I’m currently training for a marathon in early September and I’m trying to qualify for Boston … and I was wondering IF, WHEN, and HOW OFTEN= and HOW FAST I should be doing TRUE speed workouts like 200s & 400s?
Thank you for your help/advice.
Your question is not an uncommon one! While the marathon is a largely aerobic endeavor, there is certainly a time and place for shorter speed workouts such as 200- and 400-meter repeats in your training program. Intervals of this length are great in the early stages of a training cycle for improving mechanics, maintaining turnover and developing efficiency—three things that will make running a marathon pace feel that much easier as the race gets closer.
Long runs, marathon-pace efforts, tempo runs and long intervals are the training cornerstones for a 26.2-mile race, but true speed workouts at 5K pace or slightly faster help lend support to those key components. For the marathoners I coach, I’ll prescribe shorter intervals in the range of 200 to 600 meters, or 30 seconds to two minutes for runners without access to a track, roughly once every 10 days in the 8 to 16 weeks before a goal race. This is just enough of an emphasis for the workouts to be of benefit without taking away from the strength-building sessions necessary for race-day success.
In your case, 15 or so weeks out from an early September marathon, now is the perfect time to start sprinkling some of these shorter workouts into your weekly routine. Where to start? I recommend getting your feet wet with a mixed bag of intervals: 4 sets of 600m-400m-200m @ 5K race pace or slightly faster (5-10 seconds per mile, tops!) with one minute to 90 seconds jogging recovery after each faster effort. Take 2 to 3 minutes in between sets. This will give you 3 miles worth of solid work at much faster than goal marathon race pace.
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As the weeks progress, vary your workouts in both intensity and duration. Add an additional set or two to the workout described above. Also, a classic set of 12, 16 or (for some, not all) up to 20 x 400m at 5K race pace with equal recovery time is a great Vo2 max session. On the shorter side of things, 16 x 200m @ 3K race pace (5K race pace minus about 15 seconds per mile) with 60-90-second recoveries will help you work on your turnover and tucker you out at the same time.
Within 8 weeks of race day, I like to tack on some shorter, faster intervals at the end of a tempo run or longer interval session. For example, try finishing off an 10-mile tempo run at goal marathon pace with 10 x 30-second intervals at 5K race effort—not an easy assignment on tired legs! Or, following a session of four to five two-mile repeats @ half marathon pace with 4 to 6 x 400m @ 5K pace with 60-90 second recoveries. Workouts like these help offset staleness and will teach you to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers when your legs are zapped.
One last thing to keep in mind when going shorter and faster: keep an eye on your form. If you’re straining, overstriding or otherwise falling apart toward the end of the workout, you’re going too fast. Either slow it down or put off the workout until another day. You want to maintain fluid form throughout the workout and finish feeling strong and sharp.
Best of luck,