Expert Advice on How to Run a Marathon
Running marathons has become accessible — and raised millions of dollars for charities in the process — but there’s a widespread myth that just because you’ve completed a marathon you’re in shape. There’s a reason many people report weight gains during training: Just because you complete the arduous stretch doesn’t mean you were running at a strong pace.
“I feel runners have lost the sense of developing a solid run foundation and lost sight of how to improve their abilities as runners,” Eric Orton, author of The Cool Impossible and the coach in Christopher McDougall’s cult read Born to Run, tells The Cheat Sheet. “I see so many jump right into a half or full marathon as their first race.”
He continues, “This is great for the sport, but I also feel many are [in] over their head and end up walking, which is OK — but the tendency is to think just running long is the answer, when in reality we have to get faster and stronger to really improve our ability to go long.” So how do you develop said foundation? It’s all about perfecting your one-mile time, according to Orton.
Improve your one-mile
“One the of greatest predictors of a finishing marathon time is how fast you are able to run one mile as fast as possible,” says Orton. “So by simply improving this time, you are drastically improving your ability to run a faster marathon when appropriate marathon training is applied to this new found speed at the mile.”
In fact, according to Orton, the typical path for the development of elite runners goes something like this: Run track and cross country in high school, which consists of short, faster races. Enter college and increase your distance a little, but still focus on short and fast races, relative to the marathon distance. Then graduate to international competition in your 20s, focusing on 5k and 10k races. And finally, moving into the marathon distance, apply all of the speed and strength you have honed for the last 10 to 12 years to a longer distance.
“Now I am not saying you need to take 10 to 12 years before you look to do your first marathon, but there are some principles that are the same; develop speed and strength to improve upon your marathon potential,” says Orton. “For example, improving your one-mile trial time by 15 seconds is approximately equivalent to a 15-minute improvement in a marathon finish time.”
So instead of thinking running longer distances is the only way to improve upon the marathon, focus on improving your one-mile speed for what Orton says will be drastic marathon improvements. And this doesn’t discriminate; newbie runners can catapult their abilities, and seasonal veterans who are focused on long runs can break ruts if they’ve plateaued.
Orton’s one-mile test and training program
First, perform a one-mile (1,600 meters) time trial on a track or flat course. Let this serve as your historical benchmark for future improvements as well as your gauge for appropriate efforts in training.
Raw speed training
To help improve your raw speed, or your ability to run one mile, do these workouts once a week for approximately eight weeks.
- Week 1 = 4-5 X 3 min intervals at 95-100% of your test speed with 3 min rest interval (RI).
- Week 2 = 6-8 X 90 second intervals at 105% of your test speed with 2 min RI.
- Week 3 = 4-5 X 4 min intervals at 90-95% of your test speed with 3 min RI.
- Week 4 = Rest week, no speed workout.
- Week 5 = 5 X 4 min intervals at 95-100% of your test speed with 3 min RI.
- Week 6 = 8-10 X 2 min intervals at 105% of your test speed with 2 min RI.
- Week 7 = 4 X 5 min intervals at 90-95% of your test speed with 3 min RI.
- Week 8 = At the end of this week, perform your one-mile test again to see improvement.
During this eight-week foundation program, it is also crucial to work on strength to support the speed development. So hit these strength run workouts once per week, one to two days after the above speed workouts. The hills can be done on the treadmill if needed.
- Week 1 = 6-8 X 15 second hill repeats at a fast and relaxed effort. Look to be consistent for all of all 6-8 with 2 min RI.
- Week 2 = 2 x 10 min flat intervals at 85% of your one mile test speed with 4-5 min RI.
- Week 3 = 5-6 X 3 min hill repeats at a steady and strong effort or 85% effort with 2-3 min RI.
- Week 4 = 20 min interval at 75-80% of test speed.
- Week 5 = 8-10 X 10 seconds fun and fast sprints with 1 min walk RI. Keep these fun so they are not too fast.
- Week 6 = 8-10 X 15 second hill repeats at a fast and relaxed effort. Look to be consistent for all of all with 2 min RI.
- Week 7 = 6 X 2 min hill repeats at a steady and strong effort or 90% effort with 2-3 min RI.
- Week 8 = Test week, all runs easy with no strength runs.
With the focus on speed and strength, all other running during this eight-week program should remain slower than 75% of your test speed. Keeping your speed this slow is important for not only building your aerobic engine but to also keep you fresh and rested for your speed and strength.
During this time keep your total weekly run volume at about 80% of your normal weekly mileage. This is a good time to focus on adding frequency to your week and dropping the volume. For example, if you are used to running three to four times per week, look to increase to five to six times per week, but with less running each day. This will also prepare you for marathon training.
Note from Orton: This program should not be done as a beginner program. Be sure to prepare yourself for this by doing 12 weeks of easy running. For more experienced runners looking toward a marathon, a perfect time to execute this eight-week program is in the offseason prior to the time you would begin a marathon program, so you are faster going into the buildup.