Posted by: Joe English | August 7, 2008

Training: Learning goal pace; taking your next marathon one step further

One of my new athletes named John wrote me a question that — although it is specific to his particular goals — has some very familiar themes. The question involves taking your marathon performance to the next level after running your first three or four marathons. Many people run a few marathons with little coaching or guidance and then after these first few races they’re looking to take it up a notch. They may not be ready to call themselves full-on racers yet, but they’re starting to get a little taste of it.

Here’s how John asked me this question:

My PR is 3:30. How can I get to 3:20? I am 48 and have run 4 marathons total; all in last 2.5 years. I have never had a coach in my adult life and have received advice from friends and Runners World. I generally run by myself or jog with friends. I am a single physician and work 50 hrs per week as well as weekends and nights. My friends think I’m crazy. I do weights three times a week to strengthen my core. I tell friends I am a weekend warrior and I just want to keep on moving and not be stuck as a couch potato with a beer gut. Is this a reasonable goal?

I think a goal of 3:20:00 is very achievable for you John.

Let’s start with some basics. If you’re going to run 3:20:00 in the marathon, you need to be running 7:38 per mile in the race. In your training, to achieve this goal, I would suggest that you take a goal to run your “goal pace” miles at 7:25 per mile. These extra few seconds will make the pace feel more comfortable on race day. (For a in-depth discussion of this topic, click here.)

If you’ve never worked with a coach before, I will tell you first that the thing that you will need to do is become completely comfortable with your goal pace (e.g. 7:25 per mile) to the extent that you memorize what that feels like. A good way to do this is to run some of your shorter weekly runs on the track and monitor your pace every mile with your watch. Try to hit your mile pace within 1-2 seconds per mile and memorize how this feels. In your longer runs, you will either need to pre-measure your courses or invest in a pace/distance monitor (such as the Garmin 205 or 305) so that you can keep track of your pace all of the time when running.

In your training, you should set a goal to work up to 18 miles at this 7:25 pace. You can run longer — say 20 or 22 miles — but these runs should be run 1-2 minutes per mile slower than your goal pace. If you can do this, then you’ll have the speed and endurance to hang in there at your 7:38 goal pace for the full 26.2 miles.

On race day, the pace will feel very easy for the first 15 miles or so — if you’ve been training in this manner. This is why memorizing your pace becomes so important. Everything feels different on race day. You will need to block out all of the excitement and anxiety of the race and focus on the pace that you’ve learned in your training.

A couple of other suggestions that I will make for you:
– First, if you are really busy (as you say) I would cut the number of weights workouts to 1 per week or 1 per week / 2 per week in alternating weeks. You’ll want to prioritize your time to focus on learning to run your goal pace.
– Second, the more goal paced (or faster) miles you run in your training, the more likely you’ll be able to run goal pace during the race. So try to run your goal pace any time that you can in your workouts. If you’re training with other people that are slower than you, then this would be a reason to leave them behind. If you are doing lots of runs without any sense of pace (e.g. just going out there and running), turn those into opportunities to run at your goal pace.
– Third, try to get in any of the workouts on your schedule that are tempo runs or track workouts. We refer to these are workouts as “quality” workouts — because they focus on quality instead of quantity — and these workouts are going to be run even faster than goal pace. This will make you a stronger and more efficient runner. (For more in-depth information on this topic, click here.)

So John — and for many of you out there — the next step in your progression is to take a specific pace goal, learn to run it, and then make sure that you’re running that pace consistently at every opportunity.

And when you’ve learned that pace — and successfully finished your marathon — then pick a new goal 10-15 seconds per mile faster and spend a season training at the pace. You’ll get faster over time. And in a few seasons you’ll be asking the next question: what do I next? We’ll take that one up in another article.

Related articles:
Coach Debate: Coach Joe on Marathon Pacing

Coach Debate: Coach Dean on marathon pacing

How does speed work make you faster?

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News


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