The thing that confuses me the most in this world is the misunderstanding of how to prep for a marathon that prevails in the United States. I'm specifically talking on the elite level. Internationally marathon training has been steadily evolving since the 1960s and best practices have come to the front. These best practices reached Kenya and Ethiopia around 2000 and the results of that have been a massive leap forward in what fast marathoning means. Here you want to interject that the Kenyans were already the best marathoners in the world in the 1990s. This is true but if you compare the times they were running than to now and the amount of winning they were doing it is quite clear their has been a major jump in their performances. Mean while the times in the shorter distances have remained fairly steady. Don't forget the world record through the 1990's and early 2000's was held mostly by a Brazilian and then a Moroccan who would become American. The 10th best Kenyan marathoner in 2014 ran 2:06:22, the 100th fastest performance was 2:09:45. In 1998 the fastest Kenyan marathoner was 2:06:53, the 10th best was 2:08:52. The 100th fastest performance was 2:14:20. (All these stats are from ARRS http://arrs.auguszt.in/rankings )
Thing is in the same time from you do not see a huge shift in overall running performance. Now some of this is money there is less money on the track than in the 1990's but there was always huge financial incentive in the marathon. The big change is how the athletes are preparing for the marathon. Yet here in the United States MOST, very important not ALL, people are not even preparing specifically for the marathon as well as Bill Squires had them preparing in the late 1970's and early 1980's when he represented probably the best marathon program in the world. Since then other coaches have picked up the ball and moved it forward. These changes mean for the well prepared athlete the marathon is no more a crapshoot than any other distance event. Sure you can get sick or hurt on race day, just as you can for a 10k but if you are fit and properly prepared and not hurt or sick you should run well unless you do something incredibly stupid. However this is not the case. Again and again I read about US athletes with really incredible PB's from 5k to half marathon blowing up in the final miles of the marathon to run very much slower than the 5% slowdown that should be about the average from their respective half marathon bests. Why? The short answer is glycogen. The reason is they are not training in the way the best in the world are to teach their body to burn more fat at marathon pace so they do not run out of glycogen so that their marathon performance is limited by their aerobic fitness instead of fuel.
In the late 1980's the US 10k record holder at the time Mark Nenow who had a 27:20 best and years of huge miles under his belt debuted in the marathon and only ran 2:14 and change. After which he somewhat famously said 'I use to have no respect for a 2:14 marathoner now I am one' or something close to that. Now at that time with the information available a consistent sub 28 guy blowing up in the marathon was an understandable thing. Particularly when muscle fiber types are considered but in the US this same basic thing still happens again and again. Yet nearly every African star who moves up runs somewhere between well and great in their first go at the long race and then quickly ascends to the top of the world class heap. This has not always been the case. They too used to often crash and burn early in their careers and some would never develop into high class marathoners.
So after my four paragraph intro why is this happening? The shortest answer is specific workouts. Most old school programs call for zero to 3 workouts in the two months before a marathon that are really focused on marathon paced running. This is for all but a very few athletes grossly inadequate. They do not teach there body to burn more fat. They feel strong for 18 to 22 miles and then suddenly their day is over and fight though they may they start running splits they normally only see on easy training jogs. I can list athlete after athlete with fast 5k to half performance who has suffered this fate but the point is not to call out individuals but to address the problem whole sale.
If you are not doing at least 6 to 8 marathon specific workouts during the two months prior to a marathon you are not training for a marathon and you are inviting glycogen depletion and failure.
A marathon specific workout is not a workout run at half marathon pace. It is NO faster than 102% of marathon goal pace and no slower than 105% marathon pace. Today I'll discuss two types of marathon specific workouts both of which fall into the category of the marathon specific tempo run.
I will in this post and five additional separate posts on marathon specific long runs, marathon specific intervals, marathon specific blocks and marathon specific alternations http://nateruns.blogspot.com/2015/01/marathon-specific-alternations.html , discuss all the types of marathon workouts that I am aware of and use but the marathon specific tempos are two types of marathon workouts that should be in your bag of tricks.
