Don’t Let Marathon Training Steal Your Speed

Speed workouts are more effective when preceded by a large aerobic base-building period. Photo: Kurt Hoy

Use these tips to keep your wheels spinning when preparing for longer races.

One of the most common misconceptions amongst marathoners is that training for a 26.2-mile footrace will sap you of your speed. After months of mega mileage, long runs, tough tempos and the race itself, you’re left with an aerobic engine that’s firing on all cylinders but a set of wheels that are seemingly stuck in reverse. You can run moderately fast all the livelong day, but when it comes time to resume racing there’s less pep in your step and you begin to wonder if running fast over shorter distances was a thing of the past. But rest assured, oh warrior of the road, running fast is indeed in your future. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the tasting–provided, of course, that you use the right ingredients.

Any good training recipe should include a healthy mix of workouts that, when used in the proper proportions, lead to optimal performance on race day. When training for a marathon, the most important ingredients, of course, are copious amounts of mileage, plenty of long runs and lots of running at and around marathon pace. It’s these types of workouts that will help you perform your best on marathon race day, but they’re also the key components that come into play when it’s time to change gears and start focusing on shorter races again, even when it seems like those gears don’t want to turn.

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Terrance Shea of Cambridge, Mass., is a 2:20:48 marathoner and coach for the Boston Athletic Association. He is known in New England running circles as a true marathon man, regularly averaging well over 100 miles a week in training over the course of a year, regardless of his training focus. A few winters ago Shea took his show to the track, running 14:31 for 5,000 meters and 8:29 for 3,000 meters, 22- and 13-second personal bests, respectively, off very few “fast” workouts and months of marathon-type training.

“I found that after years and years of marathon training I had developed quite a bit of aerobic strength,” Shea said. “Not surprising, of course. But what was interesting was just how far it went into producing a good 3K and 5K. I only needed a handful of 400s or 600s in one to two months of workouts–just enough to get the legs familiar with 68-70 pace–and once somewhat efficient at this pace I let all of the ‘marathon strength’ take over in terms of not needing any rest interval to maintain it.”

The message is clear: from strength comes speed. The ability to run short intervals at a given pace doesn’t mean squat if you don’t have the strength to maintain that speed over the course of your goal race distance. While shorter intervals focused on specific speed certainly have their place in a post-marathon training program, it’s the marathon training itself that allows you to reap the benefits of such sessions.

“The lesson here when I compare early track experiences to those I had this past indoor season was that the common Vo2 max work, while clearly important, must be built upon and supported by a very solid aerobic foundation,” said Shea. “And even then kept in check.”

Brad Hudson, an elite running coach in Boulder, Colo., shares a similar sentiment through his website, where he states that a “bigger aerobic system means bigger absorption of specific endurance.” A case in point is a former athlete of Hudson’s, American distance ace Dathan Ritzenhein, who ran a then-personal best of 2:10:00 at the 2009  London Marathon and followed that up three months later with a surprising sixth-place finish in the 10,000 meters at the World Championships in Berlin, where he ran a personal best of 27:22.28, and then an American Record run in the 5,000 at Zurich (under the tutelage of Alberto Salazar), coming home in 12:56.27–a 20-second personal best. Hudson, who still had a handle on Ritzenhein’s training leading up to the London race, does not feel that Ritzenhein lost any speed during marathon training, crediting the consistent use of hill sprints, drills and strides to keep Ritz’s wheels spinning, while also making the transition to traditional speed work for shorter races easier and more effective.

“The training was already done,” Hudson stated on his site. “(Ritzenhein) just needed to get in shape from the post-marathon layoff and gain some coordination. I don’t feel like he lost any speed from marathon training.”

One of the easiest ways to regain and maintain that coordination during a training cycle is by incorporating one of Hudson’s favorite workouts, a session of short hill sprints, into your weekly routine. Six to ten repeats of 8- to 10-second sprints on a steep grade at maximal effort once or twice a week after an easy run is an effective way to keep fast-twitch muscle fibers firing, increase overall power, and improve your efficiency before you begin transitioning to specific speed sessions.

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Shea is an advocate of regular stride sessions–4 to 10 pickups of 20 seconds each at mile to 5K race pace–after easy runs or before workouts during periods of higher-volume training, both as a way to maintain basic speed and smooth the transition to faster workouts when an athlete’s training focus starts to shift toward shorter races. In addition to strides, performing a simple set of drills that includes high knees, skips, and butt kicks can help to improve flexibility, power and mechanics.

“Strides are the single most effective way to put in relatively little work to maintain the ability to remain familiar and somewhat efficient at faster race paces,” Shea said. “Even if (an athlete) does not maintain short-distance race fitness, during higher-volume training strides serve the purpose of easing the transition for when workouts are introduced in the early season.”

And there you have it: a simple recipe for keeping your speed in check while training for a marathon. Mix up all the key ingredients over the course of your next training cycle and you’ll be running faster over shorter distances instead of wondering where your wheels went.

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