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How should marathon pace feel?

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“So, what exactly should marathon pace feel like?”

This was recently a question that my athlete, Lisa, posed to me. I sat there and thought about it, but ultimately I only came to the conclusion that this was a great question. My answer is, (insert drum roll) that it depends. Unfortunately, a question like this has a ton of different answers  with caveats. However, I do think it deserves a look into because one of the items I always stress is to learn how paces feel.


While thinking about it, I think there’s four major areas we need to look at.

  1. Your strengths as a runner
  2. The timing and length of the workout
  3. How big of a jump you are trying to make
  4. What your goal pace is

Strengths as a runner:

Your strengths as a runner will initially play a role in how marathon pace should feel. We have done a few blogs about finding these strengths and how to “score” yourself. We actually start the Hansons First Marathon book on these premises. I won’t dive into those here, but the bottom line is, the makeup you possess as a runner will dictate how marathon pace feels. If you are a speed demon who loves ripping up the track every Tuesday evening with the local run club, then there’s a chance you dread the Thursday tempo. It seems to be harder to run 6 miles at a pace that’s significantly slower than what you were whipping around the track at a couple days earlier. On the other hand, if you are a person who loves going out and putting in miles, marathon pace is probably your place of refuge.

Timing  and length of the workout.

This could mean the timing of the segment, but also the time of year. For instance, people training for an October marathon will begin their training in early to mid June. If they took some down time and then jump into training, they aren’t very acclimated. This certainly isn’t going to make marathon pace feel very easy. Luckily, you aren’t running very long tempos at that point, but it can certainly be a dream killer.

On that note, the first marathon workouts may be tough because it’s pace and duration . We’ll talk about those making big jumps in a second, but for now we are just talking about the distance at that new pace. Initially, that workout might feel like a lung burner because it’s currently out of the realm of possibility to run that pace for an entire marathon. In some cases, it might actually be more like half marathon pace. However, as time goes on, your fitness will improve. Ideally that pace feels more an more comfortable. Your effort is harder because of the increasing distance of the workout and the pace isn’t your primary issue anymore.

How big of a jump are you trying to make?

Along the lines we have already talked about, the amount of improvement you are trying to make will play a big part in how pace feels. If you have someone whose running their 15th marathon, they probably aren’t swinging for the 30 min PR fences. They are just trying to eek out that 0.5% to 2% improvement or maintain that BQ status. On the other hand, if you have a relative newbie whose just now learning about structured training, they might be trying to hit that walk off homer. For these folks, they are talking about doing tempo runs at what they might have been doing speed workouts at last year. This is going to be a major effort, especially early on for them. Mind you, I am not saying they should or shouldn’t be going for it, rather just pointing out that they might be in the “what have I gotten myself into” camp for a while.

What is your goal pace?

Before I get any emails about being elitist, let me be clear, I am not downplaying anyone’s ability. I am simply talking about training. With that disclaimer out of the way, slower runners will have a harder time differentiating tempo runs from easy days, especially early on. What I have noticed is that the grey area for prescribing paces occurs about that 4 hour goal mark. This is where things get a little blurry. At this point, runners will sometimes be running their easy runs faster than what their goal marathon pace is. Why? For most folks, their general endurance is going to be their limiting factor. In essence, can they just cover the 26.2 miles and keep it together? So, I don’t necessarily worry about these folks as much because if I can just keep them healthy and putting consistent miles in, then they will run pretty well. THEN, we can start really laying out some goals for them.

But Luke, you never really answered the question- how does MP feel?

You’re right, but what I wanted you to think about was all the factors involved and how you personally react to these variables I discussed. This whole layout was for you to think about what you go through on the tempo days. However, I’ve training with the Hanson philosophy since 2004 and I will tell you this. When I was at my highest fitness levels, the 10 mile tempo was always a big workout, but when I ran it, I always finished feeling that I could have went farther.  Not 16 miles, but I felt like I could have gone another 3-4 miles at that pace. I could talk to my teammates in short sentences. I was breathing hard, but I wasn’t labored. When I got to that point, I knew I was ready to go.  If I could do that in the middle of a 120-140 mile week, I knew I could run that on fresh legs for a really long time. For you, that might mean feeling like you could go another 2-3 miles after a 10 mile tempo in the middle of your peak weeks. If you get to those 8-10 mile tempos and they are essentially races, then you are probably in over your head a little bit and need to evaluate goal pace, recovery, overall volume, etc.

Bottom line is that if you struggle early, don’t panic. But if by the time you’ve reached 6-8 weeks to go and you just can’t find your rhythm, then don’t be scared to re evaluate. I think this is especially true for the folks trying to make the big jumps.

Why is there marathon work in my speed segment?

Why is there marathon work in my speed segment?

Why is there marathon work in my speed segment?

Recently, I received an interesting question from one our coached athletes in the Online Run Club. Essentially, they were following one of our plans for a shorter distance- a 5/10k plan, I believe.

What they asked was:

“Why is there a marathon pace workout during a speed segment?”

Ah! So, think waaay back to reading the Hansons Marathon Method, or our blog on training philosophy. I will respond to your question with my own question: “what is one of the pillars of hansons training?” Insert Final Jeopardy music. That’s right, it’s balance! We never stray too far from any one aspect of training.

So, during a marathon segment, one can ask why we are doing repeats at 10k pace when we are training. In this case, why are we doing marathon pace work during a segment for a much shorter race? As I mentioned, it’s all about maintaining balance, but why? How?

The Mental Part:

The physiological reasons we give a runner marathon pace work is simple. These are a great way to improve overall stamina, or ability to cover distance at a given pace. It also helps improve general endurance, which is simply being able to cover a set amount of distance. This might not seem like a big deal, but while a marathon is 97% aerobic, even going down to a 1 mile run all out, 80% of your energy contribution is coming via aerobic sources. Simply, regardless of distance, having a high revving aerobic cardiovascular engine is going to be vital for your success. Now, that doesn’t mean that we need do 10 mile tempos every week, it does mean we can’t completely abandon that source of training stimulus simply because we aren’t racing that distance- much like we don’t with speedwork during a marathon segment.

The How:

Now, as to the “how,” there a number of places that a marathon pace workout can be inserted into your training that’s not a marathon segment. The first is during a general fitness, base building, or a regeneration phase of running. In any of these situations, marathon pace work, mainly in form of repeats, tend to be a great way to add more structure into a program. It can help subside the urge to get into faster work too fast and avoid burnout before you are ready to race.

The second area is actually during a tough stretch of really fast work. We always talk about speed being the top of the roof. Referring to the percentages above, even at 5k racing, only 20% of your fueling needs come from anaerobic sources. However, when we are in a race specific stage, we are doing a lot of workouts in a row that are focusing on the top end (Faster than 10k pace) of our capacities. If you are like me, you struggle after doing a bunch of these fast workouts in a row. So, what I will do is swing back around with a marathon pace repeat workout that hits on the aerobic component, but gives us a break from the constant barrage of lung burning “get down” speed.

Now, as I mentioned, the marathon work I am talking about isn’t necessarily a 10 mile tempo run every few weeks. In fact, I rarely even go further than six miles total of marathon work.

Most of the time I prescribe something like 6-8 x 800 meters or 4-6x 1 mile at MP. Rest will be pretty short. 1 minute to 800 meters depending on where it’s placed in the segment. Early segment will have longer recovery because the purpose is more about getting back into routine, than anything. Later in a segment, you should be more fit, so the rest should be shorter.

Long Run Options:

Another favorite is mixing up a long run in place of a workout. For instance, if someone has been doing a bit of speed and has had some extra days off during the week, I might take that long run and mix it up on a person. One thing I like to do is a cutdown of 6-10 miles. The runner would warm up 1-2 miles, then do a progressively faster run over a set distance. I might start at a minute per mile slower than current marathon pace and work down to marathon pace or slightly faster. Then cool down another 1-2 miles.

It’s a good way to get a quality long run in without finding a day to add another workout.

Another one of my favorites is a moderate distance long run of 12-14 miles, but in the middle I will add 4-8x 2-3 minutes at marathon effort with the same time recovery jog. Again, it’s a great way to not miss a long run, but really stress some of the aerobic components we sometimes miss out on during a speed segment.

The Wrap:

So there you have it! The why and the how of putting marathon pace work in your non marathon segments. It’s a way to offer up the balance  in training that we stress, provide an opportunity to see how marathon pace feels after some progression, and even offer up non marathon runners a way to practice patience. It may even be a nice transition for those who are on the fence about a marathon to help build confidence in moving forward with that goal. The main reason though is that it does provide a great physiological stimulus, builds specific endurance, and helps break up a string of really tough 10k and faster workouts to help bring us back from burnout. Like most workouts, to make this work, you have to use restraint. Faster is not better here or we defeat the purpose of the workout. Hopefully, this helps answer some questions or gives you some ideas for your own training!