks of marathon training. You will accumulate the volume you need and learn to maintain a hard effort on fatigued legs – both of which are priorities at any stage of marathon training.

3. Hill Repeats

Hill repeats provide the same speed development benefits as intervals on flat ground, with the added bonus of strengthening your lower leg muscles.

Try one of these hill workouts for runners and learn more about the many benefits of hill running in this post

When to Skip a Speed Segment:

1. You’re highly injury prone or recently injured

Speed work increase your likelihood of injury, since faster running places more stress on your joints and muscles.

2. You are training for your first marathon:

Of course, there are exceptions to this. Molly Huddle is running her first marathon this fall, and no one would tell her to skip the speed work. Even if you’re not an elite, if you have been running and racing for years, you can handle an intermediate or advanced level training plan. Experience plays a significant role in determining the level of training. If you are an experienced runner who has done speed work throughout years of training – you can certainly include it in your marathon training cycle.

3. You have been running for less than 6 months:

For novice runners, your musculoskeletal system may not be fully adapted to running. This means that running faster will put you at a higher risk of injury. Focus instead on running more easy miles and developing your aerobic base.

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday!

Have you done a speed segment in marathon training?
When you were training for a marathon PR, what did you add to your plan?
What’s your workout today?

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24 Responses

  1. Over the weekend I ran with a friend who is training for a half in a couple of weeks. It’s the first time that she is doing more speed work in a longer distance plan. Her long runs have more race pace miles too. Her comment was that she’s either going to blow her PR out of the water or die before she even makes it to the finish line. LOl!

  2. Speed work was probably my favorite part of my marathon training! Since the focus is mainly on endurance and time on the road, it was fun to just let go and run fast! Plus it helped with my endurance too. Marathon training can be pretty tough and it’s important to mix it all up, I think.

  3. I sort of did a speed segment in my last marathon training, in that I did a lot of the shorter speed work you talk about in my first 5 weeks of training. But I didn’t really do it for speed, I did it (along with XT and strength training) more to sharpen my overall fitness before the marathon specific work began. It is hard to give up speed work during marathon training – it gets so boring and monotonous after a while and those workouts really help spice things up.

    1. Speed work is so beneficial for overall fitness – even for going into endurance training since you recruit the fast twitch fibers when slow twitch fatigue on a long run. And the workouts are good to avoid monotony!

  4. This is spot on. Especially the part about increasing both intensity and volume is a recipe for injury. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen new runners hop on a plan that incorporates slamming them with increased mileage, hill training, speed work, all at the same time, week after week and then they get injured about oh, 3 weeks into it.

    1. Thank you! And yes trying to increase both just isn’t a good idea – especially when following the traditional 10% more mileage each week rule. The body doesn’t get time to adapt at all!

  5. I’ve been doing hills and strides. But I honestly prefer tempo and track, even if it’s just long intervals toward the end of marathon training.

  6. I think it’s interesting you don’t advise newer runners and first-time marathoners to go for speed. This is probably really smart. As someone who has now been running almost 6 years, I think the best thing I did was work on building mileage. The higher my mileage gets, the more the speedwork I do seems to benefit me. I did faster running as a new runner, but I never seemed to respond- probably because I didn’t have a solid aerobic base and the endurance to hold those paces in an actual 5K race.

    Speed training IS good for distance runners… keeps people from falling into that category of running only one (moderate) pace that so many do.

    1. Thank you! It can take the body up to 6 months to adapt to running – and speed is just an unnecessary stressor at that point. Mileage is important also! Especially since speed work should only be a certain percentage of running (80/20 is a good guideline) so you can do more speed work when running more miles.

  7. This is great advice! My first marathon I followed a training plan that alternated between hills, tempo, and speed work once a week. This time, we spent 10 weeks at my marathon clinic doing hill repeats – increasing the difficulty and number of repeats weekly. Then the last 8 weeks are track workouts. I have really been liking the approach, because I felt like my strength, speed, and endurance increased naturally from the hill repeats – versus forcing speed/track work from the start.

  8. Great info as always! I’ve been doing hill training and did my first tempo run as part of my marathon training – it was more of a speed segment less than the total distance of the run. I enjoy working on speed but half the time I feel like I can’t tell how fast I’m going!

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