The marathon can be a fickle beast, but with some experience, wise training, and prudent in-race decision making, it can be tamed. I consider myself a seasoned runner but, when I stepped on the road for my first marathon I was in for a rude awakening. I had underestimated the toll 26.2 miles puts on your body, especially at race pace, and I had not respected the distance as I should have. I’ve since run a few more marathons, and although I’m still seeking faster times, I have improved my performance substantially. I’d like to share a few tips that I’ve found useful for improving my marathon performance.
There’s No Substitute for Mileage
Over the last few years I steadily increased my weekly mileage as I continued to be disappointed in my marathon performances. With each increase in mileage I, for the most part, saw an improvement in my marathon PR. There’s certainly a strong correlation between the number of miles we run in training and our marathon race performance. Increasing volume at first was a scary and tough decision for me. I endured three stress fractures in college, due to increasing volume and training load too quickly. I was under the impression my body couldn’t handle more miles. But I made the decision to increase mileage and I did so very slowly over time.
To increase your mileage I recommend an average of five miles per week for each training block. For example, if you are trained 12-16 weeks for a marathon and averaged 50 miles a week during that block, consider attempting 55 miles per week on your next 12-16 week block. This is a safe way to increase without jeopardizing an injury, but as always listen to your body and back off if you fear you’re overdoing it.
Slowing Down to Speed Up
Around the same time I decided to increase my mileage I also decreased the pace of my easy and recovery day runs. By slowing down on my easy days I was able to improve my half marathon PR by 2 minutes and my marathon PR by 8 minutes. Going slower allows me to run more miles and to be better recovered for my hard workout days. When we run a hard workout we cause micro-tears in our muscles and these, if given time, will adapt and heal stronger than before. This is how we get faster and stronger. But, if we push the pace the day after a hard workout, we may not be allowing the muscles to fully heal and adapt before we tear them down again in the next workout.
Another benefit of slower running on easy days is that your body becomes more accustomed to using fat as an energy source. At faster paces we mainly use glycogen as our energy source. But, in the marathon we often need fat in addition to glycogen as an energy source, especially late in the race when glycogen levels have been nearly depleted.
What’s a good easy day pace? That depends on how hard you ran the day before. But it’s not uncommon for my recovery pace to be 2:30 slower per mile than the pace I ran my hard workout at. Then if I have an additional easy day before my next workout I may go 1:45-2:00 slower per mile. But mostly I don’t even look at my watch during recovery runs, I just run whatever pace feels easy and at which I feel my body will recover.