Guide To Quality Marathon Training Plan

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A fast marathon finishing time starts with quality marathon training. Make every session count with our complete guide to marathon training.

If you want to run a marathon, you’ve come to the right place. Your first training run will mark the start of an incredible journey that ends with you crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles (With new PB!).

What does it take to run a fast marathon?

A fast finishing time requires a quality training plan which is structured, consistent and varied. With clear aims and an understanding of the most effective training methods, you’ll be in a much stronger position to achieve a personal best on race day.

Marathon training: Quality vs. Quantity

Not everyone has the time to run every day of the week like professional athletes, which throws up an important question, should you focus on quality or quantity?

Make no mistake, training for a marathon requires a lot of hard work and dedication. As a general rule, you should look to build your weekly mileage up to around 50 miles in the months approaching race day. However, make sure to make these miles count. Use the 4 crucial training methods below to create the best marathon training plan possible.

How will this guide help?

We will take a look at 4 key marathon training methods and examine their benefits as well as how they should be utilised.

  1. Interval Training
  2. Tempo Runs
  3. Hill Workouts
  4. Long Runs

By the end of this guide, you’ll know how and when you should be using these training methods to create an effective and enjoyable marathon training plan.

Interval training

Many people remain unclear about what interval training involves. Any training session that involves repetitions of hard efforts followed by recovery periods is classed as interval training, however, some variations are more structured than others.

Is interval training good for marathons?

Interval training is a great way to progress your marathon training, especially for those who want to increase their speed in pursuit of a new personal best. Intervals involve periods of speed work followed by periods of rest.

As well as improving your speed, intervals will also improve your stamina by improving your VO2 max, which measures your body’s ability to consume and use oxygen effectively. Compared to endurance training, intervals place less stress on the body and as a result reduce recovery time. Many runners also find interval training improves their motivation as they find it more interesting than other sessions.

What different types of interval training are there?

There are a number of variations of interval training that improve different aspects of your fitness. Here are three effective variations that have specific uses to improve your fitness.

Fartlek

The word Fartlek is Swedish for ‘speed play’ and Fartlek training is an unstructured interval workout that involves alternating between easy, moderate, and hard efforts during a run. It’s a great way to keep your runs interesting as you can set targets throughout your workout, depending on how you are feeling.

To use Fartlek training, try varying your pace as you run to different landmarks. things like sprinting to the next tree or jogging to the next set of traffic lights are examples of Fartlek training, which is a great way of keeping yourself engaged while improving your speed and stamina.

HIIT

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is perfect for those who prefer a more structured form of interval training or those who really want to place an emphasis on speed training to get a new PB.

HIIT involves short bursts of maximum effort followed by periods of rest. Use 200m or 400m repetitions with short rests in between. For those who have training time constraints HIIT workouts will improve overall cardiovascular fitness more quickly than long distance runs and therefore act as a perfect, time-effective supplement to your training regime.

Yasso 800s

This workout is another great speed workout which utilises your specific marathon goal time to create a tailored interval training session. Yasso 800s will help you find and train for your desired marathon finishing time.

For this workout you’ll need to convert your target time from hours and minutes into minutes and seconds. For example, if your target time is 4 hours and 20 minutes, then complete 800m repetitions in 4 minutes and 20 seconds followed by the same amount of active rest time. Repeat this as many times as you can. I recommend start with 4 reps and build it up to 8/12 reps as you progress through.

How do I incorporate speed into marathon training?

Speed training should never replace long runs. They should ideally be incorporated once a week to allow you to meet the goals that you have set. Use a combination of the workouts as a fast and effective way to improve cardiovascular fitness.

Tempo Runs

Tempo runs are often misunderstood as they involve you running at a “comfortably hard” pace for a sustained period of time. While they are hailed as a crucial aspect of quality marathon training, there is a lot of confusion about how and when they should be used.

Are tempo runs effective?

Yes, tempo runs are hugely effective, especially for marathon training. From a physical standpoint, tempo runs improve your lactate threshold. By improving this threshold, you improve your endurance, as you are able to run for longer without becoming fatigued.

On top of that, tempo runs help you develop a mental toughness that is very important in marathon running. Running 26.2 miles is as much a mental battle as it is a physical battle. By being close to your threshold for an extended period of time, you will develop the mental toughness to keep going even when your body aches and your mind tells you to stop.

How long should a marathon tempo run be?

For most runners a tempo run should be between 20 and 45 minutes. If you run for too long, you’ll begin to exert a lot more effort and you will start to go past your lactate threshold. This can throw your training schedule out of balance.

A tempo run doesn’t always have to be an extended effort. You can use repeats at tempo pace as an effective workout or as an introductory workout for those who are new to tempo training.

