Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Marathon Training Mistakes – Too Many Tune-up Races

The marathon is unlike any other race distance. To run to your potential, you need to ensure that your training plan is focused on the specific demands of the 26.2 mile distance, which includes elements such as fuel conservation and time on your feet. Attempting to accomplish too many secondary goals during your training segment, like racing too frequently, causes you to lose focus on these specific demands and limits your ability to maximize potential on race day.

The most frequent marathon training mistake

As a running coach, perhaps the number one mistake I see when I begin working with a runner training for a marathon is trying to focus on too many races in one training segment.

To illustrate how these discussions often proceed, I am going to highlight a conversation I recently had with a new runner named “Joe”:

Joe Runner: “I want more than anything to qualify for Boston at my next marathon. I am only 8 minutes away from the qualifying time”.

Me: “Great. We have four months to train and looking at the weaknesses in your prior training plan, I can definitely see 8 minutes of improvement.”

Joe: “Wow, I am excited! I also want to do two half marathons and shoot for a PR, two local 5k’s to beat my local rival, a 48 hour relay race, and pace my friend through his first marathon”

Me: “Whoa, wait, what? To drop 8 minutes from your marathon PR, we need to do everything right in this training block. Where are the long runs supposed to go? When can we do any marathon specific workouts if you’re always racing?”

Unfortunately, to run really well at the marathon, the required training is drastically different from any other commonly run distance, even the half marathon, and it necessitates a singular focus that is often detrimental to your short-term performance at shorter races.

Running well and enjoying your training is a delicate balance and, just like your available time during the day, you can’t add one thing without losing some from the other. That is to say that you have numerous racing opportunities in a marathon training segment. The more you choose to race or to participate in events that distract from your training, the less likely you are to succeed.

Running can be a cruel sport and if you’re looking to make a huge jump in your PR, or you’ve already made the jump and are looking to eek out that extra 5% in your fitness, you can’t afford to train less than perfect.

Why marathon training is not conducive to PR’s at shorter distances

In the marathon, the primary focus of training is developing your aerobic threshold (the fastest pace you can run while staying aerobic, which is often associated with marathon pace), increasing muscular endurance (how long you can run without your legs falling apart), and fuel efficiency (how efficient you can be at burning fat instead of carbohydrates while running at goal marathon pace). In no other race distance are these three training adaptations required to such an extent.

Furthermore, to accomplish many of the aforementioned training adaptations, you need to practice running on tired legs or with low energy levels. This philosophy is often called “accumulated fatigue“. Basically, this means that the fatigue from one workout to another accumulates and transfers from one workout to the next. In essence, you’re always starting your next workout or long run a little tired from your previous training.

While this can make for a weary marathon runner during training, it’s one of the best ways to train specifically for the last half of the race. To run well from miles 20 to 26.2, you need practice running when tired and when low on fuel.

Consequently, it’s very difficult to race well at other distances when training appropriately for the marathon. If you try to taper or reduce mileage to prepare for too many races in your training segment, you risk not preparing your best for the marathon itself. Likewise, if you remain steadfast to your marathon training, you’ll be too tired to record PR’s at shorter distances, unless of course you have outdated PR’s.

Understandably, you may begin to worry or doubt your training if your tune-up half marathon or your local 5k race didn’t produce a PR, even though you’re training at your very best. This is a common feeling, but more often than not, strong performances at 5k or 10k races during the specific portion of marathon training can indicate that your marathon training isn’t specific enough. If you’re training correctly for the marathon, you should be training and racing on tired legs and therefore not able to perform to your very best at tune-up races.

What you can do to avoid this mistake

It’s important to prioritize goals in your marathon training and understand the benefits, consequences, and philosophy behind your training plan. If you’re looking to maximize your potential at the marathon, choose only one or two tune-up races and make sure to understand where and how they fit in the context of your training.

Use tune-up races to practice pacing, taking in fluid and gels, and to get accustomed to racing. Don’t underestimate the accumulated fatigue of training and make sure to put your tune-up race time in perspective. Marathon training can be a weary 2 months with many highs and lows. Maintain your focus and stick with your plan for the best results.

If you’ve got questions on how to avoid this mistake in your training, leave a comment and we’ll answer all your questions.

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20 Responses on “Marathon Training Mistakes – Too Many Tune-up Races

  1. Really enjoyed this article. It’s good(?) to know that you’re intentionally making me “practice running on tired legs or with low energy levels.” Mission accomplished, coach! In all seriousness – I know that no matter how tough a morning may be now, I’ll be happy on race day. Thanks again!

  2. Jeff, I’m currently doing your Sub-4 hour marathon plan over on runkeeper. I’ve signed up for a half marathon (my first!) on Oct 8 as my only tune-up race, but my training program calls for 18 miles that day.

    Should I try to get the other 4.8 miles in after the race, or should I just do the race and call it a day?

    • Great question, Sam. I would run a 1 mile warm-up for your half marathon, race the 13.1 miles, and then run a very easy 3.8 miles as a cool down. You don’t have to start the cool down right after the race. Give yourself 10-15 minutes to catch your breath, get fluids, and stretch a little. Don’t wait longer than 25 minutes though or your legs will get very tight. This will get you the much needed long run and allow you to race well. Good luck!

      • Thanks for the quick reply! I’m looking forward to it. I’m planning on running the half in less than 2 hours, since I’m shooting for a sub 4 hour marathon. I’ll get some friends to meet me at the finish line and run those last 4 miles with me at an easy pace.

