Training Advice


Time To Rethink Your Marathon Training Program?

By Greg McMillan, M.S. As featured in the November 2006 issue of Running Times Magazine

A few years ago, I worked for Gabriele Rosa, arguably the world’s greatest marathon coach. His athletes, mostly Kenyan, have won every major marathon on Earth. During my tenure under him, Rosa-coached athletes won world cross country titles, world track titles, Olympic medals and set numerous world and marathon course records. As of this writing, his top athlete, Paul Tergat, is the world record holder in the marathon (2:04:55: 4:46 per mile). As you might imagine, I learned a lot.

My job was to assist with Rosa's U.S.-based training camps — modeled after his successful Kenyan camps — in which he hoped to develop U.S. runners into world-class marathoners. After a couple of marathon training cycles, I realized that the U.S. athletes simply were not ready for the rigors of his marathon training program. I felt that if we created a "pre-camp" training program for them, they’d show up better prepared for the marathon-specific training phase.

When I discussed this with Rosa, I fully expected him to propose a program that would build the athletes’ mileage (base building) as well as a strength phase prior to the marathon phase. WRONG. To my surprise, the pre-marathon phase was nothing like I expected. Instead it was all speed work. That’s right — 200s, 400s, 800s, mile repeats, and so on. Traditional "track work" like you might find a 5K or 10K runner doing before a competitive season. Rosa’s experience showed that it was first important to develop the athlete’s speed so this would not be a limiting factor in the marathon training phase. The goal in marathon training is to fatigue the athlete with the duration of the workouts and not the speed, so speed needed to be developed first.


figure 1 figure 2

Like most U.S. coaches, I was educated on what I’ll call the "classic" marathon method. In this method, there is a traditional training pyramid (figure 1) where you first build an aerobic base with mileage, then transition to strength training with hills and stamina workouts, then finally to speed work before the peaking phase.


Rosa believes in this model with one exception: the strength phase and the speed phase should be flip-flopped for marathoners. I’ll call this the "new" marathon training method. (figure 2)


Sample Pre-Marathon Training Phase


Workout #1 Workout #2 Workout #3
Week 1 4–6 x 300m @ 85–90% of full effort with 1–2 minute recovery jog 6–8 x 800m @ sub-5K pace with 2–3 minute recovery jog Long Steady Run: 14–16 miles

Week 2

5–6 x 200m @ 90–95% of full effort with 2–3 minute recovery jog 3–4 x 1 mile @ 5K pace with 2.5–3.5 minute recovery jog Long Steady Run: 16–18 miles

Week 3

4–6 x 400m @ 85–90% of full effort with 1–2 minute recovery jog 4–5 x 1200m @ sub-5K pace with 2.5–3.5 minute recovery jog Long Steady Run: 16–18 miles

Week 4

7–9 x 100m @ 95% of full effort with 1–2 minute recovery jog 8–10 x 400m @ sub-5K pace with 1–2 minute recovery jog Long Steady Run: 16–18 miles
Comment: This program follows your normal base-building phase, but is before your six to eight week marathon-specific phase. In this phase, you work on speed two days per week and fill in the other runs with your normal maintenance runs and a long run. Take at least one day (and maybe two) between the speed sessions and ease into these workouts. This is stressful training so respect this and take good care of your body. Each workout can be performed as a fartlek run if no track is available or effort-based workouts are preferred. The goal is to increase speed, so make sure you run easily on your other workouts so that you can give a good effort in the speed workouts.


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Lindsay M. / Marathon PR

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