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.
My bread and butter marathon workout is the aerobic builder. This is an 8-12 mile run at either your goal marathon pace or just faster than. How can we expect to run 26.2 miles at a certain pace if we don’t at least run that pace for 8-12 miles on a consistent basis? There was a time I did one of these weekly and I saw great results. I now do them about twice a month.
The Long Run
I like a weekly long run. It’s not necessary to do a long run every week, but it is more beneficial for some than others. For me, I am more of a middle distance runner by birth and as such I need several long runs to get my legs ready for a marathon. But others who are more predisposed to longer distances can get away with doing fewer long runs.
I like to mix my long runs up to avoid monotony. I do basically four types of long runs: easy, fast finish, steady state, and progression. I do easy-paced long runs the least often; this is just an easy pace for the entire run mainly just getting time on my feet. A fast finish long run is the same as an easy run, except I pick the last 3-5 miles up to goal marathon pace to teach my body to run fast even after it has already run several miles. The steady state long run is at a pace 20-30 seconds per mile slower than my goal marathon pace, but I will run the majority of the run at that pace after a short warmup. Finally, with the progression run I start easy and try to slowly pick the pace up each mile until I can no longer go any faster (usually the last mile will be at 10k pace).
The marathon, more so than any other distance race, can be ruined by bad decision making or mental mistakes. Pacing is usually the decision that is most crucial. It’s important to be honest with your pacing assessment. If you get too aggressive you may really pay for it in the last 10k. I recommend an even or slight negative split (meaning your second half of the race is slightly faster than your first half). I prefer the slight negative split. First, it feels great to not hit the wall, ever! Second, it’s invigorating to pass people in the second half. Third, if I’ve overestimated my fitness the plan to negative split will mean I won’t have to pay quite as large of a price as I otherwise would have going on a positive split or an even split. It takes a lot of patience to negative split, but come mile 20 you’ll be glad you were patient.
During the race try not to make any rash pacing decisions. Rhythm is everything in the marathon and you don’t want to do anything that will throw you out of your groove. If you feel you need to speed up, do so gradually. If you are like me and have to stop to use the bathroom or for anything else, then don’t panic and come back gunning to make up lost time. Slowly ease back into your pace and rhythm.
Bringing It All Together
Plan your next training block and try adding a few of these tips. The difference between running and training is planning. Training has a goal and a roadmap to get there; each day has a purpose. So get out there, get training, make consistent improvements and get that marathon PR.
By Riley Cook
Riley currently resides in South Weber, UT, but he was born and raised (and still primarily trains) in Ogden. He is married to a great runner, Amy Cook, and they have three beautiful daughters. He works full-time as a cost analyst. Running is his primary hobby, although he also enjoys chasing the ball around a golf course, playing soccer, and watching about any sport that was ever invented on TV.
He’s been running since his freshman year in high school. He was the Utah 3A state champion in the 800, 1600, and 3200 meter events in 1999. He went on to run collegiately at Weber State University where he was the Big Sky Conference Indoor Mile champion in 2005.
After college he took a three-year hiatus from running and began running again recreationally from 2009-2011. In 2012 he started running seriously and competitively again and has transitioned from middle distance to the longer distances of the half and full marathon. He has personal bests of 1:05:16 in the half marathon and 2:21:42 in the marathon.
Riley is currently supported by the Brooks I.D. (Inspire Daily) Elite Program.