  3. this really gave me some hope.
    I am training for boston marathon this year (18 week plan) and trying to break 3:10. my best half PR so far is a 1:28.
    Ive really been pushing it with 2 mile tempo intervals up and down steep hills and 7:30 paced long runs.
    its a canova based plan (not sure if you are familiar with that coach?)
    at week 12 I ran a 6:40 5K (usually im a 6:25) and yesterday at week 14 i bombed a half marathon running a 1:34.
    week leading up to half, I ran 20 miles in 2:32 sunday before and then a spot on 5x2mile hill interval workout all at MP goal pace. but then i swam only for two days after and gave myself one day completely off, and just easy jog 2 miles day before race.
    is this normal to do so badly in the half even on 4 days easy? my legs were so dead in the race.
    im 4 weeks out and in panic mode that ive overtrained.

    • Having a bad race while marathon training is very common. You have to be very careful with managing expectations for these races. Sometimes the legs feel great and sometimes they really fall apart. Before Boston in 2011, Ryan Hall ran the NYC half marathon (same weekend as your race) and finished in 1:03:53 – a very disappointing time considering he was trying to run 2:06 for the full 26 miles: Well, Ryan went out and ran sub 2:05 in April. Sometimes, when you’re pushing the limits in training you have these days.

  4. I found this article really helpful. I’m curious though, if you do some “tune-up” races during training, when should you run the last tune-up race?

    I’m running a marathon in October and trying to qualify for Boston (need a 3:35 ,training for a 3:25). I’m four weeks into my marathon training program and I did a half last week to see where my running was at (coming off an injury that had me sidelined for two months). I ran a 1:40. I have two other races planned for this summer – a 10 miler next weekend and was planning another half in the beginning of August, with that being my last “tune-up” race.

  5. Great article, thanks! I have scheduled two HM tune-ups at a reasonable distance out from my marathon and between each other.

    My question is should I try to race the HMs and get a good time or just use them as regular training runs? In both cases, are HM tapers and recovery necessary? I don’t want the tune-ups to derail the marathon plan as a result of tapering and recovery. BTW, I’m looking to do sub 4 hours and HM PR is 1:50.

    • Tough to give advice on this since I don’t know the race dates or your training. That all plays a factor in what you should do. However, generally, if your goal is the marathon, you shouldn’t race these and instead use them as race simulations.

      • Thanks – that was my feeling: not to tire myself too much by going too hard.

        Marathon is 20th October and I’ve got one HM on 28th July and one on 8th September.

  6. Great article …… I am running this years NYC marathon training schedule has me running 13 this weekend. I may or may not run a half marathon this weekend in my town(Pamby 1/2 Ridgefield Ct) ..I have already run three 20 mile long runs and will be running 22 next weekend before my taper .
    The last NYC(2010) & local 1/2 marathon(3/2013) I had the tendency to go out way too fast and fell apart in the end running a 3:49 and a 1:49 respectively… but was thinking of doing the 1/2 this weekend and working on going out slow so I can finish fast like I need to do in NYC 11/3…

    Any remarks would be great ….

  7. Great article! I think I’m having an accumulated fatigue and need to gain more confidence that this is nothing unusual or worrying. It is great to read that other runners have it too. I hope to continue my training up until the date of full marathon comes! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Good article.

    I ran my first marathon in May 2014. I had previously run 3 half marathons one of which was incorporated into my marathon training. I also ran a 30k race 4 weeks before the marathon. The latter which was disappointing as ingot injured but was able to recover from to run my 1st marathon in 3:32, just short of qualifying for Boston. I knew where I made errors.

    In Nov 2014, I ran my second marathon. In the lead up to it I trained differently incorporating KM repeats and MP runs with some track work. I suffered a mild injury very early but was able to recover once again. I also ran 3 half marathons post injury – when my long run was close to that distance. Using the more for pacing and speed work. During the marathon I was able to pace myself very well and ended up with a time of 3:19 which qualified me for Boston

    Plan your training smartl and stay healthy.

    A marathon requires proper training, attitude and mental fortitude as well as being injury free.

    Leave all on the road!


    • Thank you TC! You are right on the marker, sounds like you learned from your mistakes, and it is working for you! Great input there, and exactly how a marathon should be approached. Thank you for your feedback! Good luck at Boston!

  9. I’m just about finished with training and about to enter the taper for an Oct 18 marathon — my first. I’ve really focused and training has gone great from my perspective. The issue is that I haven’t run a single race all summer, and I have very little clue what I am capable of with regard to goal marathon pace. (I’ve based most of my training targets on some spring 5k performances, but I suspect I’m much fitter now.)

    I’m thinking that it might be a good idea to run a 10k to get a proper baseline. Any thoughts on whether doing that 7 or 8 days before the marathon would be a reasonable idea? (I’m thinking it could replace my final long run.)


    • Hi Adam, thanks for reaching out. That is very exciting, and glad to hear you are feeling good. We would say to race a little further out, maybe 14 days. Keep some kind of hard effort in those final weeks, but if you are going to give it a real good shot, it would be better to do it further out. However, if you think you can hold back enough to not leave your race out there, and be able to race a week later, then go for it. Really depends on how controlled you can be. There is more on racing as a tune up in this article If you do use it instead of your long run, try to get a long warm up and cool down, so you get a decent volume in for that day (12-16). Hope this helps! GOOD LUCK!

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