Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


4 Key Workouts to Prepare for the Boston Marathon Course

The journey from Hopkinton to Copley is one of the most famous treks in marathon racing. While some runners prefer to approach the actual race as a well-earned celebratory run, many runners relish in the opportunity to challenge the infamous course.

If your goal is to conquer the Boston course and run your best in April, then it is critical that you train for the specific demands of the course.

In this article, we’ll look at the course-specific training you need to perform, including key workouts, to run your best on Marathon marathon course workouts

Timing your training cycle

Timing the start of your Boston-specific training segment is critical to ensuring you’re optimally prepared on race day. Start too early and you’ll be burnt out come March and April. Implement the course-specific work too late and you’ll be fried for race day.

If you’re an experienced runner with a strong foundation of training, your Boston training can generally start a little later into the season – about 12 weeks from race day.

In the early part of the year, you want to hold back and make sure you don’t get too antsy with killer marathon workouts. Use the time at the start of the year to work on your weaknesses and the foundations of the course-specific hill work we’ll discuss later.

If your training background is not as developed, you’ll want to start your Boston cycle a little earlier – 16 to 20 weeks from race day.

During this time you’ll want to work on building your mileage, running lots of aerobic threshold runs, and getting as comfortable as you can with the marathon training volume. You’ll also want to include toned-down versions of the hill work we’ll outline below.

When to start course-specific hill work

You’ll want to begin the course-specific hill work in January.

The hill work used to prepare for Boston is designed to strengthen and temper the quads for both the downhill’s and uphill’s on the course. Check out Best Selling Author Matt Fitzgerald post on 10 Tips to Tame the Hills of Boston. The goal is to breakdown the quads early in the training cycle so you can do longer and harder hills later in the training segment without being as sore.

Starting early also gives you plenty of time to slowly build up your tolerance without thrashing your legs. You can’t expect your body to handle massive hill workouts your first few sessions.

Starting in January helps you build your tolerance.

Doing the right hill work

The common mistake runners make when training for Boston is doing the wrong type of hill work and neglecting downhill training. Often, runners will simply include more hill repeats, like 9 x 60-90 seconds uphill sprints, into their training cycle.

Unfortunately, doing lots of hill repeats is not the best way to help you run faster over a hilly course like Boston.

In Boston, many of the hills you will encounter will be long and gradual, not steep and short. Furthermore, the pace at which you ascend the hill will be conservative, not an all out sprint. You can learn more about how hills affect your race.

Therefore, the specific muscles you are working and the specific demands you are placing on your body will be drastically different for a hill repeat workout versus the actual race.

This doesn’t mean that long hill repeats are useless, but rather that they are only one element of course-specific hill training.

Moreover, much of the difficulty of the Boston course comes from the early downhill miles, which thrash your quads and make your legs feel like jello for the final miles. We need to train your legs to handle this stress by incorporating downhill work into your training as well.

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Sample Boston-specific workouts

The BAA 2-4-2

The 2-4-2 workout is an uphill and downhill tempo run used by the BAA on the Boston marathon course that you can also simulate at home or on the treadmill. The group performs this workout twice, once in early February and once in early March with the second session being slightly longer or faster. Here’s how it works:

  1. Start with a 2 mile tempo, mostly uphill, at your normal tempo run pace. Then, you have a 4-5 minute easy jogging rest. You can reduce this to 1 mile if you’re a beginner or for the first session.
  2. Next, run 8 x uphill/downhill repeats on a moderate incline (6-8%) at marathon pace. Each uphill and downhill section is about a quarter-mile long (so about 800 meters per repeat). There is no rest between these repeats – it’s a continuous effort.
  3. Finally, after a 3-4 minute easy jog rest, run a 2 mile, mostly downhill, tempo run at normal tempo run pace.

You can modify this workout to suit your mileage and typical workout volumes, but keep the ratios the same and make sure you include both the uphill and downhill sections.

Downhill intervals

Since preparing your quads for the downhill sections is just as important as being ready for the Newton hills, I like to perform early segment speed workouts on a slight decline. This enables you to integrate speed work early in the training cycle while also keeping the training course-specific.

As an example, I’ll have athletes perform mile repeats on the treadmill at a decline. To compensate for the downhill being aerobically easier, I’ll typically shorten the rest period rather than making the pace too fast (to decrease the risk of injury). An example workout would be 5 x 1-mile downhill repeats at 5k to 8k race pace with 90 seconds rest.

2 x 5 miles

This workout simulates the third quarter of the Boston course (miles 11-16 and then the Newton hills, miles 16-21) to prepare you physically and mentally for the hardest part of the course.

Perform two 5-mile tempos at marathon pace or just a bit faster. The first 5 mile section should be relatively flat, simulating the middle miles of the Boston course. Take a 5 min standing recovery and then run the second 5-mile tempo on a hilly (mostly up) course.

Hilly long runs and tempo runs

While this workout prescription isn’t as specific or “novel” as the other four workouts mentioned in this article, I think it’s important nonetheless.

When training for Boston, be sure that some of your marathon-specific long runs and marathon pace work are performed on rolling hills. You can get super specific if you want (some treadmills have the Boston course as a pre-defined setting), but it’s not 100% necessary. The goal is simply to get accustomed to running on the hills when tired.

Don’t forget to hone your pacing

I’ve written many times before about the importance of pacing and provided some helpful tips for how to hone your sense of pace. Perhaps nowhere is pacing more important than the fabled Boston course. As such, it’s critical you spend these last few weeks perfecting your ability to run under control, especially downhill.

Almost everyone who is preparing for Boston has heard about the danger of starting too fast. But, despite the universality of this knowledge, you’ll still find many runners out way over their heads after 5 or 10k, only to crash and burn after Heartbreak Hill. Asked why they didn’t run slower at the start and most will say “it didn’t feel that fast”.

It’s therefore critical that you focus specifically on honing your pacing during your Boston training. You can do this by:

  • Not getting excited when you perform the downhill portions of the Boston-specific workouts above fast. Faster is not always better! In this case, you’re simply teaching your body to disregard it’s internal pace sensors, which will come back to haunt you on race day.
  • Stop relying on your Garmin and learn to feel your pace by monitoring your cadence and breathing. Don’t stare at your Garmin during your downhill workouts – learn to feel it!

Learn from the best

To help you get ready for Boston, check out this post from BAA coach Terry Shea about the 3 Race Day Quirks You Must Prepare for in the Final Weeks of Boston Marathon Training. In addition to being the BAA coach, Terry also has the distinguished accomplishment of running faster at each of his previous eleven Boston Marathon races. He started with a 2:35 in 2000 and in 2011 brought his time down to 2:20:48.

In this interview, Terry is going to share with us the secrets of the Boston marathon course and how to tailor your training to prepare your body for race day. Some of the highlights include:

  • When he starts his course-specific training for the elite runners he coaches
  • Terry will go in-depth with the 2-4-2 workout we mentioned above and how it works for his runners.
  • How to mentally and logistically approach the downhill start and the Newton hills. Terry shares the strategy and advice he’s learned after running the course hundreds of times.

Obviously, this is a must listen interview if you’re running Boston. However, the tips and advice Terry shares is essential for anyone running a tough course, like New York City, Marine Corps, or any other race that requires specific course training.

Here’s the video and audio file for you to enjoy: