Once you've done a marathon or a few, your next goal may be more than just finishing. It can be a fun challenge to set a time goal. Running within a certain time requires good pacing, proper hydration and fueling, and being mentally tough through the ups and downs of 26.2 miles.
The first thing to figure out is a reasonable but challenging goal. If you ran a marathon last year in 4:42, you might be aiming for a 4:20 or 4:30 goal time. However, you wouldn't want to set an unreasonable time like running a 3:30. Some day, you may work up to that time, but making that large of a jump in speed is very difficult.
Setting a good goal helps you to figure out the type of training you'll need to do to improve. There are two areas to focus on for getting a better time in the marathon: base speed and endurance.
Base speed is simply how fast you can run. But in a marathon, the speed you can run in a 5k is much more applicable than what you can do in a 100 meter sprint on the track.
Running fast places greater effort on your heart, resulting in a performance boost if done correctly. It also helps to improve an efficient running stride and can condition the body to compensate at a higher heat level (heat adaptation). Running fast also adjusts your mental switch to what run speed feels appropriate, it can reset your brain into thinking your normal runs are slow!
If you read our article on using caffeine before a race, it can also be used to boost performance during training. However, you should only consume your normal amounts of caffeine for daily training. Caffeinated gels are a good way to get the caffeine boost plus quick carb energy.
A great method for improving speed over a distance of a few miles is the tempo run. In the tempo run, you attempt to set a pace that is fast but sustainable. If your goal is a 4:20 marathon, your marathon pace is just under 10 min / mile. You'll want to do some tempo runs just a bit faster than this pace, but covering shorter distances than the race. These are some tempo runs that'd be appropriate for a 4:20 marathon goal.
- 1 mile at 8 30 pace
- 3 miles at 9 00 pace
- 5 miles at 9 30 pace
- 8 miles at 9 45 pace
You'll need to adjust your tempo pace as appropriate to your goal time. Divide your goal time in minutes by 26.2 (so a 5 hour goal time would be 300 / 26.2) to get your minutes per mile average time. For shorter tempo runs (1-3 miles), attempt to run at 1-2 minutes faster than your needed marathon pace. For longer tempo runs (5+ miles), run 0-1 minute faster than your marathon pace. You may need to work up to these tempo paces, and you should build in one tempo run per week into your training schedule.
Another popular method to improve speed are interval workouts. These are simply periods of fast running followed by slow running. The periods can be set distances or times, for example, running 400 meters fast followed by running 400 meters slow. The periods can be varied, such as fartlek training, where a person may run fast for a couple of minutes, followed by a few minutes of cooldown, and then another couple of fast minutes. The important part of interval running is to run fast but run with good form and in control. A fast run might be 10-40% faster than your marathon pace speed.
Here are some great interval workouts:
- 400/400: On the track, run 400m fast followed by 400m slow, repeat 4-8 times (equates to 2-4 miles)
- 200/200: On the track, run 200m fast followed by 200m slow, repeat 8-16 times (equates to 2-4 miles)
- 3/3: Sidewalk or trail, run for 3 minutes fast followed by 3 minutes slow, repeat 3-6 times
- 1/2/3/4: Sidewalk or trail, run for 1 minute fast, 2 minutes slow, 3 minutes fast, 4 minutes slow, repeat 2-4 times
Fast running, whether tempo or interval runs, places greater stress on the body than a normal jogging pace. You need to work up in your fast run speeds, particularly if you don't run fast very often. Tempo runs should be a once a week staple in your training plan. Interval workouts can also be done once a week, but you may want to do these one week and then not the next week, as two fast training runs every week can lead to over training.
The other important factor to consider in a marathon performance is endurance. You may be able to cover the first 20 miles running a 9 min/mile pace, but then fade horribly in the last few miles. The ability to sustain a pace from beginning to end is a combination of proper pacing and endurance.
The average marathoner runs the first half of a marathon at 47% of their total time, while taking 53% of their total time to cover the last half. For a 5 hour marathoner, this would give you splits of 2:21 for the first half and 2:39 for the last half. Being able to run closer to even splits can shave several minutes off that typical slower half of the marathon!
Marathon endurance comes from doing long runs in your training schedule while maintaining a marathon or near-marathon pace. Optimally, you'll want to do a few runs in the 16-20 mile range during your training season. Some of these long runs can be taken slow and easy. But the remaining long runs should be treated as marathon warm ups.
For example, if your goal marathon is 4 hours, then your marathon race pace is 9 min 9 sec (9:09) per mile. A long training run as a marathon warm up would be 16-20 miles ran at a pace between 9:00 and 9:15 min/mile. This type of run should be done 4-8 weeks before your race. It's important to note that this long race-paced training run will exert a toll on your body and you should plan to rest for a couple of days afterwards. You should also work yourself up to this mileage, by progressing in long runs by a mile or two each week.
Focusing on base speed and endurance will improve your marathon times. These training methods must be built into a complimentary training schedule. Speed runs of 1-2 times per week and a long run once a week are fundamentally important to performing well in a marathon. Combine good training with a good diet and adequate sleep and you'll be on your way to setting a personal record!