Tips For A Faster Marathon Or Half Marathon

10/06/2017 - 13:35

By Carolyn Mather
As we leave the dog days of summer, and begin preparing for a late fall/winter marathon or half marathon, it might be a good idea this fall to add a little speed to your training runs. After all, you want to be at your best at a race that takes so much preparation.

Whether it is the mile or the marathon, you will run faster if you get stronger. The stronger you are, the easier it is to work at a given sub-maximum level of stress loading. Marathoning is all about running sub-maximally for a very long period. The faster this sub-maximum pace is, the quicker is your finish.

Good milers spend lots of time in the weight room hoping to put on some muscle, and as a result to get stronger, so that super fast intervals will seem easier and the risk of injury will decrease. Milers have plenty of fast twitch and slow twitch muscles, and much of their training is devoted to a near maximum level effort to strengthen all of their muscle fibers. When they race every muscle fiber is used to the maximum as well, as that is the name of their game and they run very quickly.

In a real sense marathoners are not much different, at least in principle. After all, we are all runners. It is true that most marathoners do not spend hours in the weight room (although I must say that Jordan Hasay's weight training regimen and its frequency and intensity may have a bit to do with her incredible marathon debut). But the average marathoner does not particularly need increased muscle mass. And with a marathoner's specialization with a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle cells muscle means that they will not put on much, if any, muscle anyway.

But simply training lots of miles slowly, means that you are left sadly with the ability to only race slowly. You get what you train for and slow training means that slow twitch muscle cells get well trained and your fast twitch muscle cells go unchallenged. On the average, even fairly good marathoners have at least 20 to 30 percent, and often 40 to 50 percent of their leg muscle mass in the form of fast twitch muscle cells. These fast twitch muscle cells do not get activated until at least your marathon race pace intensity of training. So not to train at faster paces means giving short shrift to the development of a sizable number of muscle cells that could be helpful in performance enhancement.

So, the secret of quickening half marathon and full marathon race times is to include two faster sessions a week in your training. One workout is race pace training. Do a warm up, then run a 20- minute run at race pace, then an easy mile, then 15 minutes at race pace, then a cool down. Even this minimal stimulus keeps those fast twitch fibers actively trained to assist on race day. When I was doing hard training for the marathon, I would gradually increase my race pace training until three weeks out from my marathon, I could do three sets of 20 minutes at predicted marathon pace with 10 minutes jogging between each set. You certainly do not have to go to that extreme but it really is a challenge and makes a difference.

There are, of course, those obsessive runners who, if one aspirin will stop a headache in 20 minutes, will take 20 to stop it in 60 seconds. Although this is an over-exaggeration, as the bumper sticker in the 60 when drugs were in vogue said "speed kills." Too much of a good thing can be nasty and lead to injury. Yet one additional speed training session a week ought to include faster than race pace surges and bursts of energy to again provide a total body approach to development. Try a free flow fartlek session of accelerations to the next telephone pole, then rest and recovery to the next telephone pole and repeat as long as you are comfortable. Or do 30 seconds fast and 30 slow for 30 minutes Or, for those who prefer much more organization, try a series of eight in and out miles (four of each), one being 10 seconds faster than your race pace and the next being 10 seconds slower. This will give you a wonderful sense of achievement and you can proceed to a massage, lots of water and a great meal. After you have gotten the adaptation of three such sessions in a six-week period you will be tougher than nails and your mental strength will have increased also.

Endurance will get you to the finish line but adding a little speed will get you there faster. If you do not prefer any of the above sessions, get creative and make your own. If you know your body , you will soon figure out what challenges you and what will work. As an aside, stay off the track. You are preparing for a long race, and as Joanie Samuelson stated as she prepares at age 60 to break three hours at the Chicago Marathon, “I have not been on the track in years as my body does not like all the turns.” Her solution is to "race cars" on the road. So whatever works for you, try some speed.

Carolyn Mather, R.N. PhD. lives and runs in north Georgia and is a member of the Atlanta Track Club Elite. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2018 Running Journal