Speed Work for Marathoners



In 2009 Brett Gotcher ran 2:10 in his marathon debut. At that time, it was the fourth-fastest debut in U.S. history. When asked about his training program in post-race interviews, I was candid about the weekly mileage I prescribed for him as well as the marathon-specific workouts and even his short, fast speed workouts. It was these short, fast workouts that prompted several questions as to why a marathoner would do 200m and 400m repeats. Here’s why I had Brett run these workouts and why I think marathoners can benefit from some short, fast repeats during this last 10 weeks before the marathon.


The reason for including short, moderately fast workouts in marathon training is threefold:

  1. Short, fast repeats improve your running economy (the amount of oxygen consumed at a given pace), and improved running economy is very important in the marathon. Think of it as getting better gas mileage–you can go longer before running out of gas.
  2. Short, fast repeats break the monotony of training. Often, marathon training starts to put runners in a pace rut. Fast repeats challenge you to turn your legs over and help avoid the “marathoner shuffle.”
  3. Short, fast repeats allow you to insert some volume of running at a pace that is significantly faster than marathon race pace. For example, Brett’s goal marathon pace was 4:55 per mile so we were doing workouts at 4:15-4:40 per mile, which allowed 4:55 to feel easier. The same will hold for you.


While you may have to modify the exact placement of the workouts based on your individual training and racing schedule, here is how Brett and I inserted speed work into his successful marathon plan.

In the last eight weeks leading into his marathon (Chevron Houston), we performed two 200m repeat sessions. The first was eight weeks before the marathon and the second was four weeks out from race day. We also performed two 400m repeat sessions–six weeks and two weeks prior to race day. The basic plan was to perform some short, fast running every other week during the last two months before race day.

For both 200m repeat workouts, I had Brett run 20-24 times 200m with a 200m jog between. The pace was 5K to 10K which isn’t too taxing to run for 200m but gives the body/mind 2.5 to 3 miles of running at a pace quite a bit faster than marathon pace. For Brett, the goal was to run 32-33 seconds per 200m (4:16-4:24 pace) and for the recovery jogs to be moderate as well. In other words, he should not be doing the slow, sprinter recovery stumble but should jog slowly but steadily between each repeat.

For the 400m workout, we performed the early workout (six weeks out from the marathon) as 12-16 times 400m with a 200m jog and the later session (two weeks prior to race day) as 8-10 times 400m with a 200m recovery jog. Again, these were fast but controlled efforts and we ran the repeats in a progressive manner. The goal was to run them in sets of four at the following intensities–half marathon, 10K, 5K, 3K.

Many runners think about 200m and 400m repeats only as preparation for a 5K or 10K. But you can adjust the intensity of the repeats for marathon training, making them less anaerobic or tiring than these workouts are for 5K-10K runners. All the short, fast workouts Brett did were very controlled. Could he have run them faster? Of course! But that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to augment the marathon workouts with some faster running to keep his form perfect and his legs fresh. Mission accomplished.

Read about these seven speed and stamina workouts to prepare for a marathon.



These short, fast repeats should not be used, however, for runners who struggle with speed work. These “endurance monsters” can run all day but find that speed work leaves their legs feeling flat for several days post-workout. For example, I didn’t include these 200m and 400m workouts with another athlete I coach, Paige Higgins, who ran 2:33 in the same race where Brett ran 2:10. With Paige, we did fartlek sessions (like 20-25 times 1 minute on with 1 minute off recovery jog between), but these were more like a tempo run with surges than a track workout. Her pace stayed closer to 10K to half marathon pace. For her, this exposure to running slightly faster than marathon pace works much better than running 200m and 400m repeats at 5K to 10K pace.


Eight Weeks to Race Day: 20-24 x 200m with 200m jog at 5K to 10K pace

Six Weeks to Race Day: 12-16 x 400m with 200m jog in sets of four at half marathon, 10K, 5K and 3K race pace

Four Weeks to Race Day: 20-24 x 200m with 200m jog at 5K to 10K pace

Two Weeks to Race Day: 8-10 x 400m with 200m jog in sets of four at half marathon, 10K, 5K and 3K race pace

This article was originally featured in the July/August 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine.

Next: Is it time to rethink your marathon program?

Check out Greg McMillan’s Surviving the Marathon Freak Out: A Guide to Running Your Best Marathon


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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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