Speed work for marathoners

This is something I need to do, especially with only 6 weeks left. I’ve been focusing on getting in my long run every week, and have only done one real speed workout. Running Times posted this article about the importance of speed work for marathoners. – Article by By Greg McMillan.


1) Short, fast repeats improve your running economy (the amount of oxygen consumed at a given pace), and improved running economy is very important in the marathon. Think of it as getting better gas mileage–you can go longer before running out of gas.

2) Short, fast repeats break the monotony of training. Often, marathon training starts to put runners in a pace rut. Fast repeats challenge you to turn your legs over and help avoid the “marathoner shuffle.”

3) Short, fast repeats allow you to insert some volume of running at a pace that is significantly faster than marathon race pace. For example, Brett Gotcher’s goal marathon pace was 4:55 per mile so we were doing workouts at 4:15-4:40 per mile, which allowed 4:55 to feel easier. Brett ran a 2:10 in his marathon debut.


The basic plan is to perform some short, fast running every other week during the last two months before race day.

For the 200m repeat workouts, I had Brett run 20-24 times 200m with a 200m jog between. The pace was 5K to 10K which isn’t too taxing to run for 200m but gives the body/mind 2.5 to 3 miles of running at a pace quite a bit faster than marathon pace. For Brett, the goal was to run 32-33 seconds per 200m (4:16-4:24 pace) and for the recovery jogs to be moderate as well. In other words, he should not be doing the slow, sprinter recovery stumble but should jog slowly but steadily between each repeat.

For the 400m workout, we performed the early workout (six weeks out from the marathon) as 12-16 times 400m with a 200m jog and the later session (two weeks prior to race day) as 8-10 times 400m with a 200m recovery jog. Again, these were fast but controlled efforts and we ran the repeats in a progressive manner. The goal was to run them in sets of four at the following intensities–half marathon, 10K, 5K, 3K.

Many runners think about 200m and 400m repeats only as preparation for a 5K or 10K. But you can adjust the intensity of the repeats for marathon training, making them less anaerobic or tiring than these workouts are for 5K-10K runners. All the short, fast workouts Brett did were very controlled. Could he have run them faster? Of course! But that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to augment the marathon workouts with some faster running to keep his form perfect and his legs fresh. Mission accomplished.



These short, fast repeats should not be used, however, for runners who struggle with speed work. These “endurance monsters” can run all day but find that speed work leaves their legs feeling flat for several days post-workout. For example, I didn’t include these 200m and 400m workouts with another athlete I coach, Paige Higgins, who ran 2:33 in the same race where Brett ran 2:10. With Paige, we did fartlek sessions (like 20-25 times 1 minute on with 1 minute off recovery jog between), but these were more like a tempo run with surges than a track workout. Her pace stayed closer to 10K to half marathon pace. For her, this exposure to running slightly faster than marathon pace works much better than running 200m and 400m repeats at 5K to 10K pace.


Eight Weeks to Race Day: 20-24 x 200m with 200m jog at 5K to 10K pace

Six Weeks to Race Day: 12-16 x 400m with 200m jog in sets of four at half marathon, 10K, 5K and 3K race pace

Four Weeks to Race Day: 20-24 x 200m with 200m jog at 5K to 10K pace

Two Weeks to Race Day: 8-10 x 400m with 200m jog in sets of four at half marathon, 10K, 5K and 3K race pace

Greg McMillan is an exercise physiologist and USATF-certified coach who helps runners via his Web site mcmillanrunning.com.


4 responses

  1. Very interesting reading. Thanks for posting!
    I’d be interested to get this done on me. I used to be a forefoot lander, but forwards of my COG, result. Stress fracture during marathon.
    I’ve had my technique amended to land mid-foot under COG, but worry I’m still a forefoot loader, with increased risk of stress fracture…

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