By: Dr. Jason Karp
From the time the ancient Greek runner Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to announce the Greeks’ victory in the Battle of Marathon, humans have had a compelling interest in endurance. With 400 marathons in the U.S. each year and more than half a million people running them, it’s an understatement to say that running a marathon is a big deal. In the San Diego area alone, there are over a dozen marathons and half-marathons! Once the realm of elite athletes, the marathon has become the solution for the mid-life crisis: the average age of marathon finishers is 40 for men and 36½ for women. 45% of male marathon runners and 35% of female runners are 40 to 60 years old.
So how do you train for one?
The number of miles you run each week is the most important part of marathon training because of how it improves your aerobic fitness. Specifically, running many miles improves blood vessels’ oxygen-carrying capability by increasing the number of red blood cells and hemoglobin, increases the use of intramuscular fat to spare your limited store of carbohydrates (glycogen), creates a greater capillary network around your muscle fibers so oxygen can diffuse more quickly into the muscles, and increases the number of mitochondria (aerobic factories) in your muscles, increasing your aerobic endurance.
Long runs in excess of two hours deplete your muscles’ store of glycogen, which stimulates its greater storage (and thus increases endurance) since running out of fuel is threatening to the muscles’ survival. Long runs during marathon training also prepare your muscles and tendons to handle the stress of pounding the pavement for 26 miles, increase muscles’ ability to effectively use fat once they run out of carbohydrates, and callous you psychologically for running for long periods of time.
Lactate Threshold Runs
The lactate threshold (LT) marks the transition between aerobic running and running that includes a significant oxygen-independent (anaerobic) component. The LT is an important determinant of marathon performance because it represents the fastest speed you can sustain aerobically. The goal of marathon training is to increase your LT pace and your ability to sustain as high of a fraction of your LT as possible.
VO2max is the maximum volume of oxygen your muscles consume per minute and is largely dictated by your heart’s ability to pump blood and oxygen to the working muscles. Interval training (3- to 5-minute periods of hard running with 2- to 4-minute recovery periods) run at the speed at which VO2max occurs is the most potent stimulus for improving VO2max because you repeatedly reach your maximum stroke volume (the volume of blood the heart pumps per beat), cardiac output (the volume of blood the heart pumps per minute), and VO2max during the hard running periods. The higher your VO2max, the higher your aerobic ceiling.
Next time you want to run a marathon, follow these training guidelines. And if you train smart enough, not only will you cross the marathon finish line, basking in the glow of your accomplishments, you may even be able to chase Pheidippides.
Sample Marathon Training Workouts
Lactate Threshold (LT) Runs
For beginner or average runners, LT pace is 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace (80-85% maximum heart rate). For trained runners, it’s 20 to 25 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace (85-90% maximum heart rate). Subjectively, LT runs should feel “comfortably hard.”
- 3-6 miles at LT pace
- 4 to 6 x 1 mile (6-7 minutes) at LT pace with 1 minute rest
- 5 miles easy + 3 miles at LT pace + 5 miles easy + 3 miles at LT pace
- 10 miles easy + 4 miles at LT pace
For beginner or average runners, VO2max pace is 1- to 1½-mile race pace. For trained runners, it’s close to 2-mile race pace. You should come close to reaching maximum heart rate by the end of each work period.
- 4 x 3 minutes at VO2max pace with 2 minutes jog recovery
- 3, 4, 5, 4, 3 minutes at VO2max pace with 3 minutes jog recovery
Dr. Jason Karp is one of the foremost running experts in America, 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, 2014 recipient of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition Community Leadership award, and creator of the Run-Fit Specialist certification. He holds a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. A prolific writer, he has more than 200 articles published in international running, coaching, and fitness magazines, is the author of six books, including Running for Women and Running a Marathon For Dummies, and is a frequent speaker at international fitness and coaching conferences.