Fading in the final miles is common in the marathon. It can happen anywhere past the half-way point, and is typically a combination of mental and physical fatigue.
The typical marathoner will slow down 14% in the last half of the race. To put this in perspective, for a 4 hour marathon, this means 1:52 in the first half and 2:08 in the last half. For a 5 hour marathon, this would be 2:20 in the first half and 2:40 in the last half.
However, elite marathoners slow very little, typically less than 3%. What’s their secret? Are they naturally gifted runners that don’t fatigue? Or is it running 100+/wk miles in training? Or maybe it’s great nutrition and optimal in-race fueling? There is no single answer, but the all of the above contribute to their endurance.
Obviously you can’t change your genes, but that’s only part of the equation. For everyone but the elite runners, genetics need not be the limiting factor. A great training plan combined with a terrific race strategy will get you to finish strong in the marathon.
Training for Endurance
Running for endurance focuses on 5 main areas. Firstly, it is favoring slow twitch muscles to fast twitch muscles. Secondly, it provides strength conditioning to muscles and bones to withstand the long, repeated impacts. Thirdly, it trains the metabolic system to prefer a higher percentage of fat to sugar as a fuel source. Fourthly, the body adapts to storing a larger amount of glycogen (in the muscles and liver), which provides a larger reserve of carb fuel to run longer. And finally, you’re getting very important mental training to handle the inevitable aches and pains that come with running long distances.
Typical endurance conditioning in marathon training plans comes from two strategies: long runs and total weekly miles. Long runs are the pillars of the endurance plan and focus on building longer distances 2-3 times every month. Total weekly miles are designed to push your body to it’s limits, but also maintain adequate rest and recovery.
Long runs are designed to simulate the rigors of the marathon. For the long run to be most effective, it must replicate the marathon race conditions as much as possible. This means running on similar surfaces (most commonly roads or pavement) and in similar weather (particularly temperature, but not always possible). Your long runs should be run continuously, slowing down only briefly to take in water, sports drink, and food like gels or blocks.
Avoid taking prolonged stops during your long runs. If your long runs consist of several breaks, you’re not getting the most effective training. Your endurance will suffer. You’ll often run faster than you should between your breaks and will not maintain a consistent heart rate throughout the exercise. The most disadvantageous outcome is that you’re not practicing the mental fortitude that you need to persevere through the long miles.