The training shake up: creating variety in your marathon plan

When putting together your training schedule ahead of your 12-16 week build up to a marathon, it’s worth considering the type of training you’re going to be doing. To date, my relationship with running was to do most of my training at near enough race pace. I found that whilst I did get some results,  I would usually achieve lower mileage in the week, due to myself feeling physically fatigued, liable to niggles and suffering from being mentally bored. I often rushed through sessions, more concerned with how my average pace looked like at the end of a run than good form. I have no doubts this affected me on race day when my body started to struggle beyond 20 miles. 

The training to build up to a marathon, especially your first one needs consistent run economy over many, many weeks for your body to withstand the 26.2 miles, This is going to stimulate the aerobic and muscular changes on your body needed to run well on race day. However, If every training run follows the same distance, gradient and pace it is could also become monotonous and uninspiring.

These suggestions below are not about running harder. They are about running wiser. Running at a higher speed consistently affects the load bearing on your muscles and joints. You may well be aiming to run 3:30 for a marathon. But running 8min miles, 6 times a week for 12 weeks is likely to put yourself on the physio bench if not properly equipped for it. (or at the very least fed up!)

The plan therefore is to create a base of mileage with steady/easier miles. Mixing this every week with tempo runs, sprints, hill work & planned rest days will not only allow your body to build and endurance base , but allow time to recover as well as keeping you as mentally stimulated as possible.

 Below are just a few suggestions that might form the make up of your weekly plan. 

Easy Runs

This should be the bedrock of your training plan. Easy runs should be the ones that you look forward to, and dare I say it even enjoy. It’s a time where you can listen to music or perhaps a podcast (my audio suggestion’s are coming soon on the next blog!) or if with others, these runs should be at a level that you can hold a conversation.  The speed of these should be 60 to 90 seconds slower than your target marathon race pace. Running at a lower intensity allows your body to train harder and also recover from the tougher sessions you do in the week.  It can also reduces the risk of inflammation or tendonitis as well as stress fractures. So remember, take time to run relaxed.

Easy Run Pace Examples
3:00hr pace  = 6:52 per mile (so 7:52-8:22 per mile) 
3:30hr pace  = 8:00 per mile (so 9:00-9:30 per mile)
4:00hr pace = 9:09 per mile (so 10:09-10:39 per mile)
4:30hr pace = 10:17 per mile (so 11:17-11:47 per mile) 
5:00hr pace = 11:27 per mile (so 12:27-12:57 per mile)

Tempo Runs

Also known as threshold or lactate runs. This is where you are working at a sub-maximal  level. (think slightly slower, maybe 10-15 seconds slower than a 10km pace, rather than 5km pace) It should be a slightly uncomfortable pace that is manageable and you can sustain for a prolonged period of time without lactate building up. Imagine being able to get short sentences out to your training partner without being conversational. If you feel the build up in your legs, or you can’t get a word out, you’re probably going too fast. Tempo runs can be mixed in amongst Easy Runs for example a 2mile easy, followed by a 3mile tempo with a 2 mile cool down. Alternatively you could do a warm up followed by 2 x 2mile tempo efforts.

Tempo Pace Examples
40min 10km  = 6:26 per mile (so 6:36-6:41 per mile) 
45min 10km  = 7:14 per mile (so 7:24-7:29 per mile) 
50min 10km  = 8:02 per mile (so 8:12-8:17 per mile)
55min 10km  = 8:51 per mile (so 9:01-(9:06 per mile) 
60min 10km = 9:39 per mile (so 9:49-(9:54 per mile) 

High Intensity Training

Just because you’re end goal is running a super long distance does not mean you should ignore running at the sharper pace of your capability. Shorter reps of 400m to 800m, or 30 second repetitions on a hill or gradient is a good way of introducing lactate (the anaerobic waste product) into your legs in a manageable way. This can develop leg speed and strength. You can use these maximal training as part of an interval session with dedicated rest periods. Or a fartlek session in which you’re varying speeds throughout your overall run (a great explanation of this can be found here)

Out and Back / Progression Run

A personal favourite of mine. This type of training run focusses on improving your pace throughout. The goal is to improve from an “easy” at the start to more or less “tempo” by the end. This should also give you a sustained period working at a marathon race speed. Out and back is where you run to a point, say 5 miles away, with the second half being quicker than the first. I’m a fan of this because it really emphasises the holy grail of marathon running, the negative split. It also psychologically refocusses the mind halfway through the run.

MP/Marathon Pace

There will be training runs where you will want to dip your toe in the water running at the pace you set out for on the actual day. This is great idea, especially good for the confidence knowing you can achieve a large chunk of your desired goal in advance. Mixing in MP with an easy aspect, whether it’s a prolonged easy warm up (4 miles easy, 10 miles mp) or in intervals ( 2 miles easy, 2 miles mp repeats) is a good way at achieving volume, but sustaining quality. The key is that your efforts are planned and that you are control of the pace you want to run, not going out at marathon pace and tailing off towards the end.

Rest Days

One of the most important, but under sold aspects of a training plan. The key to achieving your goals is planning your rest days in advance, the same way you would plan your training runs, it’s more likely that if you plan them you’ll enjoy and appreciate them more.

It’s so important to have days to allow your body to recover as well as physiologically relax. For me that uses running as a bit of a relaxation tool too, swapping in swimming, yoga, core or simply stretching exercises is a good way of staying engaged whilst giving the limbs a break. If you take the same example of lifting weights in the gym, you need days off from training to get ‘gains’. It is the same with running, time off the feet even if once a week will allow your body to make those physiological changes.

Listen to your body

Literally THE most important aspect of training, and one I still let myself down on. (maybe next year will be different?!) Adjusting your training to how your body feels. This isn’t a case of taking it easy if you’re not quite up for working hard. But adjusting your perceived effort depending on how your body feels. If you have a cold or you’re run down that second tempo session might push you over the edge. If your knee is inflamed, maybe its hurting for a reason. Don’t just grit and bear it, but tweak the easy run to a slower level, or even run slow off road so it may take some of the impact of the joint.

Sometimes you may just need to take an additional couple of days off. This doesn’t mean you’re failing, nor does it mean you then need to cram the sessions you missed in to the days that follow. Just acknowledge you missed them and build yourself back in to your training routine when ready.

A mix of the above training ideas should not only get you in great running shape, but keep you training varied, challenging and focussed. Hopefully there is some good stuff within the words you can take away. If you want any personal advice on creating your own training plans, or you want to talk about your own personal goals, hit me up on email ( or alternatively on social (@pewtruns) and I’ll be happy to chat.

Happy planning!


Main Photo credit @martyrowney / @paceathletic 

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