The Magic of Marathon Pace

Even non-marathoners should regularly train at this speed. Here's why.

In recent years, many runners have added to their marathon training an element long used by elites – frequent runs at marathon race pace, either as a stand-alone workout or in the second half of a long run.

These workouts make obvious sense for marathoners. After all, good training programs for all other distances include regular work at goal race pace, so why should the marathon be exempt? In a marathon build-up, race-pace workouts not only prepare you physically and mentally to hold a good pace for 42 kilometres. They are also the best opportunity to practice your race-day fuelling strategies, test the gear and shoes you plan to wear in the marathon, and gain invaluable feedback on whether your marathon goal is realistic.

But when they take a break from marathons to focus on shorter distances, most runners leave marathon-pace runs behind. And even fewer runners with no marathon experience train at that pace. That’s a shame, because workouts at marathon race pace have big benefits for non-marathoners both before and during racing season.

Build Your Strength, Build Your Speed

“Marathon-pace training is simply one of the best workouts there is for improving the endurance capacity of your slow-twitch, endurance muscle cells,” says Pete Magill, coach and author of Build Your Running Body. “More than distance runs or faster repetitions, marathon-pace training increases aerobic energy production in slow-twitch cells, builds more capillaries to carry more oxygen to these cells, improves the cells’ ability to export lactate and to reduce acidity, and leads to better running economy – the equivalent of better petrol mileage in a car.”

“These runs teach a person to read their body and learn to find a pace that is tough but that they can sustain,” says Chris Solinsky, a former US record holder who is now an assistant coach at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, US. “Marathon pace runs help build a strong foundation in which to introduce interval training to get through your racing season. The stronger the foundation, the better interval work you can do, which leads to knocking many seconds or minutes off of your times.”

Neither Magill nor Solinsky have ever raced a marathon. Magill’s results include a 15:01 5K and 31:11 10K, the fastest road times ever run at those distances by an American age 50 or older, and six national masters cross country titles. Solinsky was the first American to break 27:00 for 10,000 metres on the track, and retired as the second fastest American ever at 5000 and 10,000 meters. But both have used marathon-pace runs as key parts of their training, in the ways described below.

How to Incorporate Marathon-Pace Training

If you don’t have a good idea of your current marathon pace, Magill recommends sub-20:00 5K runners aim for 28 to 31 seconds slower per KM than current 5K pace, and slower runners add 38 seconds per kilometre to their 5K pace. He calls this effort level “slow tempo”, because it’s faster than your normal run pace but slower than 15K to half marathon race pace, the speed usually recommended for tempo runs.

“If you’re new to the sport or out of shape, your marathon pace for training purposes might only be a little faster than your regular distance pace,” Magill says. “If that’s the case, use your breathing rate as a guide. For distance runs, your effort should always be conversational. At marathon pace, your breathing noticeably quickens and conversation beyond a few, curt two- or three-word responses is uncomfortable.”

As for the when, marathon-pace runs were a staple of Solinsky’s base phase, which he did in the late autumn and winter to prepare for spring and summer track racing. Depending on how he felt, Solinsky ran at marathon pace anywhere from one to three days a week.

“Marathon-pace running is a perfect fit for base-training, when you want to steer clear of workouts that are too intense or have too high an anaerobic component,” Magill says.

As a university coach, Solinsky has his runners do regular marathon-pace runs over the summer, as they lay their base for the autumn cross-country season. But the runs remain a part of the program during indoor and outdoor track, even as many of Solinsky’s runners drop down from the 8Ks and 10Ks of cross-country to shorter track races.

“I think they need to be a part of training until the taper phase of the season,” Solinsky says. “I would contend that these type of runs are just as important whether you are training for an 800 up to the marathon. You would vary the distance depending upon what event you are training for, but a key rule of thumb for strength is speed.”

One month before Matt Tegenkamp placed second in the 2008 Olympic Trials 5000m, I watched him warm up, then do a 13K run at 3;07 per KM (perfectly in line with Magill’s pace recommendation). The day before that, I watched his training partner, Solinsky, do the same run.

Tegenkamp ran the marathon-pace session a few days after a track 5000m; Solinsky’s was three days after an intense track workout of repeats at 3K pace or faster. In both cases, the marathon-pace session provided an endurance boost that complemented their faster running and gave them the ability to sustain high-quality performances over a long racing season.

Magill also likes marathon-pace runs during race season.

“Rather than pummel your body with hard intervals following a race weekend, a gentle session of two or three 10-minute repetitions at marathon pace, with a couple of minutes of jogging between reps, helps to reinforce the fitness gains of previous weeks without overloading your fatigued nervous system, energy system, or faster muscle fibres,” he says.

For more continuous marathon-pace runs, Solinsky advises going for one-third to two-thirds the distance of your current long run. “So if you are doing a 24K long run, you would do a marathon-pace run for eight to 16 kilometres,” he says.

Plan an easy run on the days before and after a marathon-pace run. “This is definitely a hard day,” Magill says. “Even though the workout is energising and should never result in significant fatigue, it’s still a drain on your nervous system and muscle glycogen stores, as well as an increased strain on your muscles and connective tissue.”

As on your other hard days, include a warm up and cool down. But because the pace is slower than you run on interval workouts and tempo runs, a relatively short warm up, of 10 to 15 minutes of easy running, should be sufficient. Similarly, a short cool down of a couple of kilometres or 10 minutes is enough.

One other great thing about marathon-pace runs – they’re convenient. Instead of going to the track or another place conducive to repeats at 5K pace, you can simply head out on one of your favourite loops. Use the couple of kilometres as a warm up, then get rolling at marathon pace and return home a better runner.

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