Marathon Training: It’s About More Than Miles

Dean marathon training rotator

The 2013 ING New York City Marathon is 33 days away, and I’m finally getting in the zone. It’s about time. As I wrote in my last post, I had a late start. Like, an eight-weeks-into-a-16-week-training-plan kind of late start. But that’s behind me now, and I’m feeling more focused each day. One of the aspects of my training that’s really helping me stay on track is the diversity of the program. (Yeah, diversity. In marathon training. I was surprised too.)

(If you’re playing catch-up, I’m training with Team USA Endurance, the official New York City Marathon team of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) that was formed this year to help raise money to support the United States’ Olympic and Paralympic teams in the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. If you want to help support Team USA—the USOC receives zero government funding—I’ve created a donation page here.)

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I had always thought that marathon training was all about running miles and miles and miles, building up to a peak volume and then tapering off as race day approaches. Well, I had the tapering part right, but that’s about it. First off, it’s actually more about time than miles. Last week’s long run, for instance, required me to hit the road for 146 minutes. No mention of distance. I thought it was odd, but it starts to make sense when you think about it: Your legs have no idea what a mile looks like, but they know pretty damn well what an hour of exercise feels like (or in my case, two hours and 26 minutes). Then, when you introduce pace into the equation—and start increasing the duration of your runs—you begin to see that it’s all in order to get your body used to performing under varying levels of stress for increasing periods of time. The “varying levels of stress” part is important, because your body’s chemistry responds differently to certain demands (pace, duration, etc.), and by training all of these systems in the weeks leading up to your race, you’ll be better prepared when the big day arrives. The program that I’m following, developed by USOC trainers for Olympic marathoners, achieves this by rotating three different kinds of runs each week…

Long Runs

This is the kind of training that most first-time marathoners will automatically default to. “The primary objective is to increase the efficiency of the body’s energy systems so we are able to tap into our fatty-acid system more easily and spare glycogen, which we have a limited supply of,” says USOC coach Andrew Allden. In fact, just this morning, reading Matt Fitzgerald’s book The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition on the subway ride on my way to work, I learned that “the body stores enough carbohydrate to fuel 15 to 26 miles of running, but it stores enough fat to fuel more than 100 miles of running.” Interesting stuff.

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There are two types of long runs, Allden tells me: duration runs and marathon-pace runs. Duration runs span 2–2.5 hours at an easy pace. That is, marathon pace plus 45–60 seconds per mile. Marathon-pace runs, on the other hand, last just as long, however the middle 60 minutes are run at marathon pace. “Marathon-pace runs are important for two reasons,” Allden explains. “Energy systems are to some degree intensity specific, so you need some running at your actual race pace to know what it feels like and to be comfortable on race day.” These are also your chance to practice your race-day nutrition. (Allden recommends taking in between 200–300 calories per hour in either liquid or gel form.)

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To help you determine your pace for duration and marathon-pace runs, the USOC offers up the following simple formulas. For your duration runs, you want to take your marathon pace and add 30-60 seconds per mile. And for marathon-pace runs (in other words, to determine your marathon pace), take your 5K pace and add 45-60 seconds per mile.

Lactate Threshold Runs

The second type of run you should be doing is one you may not have even heard of. “What lactate threshold runs do is teach the body to burn lactate as fuel, and raise an athlete’s lactate threshold,” says Allden. Lactate (or lactic acid) is produced when you exercise. Your blood lactate level will for the most part remain steady throughout the day, however, when you really push yourself it builds up faster than it can be flushed out. That point is known as your lactate threshold, and, depending on the type of exercise you’re doing, it usually feels like your muscles are on fire. Lactate threshold training pushes back the point at which you start to feel this way, allowing you to go harder for longer.

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So, how do you train this way? The good news is that the maximum amount of time you should do it for tops out at 20–25 minutes, says Allden. It can be done in a single run, or broken into intervals of 5–10 minutes interspersed with shorter recovery periods. For example, you could do 20 minutes straight; five intervals of five minutes, each followed by a one-minute recovery period; or two 10-minute intervals followed by 2-minute recovery periods. As a rule, your recovery periods (note: recovery does not mean rest) should be 20% the duration of your work intervals.

To calculate your lactate threshold run pace, take your 5K race pace and add 30 seconds per mile. To simplify it even further, you could just use the pace at which you would run if your were to race for exactly one hour.

VO2 Max Runs

VO2 max is a term you may already be familiar with. If not, your VO2 max is your maximal aerobic capacity—in other words, your maximum capacity for transporting oxygen around your body during exercise. Improving your VO2 max is a key part of marathon training because your muscles require oxygen to function, and the more efficiently you can deliver it to them the better you’ll perform and the farther you’ll be able to go. Simply put, VO2 max training stresses the body in a way that improves its ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles. “It makes the heart bigger and stronger, as well as works on other ways the body delivers oxygen,” says Allden.

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Just like lactate threshold training, improving your VO2 max involves a specific pace and interval format. In this case, you’re aiming for 2–5 minute intervals with recovery periods lasting half the time of whatever your work intervals are.  So, if you’re doing four-minute intervals, your recovery periods will be two minutes a piece. “Your hard intervals should be at 5K race effort or slightly faster, and not more than 20–25 minutes of hard running in total,” Allden says. So, for example, you could do 10 two-minute bursts with one-minute recovery periods, or five four-minute bursts with two-minute recoveries. But just remember, Allden cautions, “Both VO2 max and lactate threshold runs should have 10-15 minutes of warm-up and cool-down running at each end.”

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