Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Two Workouts That Will Take Your Marathon Long Runs to the Next Level

It’s not uncommon for runners to get stuck at a plateau in the marathon, especially when your times start dipping under the 3-hour range.

Unless you want to start living your life like an elite runner (and perhaps you already are), taking your marathon training to the next level means you need to start getting smarter and more specific with workouts.

Particularly, the long run must transition from slow, time on your feet affairs to aggressive, energy specific efforts that challenge the physiological systems you’ll rely on for race day.

When examining the training schedules of faster marathoners who have plateaued, I have almost universally found a reliance on a greater number of moderate long runs rather than a few specific, hard long efforts. Over the course of 12 weeks, some schedules have as many as six or seven easy 18 to 20 mile long runs. Not only do these runs provide limited aerobic benefit once you’ve reached a certain fitness level, as famous elite marathon coach Renato Canova once said: “What does a 2-hour easy run have to do with the marathon? Nothing.”

It’s this shift in thinking – from believing six 20-mile easy or moderate long runs is the best training approach to understanding that you absolutely must include hard, marathon specific long runs – that will ultimately take your marathon times to the next level.

In this article, we’re going to show you two extremely specific, and very difficult, marathon long runs you can implement in the last six to eight weeks of your marathon training schedule to help you breakthrough that marathon plateau.

Getting specific with the marathon

The first thing to note is that these long run workouts are not for everyone.

You should have a few years of training under your belt and be running at least 50-60 miles per week. While many coaches might argue you need more training under your belt, I have seen success with runners at this minimal training level. Just be aware the run will be difficult and put you on the edge, so you’ll need extra recovery time.

As you may well know, one of the most important elements to marathon success is being able to burn a higher percentage of fats versus carbohydrates when running at marathon pace. The longer you can maintain your glycogen stores, the farther into the marathon you can go before the brain and muscles, in the absence of glycogen, start to slow you down.

Sure, running slow will burn more fat as a percentage compared to carbohydrates, but you need to be able to do that at marathon pace. To accomplish this, you must run at or near marathon pace for extended periods of time. Obviously, one of the best places to do that is during the long run.

Here are two long runs that teach you how to do just that.

Progressive fast finish long run

Many experienced marathoners are familiar with the fast finish long run. Run easy to moderate for half or three-quarters of the run and then finish the last 3-5 miles at marathon pace. I admit, this is a great workout and a good first step towards making your long runs more marathon specific.

However, if you’ve been training a long time, you need to increase the stimulus and take this long run to the next level.

  • The 22-mile progressive fast finish long run starts with 3 miles at an easy pace. This is to get your body warmed up and the blood pumping.
  • From miles 4 through 12 (8 miles) you’ll target a pace that is 5 percent slower than goal marathon pace. For those of you who struggle with math like I do, that’s usually going to be about 15 seconds slower than goal marathon pace. Not quite hard, but challenging.
  • Miles 12-18 should be run at marathon pace. Not only is this good practice to help you lock onto marathon pace as your legs are getting tired, but you’re starting to teach your body to burn fat as your glycogen stores deplete and you have to continue to run at a moderate effort.
  • Now comes the hard part. Miles 18-22 (4 miles) should be run at 3-5 percent faster than marathon pace. 3 percent is about 10 seconds per mile faster than goal pace, which will be very difficult. Again, you’ll be low on glycogen and training yourself to mentally and physically push when you’re tired.

Finish off the run with 10 mins of easy jogging to let the blood flush out your system and act as a light cool-down.

Squires’ long run with a twist

If you’re a regular reader of Competitor, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Squires long run – a long run that incorporates surges and was a staple of legendary BAA coach Bill Squires. As coach Mario Fraioli describes the run: “The meat of the workout is a series of surges inserted into the middle hour of your weekend long run. Squires suggests surging for anywhere from 30 seconds to 12 minutes – the shorter the surge, the faster the pace.”

The traditional squires long run is another great marathon specific long run. However, when you need to bust through that plateau, we’ve got to spice it up a notch.

To make this long run even more marathon specific, we can incorporate some of the principles we learned when we discussed lactate clearance to not only train the body to clear lactate quickly at marathon pace, but to also trigger high levels of glycogen depletion and further improve your ability to burn fat as a fuel source at marathon pace.

Like the Squires long run, the workout is a 22-mile long run with a series of 60-90 second surges. However, instead of running easy between the surges, you will run marathon pace as your “rest”. The surges should be between 10k and half marathon pace and the marathon pace “rest” will be 4-5 minutes, depending on your ability level.

Surging at 10k pace will burn through more glycogen than you would remaining at a moderate, marathon paced effort. Then, as you slow back down to marathon pace, your body realizes it must conserve glycogen for these 60-90 second bursts and attempts to use fat as a primary fuel source at this pace.

For a 3-hour marathoner, the workout would look something like this: 22 mile long with 8 x 90 sec surges at 6:15 pace w/5 min at marathon pace (6:45) between, starting at mile 12. Finish run off easy.

This long run will include 40 minutes at marathon pace and 12 minutes at 10k pace. That’s 52 minutes of hard running between miles 12 and 20. This is a workout that combines the best benefits from two very marathon specific workouts.

Final Notes

Don’t forget about the recovery. These long runs are very difficult and will require a few days of easy running to fully recover and be ready for another hard session. I have athletes take no less than two easy days after a long run of this caliber and sometimes have 3 easy days scheduled before the next workout.

Likewise, you should only schedule two or three of these long runs during your training cycle. Spread them out by at least two weeks, with at the last occurring at no closer than three weeks before your goal race. This will ensure you absorb the hard work you’re putting in and the legs are ready to race hard.

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