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3 Ways to Improve Your Marathon Finish Time

Q I’m training for my third marathon this spring and want to improve my speed without getting injured. I’ve had a variety of aches and pains through the past two seasons of training and would love to train and finish faster with fewer aches along the way. I train four days per week, including a long run (longest at 38km), a speed workout (intervals at 5K pace), a tempo workout and a hill workout. I’m developing my training plan for this season and wondering what I can add to improve performance. I’d like to break four hours this year, which would be a 30-minute personal record. – JEFF

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A Looking at your plan, my first reaction is that you are trying to squeeze a little too much hard-effort training into your regimen too soon. Improvement in endurance racing takes time to build and evolve. If you toss too much hard stuff into your marathon-training recipe, your body will struggle to recover. As a result, aches, pains and many other symptoms (decreased performance, fatigue, low motivation) enter into your life.

The good news is you can make just a few tweaks to run faster on less hard work. Here are three easy ways to modify your current training plan to reduce the risk of injury and improve your performance.

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1 RUN LONG – BUT LESS OFTEN.

It can be tempting to cram a lot of long runs into your training, as that workout is the bread and butter of every marathon plan. But too much of a good thing can wear your body out, leading you to peak too soon and leave your best stuff on the training path. This is especially true for new marathon runners who are still in the building phase of their marathon careers.

I learned this lesson when training for ultra-marathons and adventure races. It’s better to train long less often and allow your body time to recover than to follow a redundant schedule of progressive long runs (25, 30, 32, 35, 38…). A very small percentage of runners can get away with putting in lots of high-mileage workouts week after week. They are the exception to the rule, as most mortal runners break down with this strategy. Let the aches and pains you’ve experienced be a sign that you need to alter your plan to progress without pain.

It’s better to mix in easy-effort and race-effort runs with your longest runs to allow your body to adapt to the demands of the distance. Since you have a solid base of long, easy runs from two previous marathon training seasons, build on this with variety and flavour. An example long-run schedule might look like the schedule below, where all long runs are done at a conversational, easy effort level (CEE), there are cutback long runs from 12-16km at an easy effort, and a handful of race-simulation long runs to prepare you to run at a harder intensity for a longer period of time (but not so long that it compromises your recovery for future running workouts). As your body adapts to the advanced training, you can continue to evolve your training recipe to include more or less work based on how your body responds.

  • Week 1 – 12km – Conversational, Easy Effort (CEE)
  • Week 2 – 14km – CEE
  • Week 3 – 16km – CEE
  • Week 4 – 12km – CEE
  • Week 5 – 18km – CEE
  • Week 6 – 12km – CEE
  • Week 7 – 19km – CEE
  • Week 8 – 12km – (Cutback Run) CEE
  • Week 9 – 22km – CEE
  • Week 10 – 16km (Race Simulation: 8 easy, 6 moderate, 2 hard)
  • Week 11 – 25km – CEE
  • Week 12 – 16km (Race Simulation: 8 easy, 6 moderate, 2 hard)
  • Week 13 – 30km – CEE
  • Week 14 – 16km – (Cutback Run) CEE
  • Week 15 – 32km – CEE
  • Week 16 – 16km (Race Simulation: 8 easy, 6 moderate, 2 hard)
  • Week 17 – 32km – CEE
  • Week 18 – 16km – (Race Simulation: 8 easy, 6 moderate, 2 hard)
  • Week 19 – 11km – (Race Simulation: 6 easy, 3 moderate, 2 hard)
  • Week 20 – Marathon!

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2 SPRINKLE IN SPEED, TEMPO, AND HILL WORK LIKE A SPICE.

It sounds reasonable that in order to run faster, you need to train at faster speeds. But like making a tasty bowl of chilli, all your ingredients need to be in balance or you’ll end up with a meal so hot you can’t eat it.

In other words, add training workouts that include speed, tempo and hill work cyclically rather than all at once. It takes time for your body to develop the ability to train hard four times per week and recover efficiently, and that depends greatly on your age, your lifestyle, sleep, nutrition, form and much, much more.

Ease back on the frequency of hard-effort runs per week, and plug in easy-effort runs in their place. These easy runs bridge the gap between your hard-effort workouts in the speed or tempo run and the long run. They maintain your running fitness while allowing for recovery.

For instance, early in the season focus on shorter intervals once per week (early in the week) at a higher effort level to develop your form and economy, and run at an easy effort for the other two running workouts during the week. You can still run hills once per week, but do so at an easy to moderate effort level.

This sets the stage for recovering from two hard workouts per week: the speed workout and the long run. Although the long run is done at an easy effort, it is demanding and requires recovery. As you progress toward the middle of the season, begin to alternate tempo workouts with speed workouts every other week. (Learn how to run a tempo workout here.) As you build toward the final phase of the season, run tempo workouts to prepare for the sustained effort in the marathon. A once per week speed/tempo workout schedule might look like this:

  • Week 1 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 2 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 3 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 4 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 5 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 6 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 7 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 8 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 9 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 10 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 11 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 12 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 13 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 14 – Speed/Intervals
  • Week 15 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 16 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 17 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 18 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 19 – Tempo Workout
  • Week 20 – Marathon!

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3 EAT THE ELEPHANT ONE BITE AT A TIME.

Focus on making small changes to your training every season, and let your body evolve into a faster marathoner over time. When you follow the flow of gradual improvement, you risk fewer injuries, see more positive gains, and maintain the momentum to continue striving for your goals. Break down your time goals into smaller, more digestible pieces, and focus on making smaller improvements. Like lining up a line of dominos, it’s the momentum of success that allows you to improve, and that is best when it comes in smaller, more runnable doses. At this stage in your running career, your chances of running a 5-10 minute personal best are much greater than a 30-minute personal best. It’s not impossible, but chewing off more in one bite dramatically increases the risk of injury and failure to run a personal record at all.

The goal is to finish your training feeling strong and healthy, and that takes time, patience, and the wisdom to run less than we sometimes think.

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