What is the best way to train for a marathon?

As with any type of training, marathon training is about understanding and respecting what our bodies can handle whilst simultaneously aiming to maximise response in all the areas that can give us a performance benefit when race day comes. Increasingly, it is less about simply running as many miles as we can, and more about getting the most out of the miles that we actually do run.

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The first port of call for most coaches and athletes looking at potential improvements in their marathon performance is usually VO2max. While not the be-all and end-all, it is closely correlated to potential endurance performance, and research has shown it to account for around 70% of variation in performance for individual runners. VO2max is a measure of the maximal amount of oxygen that we are able to transport around our body and use during exercise. In scientific terms, it represents the highest rate at which we are able to re-synthesize ATP aerobically. In any case, it is fair to say that during endurance events, our ability to deliver oxygen around our body is often the limiting factor in our performance, and so training to improve this ability is a good place to start.


There are two main aspects to our VO2max capacity, and these can be thought of as a “push” or a “pull”. The “push” is the amount of oxygen that we can actually take in and shuttle around our system, and depends on aspects such as lung and heart capacity, hemoglobin levels, blood volume and capillary density. The “pull” is the amount of oxygen we can actually draw from the system and use, and depends on mitochondrial density and also the amount of muscle fibers we are actually able to contract at a given time, which gives rise to a higher oxygen demand. Naturally, a large part of this is genetically determined, but our training programme can and should aim to improve in these areas.


In general, exercise of any kind will help us improve our cardiovascular ability, particularly in untrained people. But when we want to specifically target VO2max the goal should be to spend as much time as possible at or near VO2max intensity. For running this can be thought of as roughly the maximum pace you could sustain in a 10min time trial. What we should then look to do is break this down into numerous smaller blocks, rather than being exhausted after one single 10-minute effort. It’s a good idea to start with relatively short “fartlek” type efforts to build fitness, such as  30-30 or 60-60 workouts where we run hard for 30 or 60 seconds followed by an equal amount of active rest, such as slow jogging. In this way we work towards a VO2max level of effort as we go through the workout because the recovery is short. However, as we get fitter the goal should be to progress this to longer intervals, such as 6-8 x 2 minutes or 5-6 x 3 minute efforts with around 2 minutes recovery. This is important because we want to give our heart rate and breathing rate time to get up to speed, which takes at least 2 minutes. Again, the goal is to spend as much time as possible at true VO2max intensity. 


VO2max tends to be most important in events that are run at or close to VO2max speed, such as the 3km and 5km. While it is important in marathon running, other factors are likely to contribute, perhaps to an even greater degree. In addition, VO2max can be less trainable for some people, meaning improvements are harder to achieve.


Two other important aspects to look at are Lactate Threshold (LT) and Lactate Turn Point (LTP). LT can be thought of as the first point at which lactate starts to increase in the blood as we increase our running speed. It is the point at which we start to produce lactate at a greater rate than we are able to clear it, and it’s a good indicator of the average speed that we can sustain for a marathon. LTP is the speed at which we see a sudden “jump” in blood levels of lactate, which in real terms is the point at which we feel our legs get heavy and turn to lead, or one of the ways in which we “hit the wall” during a race. The training goal with both LT and LTP training is to shift these values so that they occur at faster speeds, and we can use our “push and pull” analogy again to discuss our approach to training them. LT can be thought of as speed at which an “easy” run becomes a “steady” run. We can either push that speed up by doing a lot of volume of work just below our LT, i.e. increase volume of “easy” running, or alternatively we can do a relatively smaller volume just above LT, i.e. into our steady zone. This should be the goal of the majority of our base mileage work that isn’t purely recovery running.


The same principle can apply to LTP.  Most runners are familiar with the term “tempo”, which traditionally refers to the speed at which lactate begins to spike, i.e. our LTP. So, we can aim to “push” our LTP up to faster speeds by doing longer, prolonged efforts at the lower end of this zone, with the goal of increasing the amount of time we can sustain a given pace. Alternatively, we can “pull” the LTP up, using “high-end tempo” work. These are basically longer intervals at the upper end of the tempo zone, run at a pace where we are accumulating lactic rapidly and could not sustain the pace for longer periods. With this type of work it’s important to factor in sufficient rest so that we don't accumulate too much fatigue and can keep reps at the correct intensity. We are aiming to get ourselves used to operating above LTP for shorter periods and then recovering as quickly as possible.


Another aspect to consider is running economy, which is actually a range of factors contributing to the amount of oxygen we need to run at a given speed. Obviously, we want this to be as low as possible, and naturally the training we have already discussed will help to make us more efficient runners. Other aspects we can consider in this area are mainly based around physical, rather than physiological factors. For example, our biomechanics can have a huge impact on our economy. A sprint-like running style with high knee lift is inefficient and unsustainable for a marathon runner, whereas a more compact running gait can be more effective. This can be achieved through regular technique drills. The aim should be to focus on small details such as bringing your foot strike below your centre of mass rather than in front, or minimizing “back-side mechanics” i.e. reducing the amount of time your feet spend behind you by bringing them back to the front more quickly. This can help in terms of reducing the amount of loping or vertical oscillation in your stride, and also increase cadence, contributing to a better running economy.


Another aspect often overlooked by marathon runners is strength training. Primarily, the purpose of a strength programme should be to allow us to withstand the physical stresses of training for and running a marathon and avoid injury. For example, we can use it to address any asymmetries or strength imbalances, and become better able to control movement around joints. Single leg, balance-based work is really effective for achieving this, and with the help of a physiotherapist or conditioning expert we can make ourselves more resistant to injury and better able to handle the workload. But there are also performance benefits to be had from strength training. One big contributing factor to our running economy is our muscle and tendons’ ability to absorb and regenerate energy like an elastic band, which again can be improved with training. Plyometrics can achieve this, as can hill sprints and running drills. There is also evidence to suggest that strength training can actually develop slow twitch muscle fibres that have greater resistance to fatigue, rather than purely developing more fast twitch muscle fibres.


With all this in mind, it seems clear that a multi-faceted approach to marathon training is likely to lead to optimal results, especially since we know that different individuals respond to different types of training stimulus to largely varying degrees. The key is finding the areas where we get the best return and then looking to maximize them within a balanced training programme that is physically, physiologically and psychologically manageable.

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