The first type of marathon specific tempo run is the tempo run at marathon pace. This workout shows up in many marathon programs. Hansons very famously does a 16 mile or 26 kilometer run at marathon pace in their specific phase. This is wonderful but I can't tell you how many very serious runners I a talk to after a poor marathon who when we discuss their training it becomes clear that the only run they did at marathon pace was one 15 or 16 mile tempo at marathon pace. One workout does not a successful race make!
For some athletes this type of tempo makes of the vast majority of their specific work and they can be very successful. Meb Keflezighi notably does pretty much a weekly marathon paced tempo of 10 to 18 miles as the corner stone of his prep for his marathons and do not be fooled by his comparatively slow personal best in the marathon. Meb's career choices in the marathon were not the sort that put him in the fast races with any consistency and to think that a man who has nearly a dozen top 5 finishes at world marathon majors, wins in Boston and New York as well as a 4th place in the Olympics and an Olympic Silver medal to his name is anything but truly world class is a folly. Still for many athletes the specific tempo alone will not be enough to teach their body to burn fat over glycogen. Just as there are many ways our brains learn there are also many ways our bodies learn.
Tips for success with marathon paced tempos. The workout itself is very straight forward. You run on a course as similar to your goal marathon course as possible at the pace you believe based on your other race performance and workouts is a reasonable goal marathon pace. If you plan to attempt a slightly negative split in your marathon than you should attempt the same in these tempos. I suggest starting fairly short in your base phase, say 6 to 8 miles, but even if you don't do this you should be running around 10 to 12 miles for these sessions during your specific phase. The key with these is to always run the pace you want to run and to go as far as you can manage. Each time you repeat the workout try to go further than the last time you did it. Ultimately getting to 16 to 18 miles. As long as 20 is ok for people who are in a very low mileage program and therefore are working out quite fresh but some of those people may be able to push past 20 miles in a workout but this is a bad idea as you are likely to basically run your race in the workout and not really recover from it and find yourself over trained and exhausted on race day.
The second type of marathon specific tempo is run at 5% slower than marathon speed for around the time or distance of the marathon. So here you are focused on running very quickly for the full distance of the marathon. This has three major impacts on your fitness. First you show the body that you want the glycogen to last 26.2 miles or 2hours 20 minutes whatever it is. Second you build specific muscular endurance for the marathon. If the most your legs have ever run fast is 15 miles asking for another 11 on race day can lead to a catastrophic muscle failure. The other cause of a something like that is if you run on very different terrain in training than what you race on. Third and finally these sessions build huge aerobic strength.
As with the specific paced tempo I suggest you start some of this work in your base phase with shorter 12 to 20 mile runs at the pace and with full distance runs at slower paces starting with doing long runs of 20 miles plus at an easy effort and working down to as fast as 90% marathon speed by the start of your specific training phase. Once in your specific phase I would not suggest more than one or two of these very long hard efforts. Though notably the Japanese often do many more than that. It is also very uncommon for a Japanese marathoner to run a second marathon under 2:10 despite the fact that well over a 100 of them have done it once. I'm not saying that is the only reason just that the Japanese in general are willing to work too hard. (Given my personal reputation you can imagine if I'm saying they may train too hard just how hard some of these guys are training) This run is again a steady tempo run on terrain the same or slightly hillier than your goal race run at 95% of marathon pace. For a goal of 2:15 (3:12 per Kilometer/ 5:09 per mile) take your goal time convert it to seconds- in either kilo or mile form- and multiply by 1.05 to get your pace in seconds. For those who don't remember middle school math this is how we find percent increase!) so for out 2:15 guy the goal pace is 3:21 per k or 5:23 per mile.
The draw back to this session is recovery. There is very little mechanical difference in your stride at 95% marathon pace and full marathon pace. This means it is a great specific muscular workout. It also means there is very little difference between how beat up your legs are after this session and after a marathon. You MUST recover well after this expect a few days of very light jogging and expect a reduced training load for 1 to 2 weeks after it. Khalid Khannouchi regularly used long runs like this as part of his training and he would only do a long run every other weekend because they were so hard.
Well now that you armed with two new marathon specific workouts I hope you will begin your transition to a new marathon runner one who need not fear the glycogen wall at 20 to 22 miles.