Use Speed Work to Master the Marathon

Runners start training for a 5K race

The winter before Abel Kirui won an Olympic silver medal, he did a series of jumping exercises in between 400m repeats. He sprinted up steep hills at an excruciating intensity and took long recoveries between. Perhaps he and his training partners looked like elite soccer players training for the upcoming season. Maybe his running form was evident, and he appeared to be an elite 800-meter runner getting in some offseason power training.

The truth is Kirui is a long-distance runner, and this offseason training protocol was all part of a plan that culminated in a perfectly executed marathon at the London Olympic Games. When combined with his world championship gold medals in 2009 and 2011, it proved this method was no fluke.

Kirui’s training was specific to his needs but not unique. Most elite marathoners today spend a long portion of the year training things that are very un-marathon. The top 4 finishers at the U.S. 10,000-meter championships all ran spring marathons. Several of them even dropped down to the 5,000 meters this spring and set personal bests at the shorter distance—this being after they’d also PRed in the marathon within the last year.

For all the claims of mutual beneficence, many age groupers and recreational runners are reluctant to embrace this mentality, believing they’re either too old for speed or that it won’t help them with their long-term goals.

Incorporating speed training isn’t hard during the summer, though. In fact, it’s quite natural. See all those local road miles, 5Ks and 10Ks being put on by everyone’s favorite charity or chamber of commerce? Cool. Go run them.

Actually, don’t just run them. Embrace them. Prepare for them. Race them. Do that, and you might just be looking at your fastest marathon this fall.

A runner rests on a track during a warm summer workout

Stuck in the Over-Distance Cycle

When we watch a highlight reel dunk by an elite basketball player, our first response is usually to comment on what a great athlete he or she is. This label doesn’t often get applied to runners. We view ourselves as purveyors of a singular task, one that involves moving in a forward plane from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

That mindset can limit our development. Marathoners, in particular, often get into a set routine of training all winter for a spring marathon, resting, building up a summer base, racing a fall marathon, resting, building up a winter base, racing a spring marathon, and so on ad infinitum.

There are several inherent flaws in this system:

  1. Because of the demands of the event, marathon training is almost entirely aerobic in nature. Spending months building up an aerobic base before starting marathon training is redundant.
  2. Speed training and intervals increase traits that would be useful when competing in the marathon, such as a running economy and VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake).
  3. Neglecting paces faster than marathon speed keeps you from maximizing your athletic potential and makes you overly reliant on one skillset. Come race day, this lowered athletic ceiling may keep you from racing your fastest.

Speed, then, can be seen as a natural antidote to too much LSD – Long, Slow Distance. And for those of you who dread the thought of sprinting and would much prefer to pop out a 20-miler, there’s good news: the gains made through a speed-specific block can, like all adaptations, be maintained for a long period of time with just occasional bouts.

Get fast now, in other words, and keep it the rest of the year.

Why Speed Work Boosts Distance Runs

For all his strengths, Kirui was never a world-class athlete (yes, athlete) on the track or at shorter distances like 5,000 meters. When his coaches at that time—Renato Canova and Gavin Smith—implemented 400-meter circuits and all-out hill sprints, they were seen as a way to change the stimulus between marathons.

“If someone’s just run a marathon PB (personal best), we don’t want him to lose his marathon fitness and then start training again,” Smith told me back in 2012. “We bring the fitness they’ve gained from the previous training block into the next one. Even though we start the whole cycle from speed, they’re bringing the endurance from the previous training phase (with them).”

This type of work runs the gamut from easy mileage and long runs to intense speed sessions and intervals at 5K race pace. But it’s not just the physical aspect that needs addressing. Constantly grinding out long runs, long tempos, and long intervals not only hits a point of diminishing returns when it comes to performance, but it also gets mentally draining. Sometimes you just need the thrill of opening up your stride and legging out a fast 200-meter sprint.

When you do start running significantly faster than race pace, your body adapts to the workload.

The biggest gains for marathoners stem from something called running economy, or the amount of oxygen required to run at a given pace. Speed training—just like weight training and plyometrics—recruits underused muscles and increases the stiffness (read: springiness) of muscles so they return more energy with every stride.

Among well-trained runners with similar VO2max values, running economy was shown to be the most important determinant in who performed better. Even better than that, economy can be further improved by improving form and increasing recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers, effects that are also seen from more explosive activities, like weight training and, you guessed it, faster speed work.

Incorporating 5K Work into Marathon Training

Four runners wearing running shoes and apparel standing on a track

As important as they are, speedy intervals don’t need to dominate your training to be effective. Even world-class marathoners still run easy 80 percent of the time. The key is to make some of that other 20 percent significantly faster than marathon pace.

Take a look at this 6-week workout progression that a marathoner might start five months out from race day, for example.

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6

5 x 800 @ 5K pace

4 x 200 @ mile pace

16 x 200 @ mile pace

3-mile tempo

6 x 150m @ 800m pace

12 x 300 @ mile pace

2 x 2 miles @ tempo

8 x 100m @ 800m pace

8 x 400 @ mile pace

Note there are two distinct ways speed work is incorporated in these examples. During the odd numbered weeks, there are longer intervals between 5K and half-marathon pace followed by shorter, more explosive short intervals.

High-end aerobic goals, like increasing VO2max and lactate threshold pace, are the primary goals of these sessions with speed development secondary. During the even numbered weeks, speed development and speed endurance take center stage, and this is reflected in both the pace and duration of the intervals.

Speed and efficiency can also be increased through much shorter, more intense sprints. These repetitions last no more than 15 seconds and are sometimes categorized as “anaerobic alactic” sprints because they require no oxygen and leave no byproducts like lactic acid.

Maximal effort can only be fueled by the phosphocreatine system; this taps out after 10-15 seconds. To make the best use of this system, run at 100 percent, all-out capacity on a steep hill for 10 seconds at a time. Climbing will force you to activate your glute muscles and drive your arms more powerfully as compared to flat land, enhancing the effect.

To recover from these sprints and restore your supply of phosphocreatine, you’ll need to rest for at least 1-2 minutes after each sprint.

Powering Away to a Big Fall Marathon

Hill sprints and 400-meter intervals won’t get you a marathon PR by themselves. You still need the long runs, the long tempos and good health to run fast for 26.2 miles. But incorporating speed for the rest of this summer will break up the monotony, increase your potential, and make you a better overall runner.

I can’t promise you an Olympic medal like Kirui, but it never hurts to train like a champion.

By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, and He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).

Keep Reading