This week we look at the marathon paced tempo. This is one of the staples of so many programs and it is a great workout to increase your aerobic fitness not just for marathon racing but also for events all the way down to the mile. Though this is for many runners the focal point of their marathon specific work I don't like it as much for that purpose because though it is a great session for the aerobic demands of the marathon it falls short for most runners in terms of teaching the body to burn fat over glycogen and specific muscular endurance. Still it is a great workout that should be part of the marathoners program for sure and can be a secret weapon for athletes who focus on the shorter distances.
The marathon paced tempo run is exactly what it sounds like a tempo run at your goal marathon pace. Depending on what point in your program you are at this run can be 8 to 16 miles long. Some runners who are very good at getting big efforts out in workouts might even push it out to 18 or 20 miles.
As I mentioned in the build up this type of run is a staple of many marathoners. Particularly american marathoners. The Hansons group very famously does a 26.2, right around 16miles, kilometer marathon paced tempo run as part of their marathon prep. I would say the most zealous and successful practitioner of this workout is Meb who does one pretty much every week during his marathon prep. He starts them at about 8 miles long and builds the distance over the cycle and has run them as long as 18 miles. It should be noted though that he has had very successful marathons off build ups that only reached shorter distances. Most notably his longest marathon paced tempo before the 2012 Olympics where he finished 4th was only 12 miles.
Why this workout works. It is a great aerobic session that teaches the athlete to stay smooth for a long time. It builds great muscular as well as aerobic strength. By going slower than threshold pace it allows you to run at what is still a very quick pace for upwards of an hour, maybe even approaching two hours. This type of work also does great things for building mental endurance and strength. For any runner regardless of goal race this session is a great way to massively increase aerobic endurance, mental fortitude and practice staying relaxed at a quick pace.
How to progress this workout. Like all tempo runs I encourage you to increase the distance before dropping the pace. So set your goal marathon pace, be realistic. It is not your current 5k or 10k race pace! Remember if your training goes well you can always adjust the pace later. At the start you should try to run about 8 miles. Focus on being as even paced as you can, the exception to that being if you are preparing for a hilly marathon in which case you should do your tempos on a comparably hilly course and your effort should be even but your pace will obviously fluctuate. Also remember it is always better to start a bit slow and finish strong than to go out to fast and slow down.
The drawbacks on this session. To often this is the only marathon specific workout in a schedule and for most runners it simply will not fully prepare them for the demands of the marathon. Don't get me wrong there are athletes for whom this is exactly enough. Meb is probably the greatest marathon in American history. Athletes like Brian Sell and Desiree Linden are no slouches. BUT there are as many stories of athletes who have done a great marathon paced tempo in training or multiple marathon paced tempos in training and have not come close to that performance on race day. Ask the Hanson guys for every guy that ran 5:10 pace at their 26.2 dress rehearsal and ran that pace on race day as well there was another one who ran with them on the training run and crashed on race day. Prior to the 2008 Olympic Trials Josh Rohatinsky reportedly ran 5:02 pace for 20 miles on the trials course itself. I was limping next to him at 22 miles in the Olympic trials when he ran out of glycogen. There is no question in my mind he was in better aerobic fitness than I was. But he ended up behind me in the results because he had not trained his body to burn less glycogen and more fat at race pace.
So for sure get out there and start getting after these runs but I would advise that you do need to do some other types of more extensive workouts as part of your marathon specific prep.