How fast should you run a tempo run?

With a tempo run, it is better to go too slow than too fast. To improve your lactate threshold, you want to run as close to that threshold as you can without exceeding it. If you go over the threshold, you’ll find it more difficult to improve and end up needing more recovery time.

For many people trying to determine a “comfortably hard” tempo run pace is difficult. But, there are some good metrics for calculating your ideal tempo run pace. Try your next tempo run at 35 – 40 seconds slower than your current 5K pace and see how it feels. If you fatigue quickly then reduce your pace until you find the sweet spot. If you have access to your heart rate data, then run at a pace that puts you between 85-90% of your maximum heart rate.

How many tempo runs should I do per week for marathon training?

The number of tempo runs that you should do in a week depends on where you are in your training schedule. It’s ideal to try and do one tempo run a week throughout your training and gradually increase the length of these runs as you progress. As you approach race day, it’s good to reduce the frequency of your runs and switch to a bi-weekly tempo run to ensure you’re fresh for race day.

Hill Training

Hill training is a largely under-utilised but highly effective form of marathon training. While hill training is often championed by sprinters to improve their speed, it also has a number of benefits for experienced and budding marathon runners. Over the course of 26.2 miles you are almost certain to encounter some differing gradients so it’s important to practice hill running.

quality marathon training
Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

What does hill training do for runners?

The most significant physical improvements you will gain from hill training will come in the form of increased speed and strength. With the extra challenge placed on your muscles to propel yourself uphill, you’ll see your speed improve.

Hill training is also great for improving your running technique. Running uphill will increase your cadence (the number of steps you take per minute) which will improve your efficiency. Equally, by practicing running downhill you’ll be able to take advantage downhill sections on race day.

Is hill running good for marathon training?

In a race that spans 26.2 miles, technique is crucially important. Over a period of hours your running economy could make the difference between success and disappointment. With the technical benefits of hill training you’ll make huge improvements to your marathon running.

Typically, marathon running is associated with training that places an emphasis on endurance. However, for ambitious runners who are looking to increase speed, if done correctly, hill training has the potential to unlock your next target.

How should I incorporate hills in marathon training?

Arguably the most effective method of training comes from an extended uphill effort. Find a long and fairly gradual hill to train on and run at a steady and sustainable pace.

For those looking to develop a killer sprint finish, find a steep uphill section and practice all out efforts to develop your sprinting power and improve your anaerobic capacity.

Long Run

The long run is where you will develop most of your stamina and endurance. A consistent long run will prepare your muscles to cope with fatigue and process oxygen and carbon dioxide more efficiently to keep one foot moving in front of the other.

The importance of a long run is not just physical. The mental demands of running 26.2 miles are very significant and the long run will give you mental as well as physical endurance.

How long should a long run be for marathon training?

You should start your long run around 12 to 16 weeks away from race day and run at a comfortable pace for as long as possible. From this point, try to add 10 or 15 minutes for each long run up until 3 or 4 weeks out from race day which is when you should look to execute your longest training run.

There is often a lot of anxiety surrounding the length of a long run, but you should always focus on your progression. Marathon training is a process and building endurance and stamina will take time. It’s important to remember to start slow and early and to give yourself time to gradually increase the length of your long run as you approach race day.

Should I run long runs at marathon pace?

The short answer is no. You should try and keep your long run pacing at 45–60 seconds slower than your target mile pace. However, don’t be afraid to incorporate some speed work into your long run training. It’s best to start out slow and run your long runs as a negative split with the second half faster than the first. This way you will be able to practice sustainable pacing.

Should you run a full marathon in training?

Many experts recommend, you don’t exceed 20 miles before race day. Majority of runners, experienced runners included, won’t run the full 26.2 miles in training. You should aim to complete your longest long run between 3 and 4 weeks before race day. You should also, cap your long run at 3.5 hours. By not running the full distance, you’ll stay fresh for race day and the fitness you’ve built up over months will allow you to complete the distance.

How many long runs before a marathon?

You should aim to run around 8 to 12 long runs in total. Start your first long run 12 to 16 weeks away from race day. Then, aim to do your longest run 4 weeks out from race day. Gradually increase the length of your long run by 10-15 minutes each time. But, be mindful not to rush the process.

If you miss a long run, don’t try to overcompensate. Gradually get your training regime back on schedule to increase your mileage. At no point, should you be running more than one long run a week.

Summary

A quality marathon training regime involves a variety of different workouts that should be used strategically for you to progress. It’s important to remember the value of consistency. Now you’ve got all the knowledge about the best training methods, it’s time to put them in to practice. Give yourself at least 12 to 16 weeks to prepare properly and train as regularly as you can, using a balance of interval training, tempo runs, hill training, and long runs.

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