Shelley Doucet likes to run a lot. In her marathon build for Boston, she did several runs taking her over 2:30 to complete, most of which included a significant portion of running at goal marathon pace. One particular workout was 2×40 minutes at marathon pace (MP), which she did about seven weeks before the race. The buildup to this workout was first to start out with 6×10 minutes about 11 or 12 weeks out from your marathon. Then move up to 5×15 minutes, 4×20 minutes and 2×30 minutes at MP in the preceding weeks.
There are several reasons for doing such a workout progression: fat metabolization (when your body learns to tap fat as its primary energy source during a long run), even pacing and confidence. I think of workouts in terms of progressions rather than one-offs: each step does the same thing but as you require more to get the desired stimulus, you increase the load.
While many times, in particular at a high level, a marathon won’t be run at one, steady pace, physiologically there is an ideal pace that will get the athlete across the line in a time she is happy with. Most often, that pace is beyond what the body can do with its stores of glycogen, including in-race fuelling, so we need to teach it to run at that pace, while metabolizing fat. In the early stages of the run, the fuel mix is mostly carbs, but as she runs at pace, and beyond two hours, more fat is metabolized. Regardless of if the pace drops in the later stages, the demands on the body will still result in more efficient fuel usage going forward.
Shaking up your long run with goal marathon pace
12 weeks to goal marathon: 6×10 minutes at marathon pace (MP)
11 weeks to goal marathon: 5×15 minutes at MP
10 weeks to goal marathon: 4×20 minutes at MP
8–9 weeks to goal marathon: 2×30 minutes at MP
5–7 weeks to goal marathon: 2×40 minutes at MP
2–3 weeks to goal marathon: 80-90 minutes at MP
Pacing is important in a marathon in order to put off the drastic shift to fat metabolization as long as possible (even if we’ve trained it well). Running at her goal pace allows Doucet to learn that pace. Early on in the workout, as well as early in the progression, the right pace can seem too easy, but being disciplined and holding back yields rewards later.
Finally, being able to run 80–90 minutes (another high end variation of this is 3×30 minutes) at MP within a three-hour long run is a beast of a workout. When you are able to get through that, you’ll feel ready. The marathon is such that you never really know if you can do it until you do it. There are 5K and 10K workouts runners can do that can confidently predict race performance. There’s really no such thing for the marathon. Doucet’s comment after finishing this having averaged 3:50/km was, “I feel like I am ready to run 2:45 now.” The workout is not predictive, but without that confidence, it’s unlikely a runner can achieve her goal in a marathon.
John Lofranco coaches Shelley Doucet, and is also a founder of the club Athletisme Ville-Marie in Montreal. This story originally appeared in the magazine’s September & October 2017 issue.