What Makes For A Good Marathon Finish

Training Takes Time, Commitment and Restraint

When training for a marathon or a half marathon, there is a lot of work to do. It takes time, commitment and some restraint to make race day everything you’d hoped it would be for all the work you put into it. Your body has a lot of work to do as well, and how you train makes that happen. That’s why simply just running certain mileages on certain days, or getting that long run up to 20 miles doesn’t always make for an enjoyable race day. Different paces and different types of runs train different parts of your muscles and body to prepare you for the event. Your body is an amazing and adaptable structure that needs the stress, fuel, and rest to get the results you are hoping for. That’s what makes running a marathon or half marathon such a big accomplishment. It’s all the blood, sweat, and tears before the event that make the day worth it, and if trained well, make the day a celebration of your training, rather than a dreaded march!

Understanding some of the physiologic changes your body has to make to adapt to the conditions of a marathon can be helpful and give us a reason to do different types of runs. Our muscles are made up of different fiber types that are suited for different tasks. Our genetics play a role in how much of each fiber type we have and do place us on a spectrum of well-built for marathons, or not so well built. But the good news is with training we can teach our body to use all types of muscle fibers to get us to the finish.

Type I fibers are known as slow twitch and are slow firing, less powerful, but built for endurance, and can contract for long periods of time before becoming fatigued. If you were blessed with a high ratio of these then your body will be well suited to run long distances. The average active adult has about 50% of their muscle fibers devoted to Type I. Elite marathoners have a higher ratio of up to 80%, which makes them best suited for the event. These fibers run on oxygen, and therefore rely on aerobic metabolism to power our run. Training can increase your ratio of Type I fibers and the higher amount you have the longer you can rely on these before you have to recruit the Type II fibers to finish your run. These fibers are less efficient and more easily fatigued. Type II fibers are known also as fast twitch fibers and are larger, and produce more powerful contractions, but can sustain this for much shorter periods of time. These are fibers more suited for sprinting rather than running a long distance. But again with proper training they can be adapted to help us finish our race.  

Training not only improves and changes our muscle, but it also improves our body’s efficiency at obtaining and delivering oxygen to these muscles to support their function. Our hearts ability to pump blood improves; our blood supply to the muscles expands and becomes more efficient, even our bloods ability to carry and deliver more oxygen improves. To facilitate all this change though our training must have a variety that focuses on different intensities. That’s why having different workouts, or running at different paces, or sometimes even running slowly can make a huge difference in our body’s ability to withstanding the gauntlet of such a long event.

So what runs should a marathon training program include? Here are some answers with an explanation of what the runs do for your body:

Easy Running:   Easy running recruits the use of Type I fibers and improves their ability to contract and their resistance to fatigue. It also improves your circulation by increasing blood supply to these muscles. They strengthen tendons, increases bone density, improve our muscles storage of energy, and improves the use of oxygen. Easy runs can last from 20 minutes to 2 hours, and should be run at an intensity that is 55-75% of your VO2 max, which translates to 1-2 minutes slower than your goal marathon pace. These runs should make up about half of your total training mileage each week.

Long Run: Long runs help to build your confidence for the event you are facing. They also help to improve your VO2 max, increase muscle strength, improve energy stores within muscle, and allow us to burn fat to utilize as energy. There are many different proponents as to how long someone training for a marathon should run. The most common thought is that 20 miles is the gold standard to be sure your body is ready for the full marathon. There is some recent research that points more to the time and intensity we do these runs at as a better way to prepare our body, rather than just focusing on the actual distance run.

A long run for any week of your training should never exceed 25-30 percent of your total volume for that week. For example if you are running 40 miles per week, 25 percent would be 10 miles, and 30 percent would be 12 miles. Unless you are running 70 miles a week, perhaps the 20 miler is out of range for you. The other factor to consider is if we run this mileage too fast our bodies will deplete the energy stores in our muscles and the runs we try to do later in the training program can become injurious. Research is pointing to running no more than 2-3 hours for a long run, to prevent this damage from happening. Depending on your pace that means to be ready to run a full marathon your longest run may be more like 16 miles. If you run a 9:00 min per mile pace it will take you 3:00 hours to run 20 miles, which is pushing your body’s limits. Running at the same pace for 16 miles will take 2:24 minutes. When we run over 2 hours research shows we utilize about 50% of our muscles stored energy, and this takes 72 hours to regenerate. Beyond 2 hours we will deplete these stores even further; causing fatigue, and then difficulty completing further training runs, and perhaps injury. This makes the extra 4 miles, and the 36 minutes less desirable with little actual training benefit.

The pace for a long run should be more of a moderate pace. It should be faster than your easy run, but not at your race pace. For most runners this should fall between 30 seconds to 1 minute slower than your marathon goal pace. These runs should be done 1 x per week, with the mileage of the long run, gradually ramping up and then back down as you get close to your event.

Tempo Run: A tempo run is a chance for you to test out your goal race pace. It will give you confidence, and allow your body to test your ability to maintain a steady even pace, to allow a smooth race day. Tempo runs are also a good time to test out your race equipment, and strategies. Taking energy gels or sports drinks throughout the run will give you a chance to see how your body reacts to race day conditions. Doing these workouts once a week and gradually increasing the distance at which you maintain this pace is best. If you are running at goal pace too often or for too long, you again just deplete your muscles and cause overtraining.

Speed work: Time to hit the track! These work outs are a chance to train some of those Type II fibers, and burn a little carbon out of the old engine! Using a track and a watch is helpful to keep these work outs more measurable. A flat surface will keep the work out intensity just based on speed rather than other variables like hills, or terrain changes you experience in your other runs. The distance and times you choose can vary widely, but the hope is to push you into the higher intensity zones for brief periods of time with slower recovery pace in between. This will push your aerobic capacity and heighten your VO2 max to help improve your ability to run at faster paces. This will also stimulate your muscles to store more glycogen (energy), improve your body’s ability to transport oxygen, and improve your running economy. These work outs should be run at 95-98% of your VO2 max, and the intervals should be short (2- 6 minutes). You should be able to jog the interval in between and be able to recover. An example would be 12 x 400 meter with a 400 recovery. This will give you about 3 miles at your desired faster pace, but with rest breaks for recovery. It is more about the total time maintained at the higher intensity level that will help your body improve.

A well rounded program would be using a good mixture of these runs through each week of your program. A training program should be a minimum of 12 weeks and can range up to 18 weeks to prepare for your event. Ideally your week would include 2-3 easy runs, 1 temp run, 1 speed work out, and 1 long run. That means you should be running 5-6 x per week. This may sound intimidating but when you think about the intensities you will be running at, it means you will have 2-3 easy days, and 3 tougher days. Each tough day will be at a different intensity. Sticking to these intensity levels will be the key to hitting the right stimulus to prepare your body fully for a happy and healthy race day. Enjoy the training, and celebrate your event!

JP Larson is a physical therapist with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care.