Three Essential Training Components to Run a Faster Marathon

Three Essential Training Components to Run a Faster Marathon

So you’ve run a marathon or two, and you’ve “caught the bug.” You are now looking to finish with a faster time. How can you run faster marathons?

If you asked me this question, the first thing I would want to know is how many miles you were averaging during the last eight weeks of your last marathon training (not including the taper, if you did one). I would also want to know if you had any injuries that interfered with your training.

How Can You Run Faster Marathons?

The most effective way to improve your marathon time is to increase the number of quality miles you are running per week. The first question to ask yourself is, “how many hours a week do I have available for training”? Training is not just running. Include time for a strength-training/mobility component as well. If you just run, there is a significant chance that you will develop an overuse injury due to the constant, repetitive pounding of running, especially when you increase your mileage and/or the intensity of your workouts.

Once you establish how much time you could train, the next question is whether you should train that much. If you think you’re ready to add more miles and you have time for 50+ miles per week but your average volume was 25 miles per week before the last marathon, for example, then you should not expect to double that during the training cycle leading up to the next marathon.

Assuming you had no injuries and handled your previous training load well, it would be realistic to attempt a jump of 30-40% from one marathon to the next, say to an average of 35 miles per week in the final eight weeks before your event. If you are serious about becoming a fast marathoner, you are not looking at a single training cycle, but a multi-event, long-term plan. You might consider running two marathons per year, with a ten mile-per-week increase in training between events until you are using your available time.

When preparing for marathon success, allowing your body to adapt to any new level of training stress is as important as training volume. Too often, marathon training plans increase both weekly mileage and intensity, creating too much stress on the body. This overstress results in either an injury or overreaching/overtraining syndrome, where your workouts/performance begins to suffer despite maintaining or increasing training.

Planning Your Marathon Training Season

A marathoner runs down a country road at sunrise

Here’s how to plan a marathon training season for someone looking to improve race times.

  1. Build up mileage before intensity

Miles make the marathon. There are no elite marathon runners who run fewer than 80 miles per week, and over 100 miles per week is common. Of course, not all of us have that much time to run and recover. However, there has never been an elite marathoner who has successfully replaced a high mileage program with lower volume at greater intensity. Before intensity, you must build up your base mileage. Increase miles gradually until you reach your goal average weekly mileage. After you have adjusted to the maximum amount of mileage you want to run per week, then begin running at greater intensities while keeping (or even slightly lowering) your average weekly mileage.

There are several accepted progressions for gradually increasing mileage within the preparation for one event. One is to add 10% per week for 3 weeks, have a 25%-reduction “recovery” week, and then, once again, add 10% each week for the next 3 weeks. An example of this progression would be: 25, 28, 31, 23, 34, 37, 41, 30, 45…. Even this might be too aggressive. The famous running coach Jack Daniels suggests keeping the same mileage for three consecutive weeks followed by a 25% reduction “recovery week,” then increasing the number of miles for the next three weeks by one mile for each day of the week you run. For example, if you run five days per week, covering 25 miles each week for three consecutive weeks, you would reduce mileage by 25%, then increase by five miles to 30 miles per week for the next three weeks. The following recovery week would be 24 miles, and the next three weeks would increase to 35 miles. Here is a progression: 25, 25, 25, 18, 30, 30, 30, 24, 35… As you can see, the first progression is more aggressive than what Daniels suggests. The first approach could result in an injury. The Daniels approach requires more patience.

Willingness to deviate from the mileage ramp when appropriate is just as important as having the ramp in the first place. If you feel an injury coming on, stop the workout. If your form is failing, cut the workout short even if that means missing the mileage goal for the week.

  1. Add intensity after adding mileage

After you have reached your goal mileage, you should still spend about 80% of your running time at a conversational easy pace, while introducing greater intensity for about 20% of your mileage. What kind of intensities? Well, that’s a topic for another article. Let’s just say at this time that we want to run at a variety of paces faster than our goal marathon pace.

  1. Integrate strength/mobility training

Running injuries can be prevented if we don’t overstress our bodies with excessive increases in mileage or intensity. Strengthening the muscles and connective tissues involved in running is also essential. Stronger, more flexible muscles will not be injured as easily. Our hips, gluteal muscles, hamstrings, calves and quadriceps need to be conditioned to absorb our training. Through specific strengthening exercises, we increase both our resilience and range of motion to avoid injury while getting faster.

To improve your times over your next several marathons, plan to incrementally increase your volume of good quality base training and then, after you have adjusted to the increase in mileage, add small amounts of higher-intensity speed training, and maintain a strength-conditioning program. If you keep a big-picture perspective, your patience will pay off in a long and successful marathon career.

Coach Mike Gross has over 20 years of running experience and enjoys working with marathoners to improve their marathon times and run more comfortably. Learn more about Mike>>>