The Marker Workout



Most competitive runners include a base phase once or twice each year. The purpose of the base or maintenance phase is to further develop the aerobic system and to prepare the body and the mind for future training phases that will become increasingly more race-specific as the goal race or season of races nears.

In the base phase, the focus is less on the intensity and more on the volume of training. A common guideline is to increase weekly mileage by 10 to 20 percent above “average” mileage level. Intensity is necessarily reduced to keep the stress/rest cycle in balance, and to let the race-specific energy systems recover from the previous season. Physiologically, the extra training volume adds components to the muscular system that help deliver oxygen to the working muscles–a critical aspect of racing faster. First, with a few weeks of adding volume and reduced intensity, the body builds more capillary beds around the working muscles. Think of capillaries as pipes that deliver oxygen to the working muscles. Adding more pipes to deliver more oxygen-rich blood allows the muscles to perform better. Second, within the muscle cells, mitochondria are the structures that produce the aerobic energy that powers muscle contractions.

Base training helps build more of these power plants, and it also builds them bigger and puts them closer to the end of the cells to better pull oxygen from the blood, resulting in the ability to create more energy. Third, within these mitochondrial power plants, base training stimulates the body to build more of the enzymes that aid in aerobic energy production. Finally, base training increases the durability of the musculoskeletal system–muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones become more resistant to injury.

Some coaches consider only race-specific training valuable, and pooh-pooh the idea of a base phase. But the fact is that adding more capacity to deliver oxygen to working muscles and adding more capacity within the muscles to produce aerobic energy is necessary for ultimate success as a distance runner.

So, I’m a firm believer in the base phase, though it may vary from runner to runner. I also like to know the training I’m prescribing is working. Enter the Marker Workout.


While you could go to a lab and have your aerobic system tested (usually via a VO2 max test), I use a Marker Workout once every four to six weeks as a layperson’s way to test aerobic development.

To test your aerobic capacity, run a workout that includes five or six repetitions, with each lasting 5 to 6 minutes. This corresponds to repetitions of 1200 meters to 1 mile for most competitive runners. The recovery is just over half the duration of the repeat (e.g., 2.5 to 3 minutes). In theory, these repeats should all be run at 8-15 minute race pace (3K to 5K race effort for speedy runners).

5-6 x 5-6 minute repeats at ~5K race effort with 2.5-3 minutes recovery jog between

But runners in a base phase usually aren’t as tuned in to pace as they are in a race-specific phase, so I suggest running these repeats by effort. Start at what feels like 5K effort and try to get slightly faster with each subsequent repeat. If you can’t run the last two faster than the first two, then you started the workout too fast. If you can run more than 15 seconds per mile faster on the last one than you ran on the first one, then you started too easy. The goal is to progress the pace across the workout but to also make sure you get the most out of yourself by running strong for all five or six repeats.

This workout is tough, and it’s meant to be. The goal is to see what your aerobic capacity is and then to compare it to a future Marker Workout. Effort is your guide, but record the times of each repeat; you should see your performance in the next Marker Workout, four to six weeks down the road, improve.

With the pro athletes I coach, we include a base phase before we get into race-specific training . During this base phase, I’ll prescribe this Marker Workout every 4 weeks or so. It provides me with information on how the athletes are developing their aerobic systems (and helps me to see just how much each individual athlete is “aerobically blessed”). It also provides the athletes with an objective indicator that their fitness is improving. Every runner enjoys improving in workouts, and this base phase Marker Workout provides just that.


This workout is a favorite from one of my most important coaching influences, Dr. Joe Vigil. He uses it frequently with his runners. It’s a workout my athletes get excited and nervous about. They bring their “A” game to practice, and I think inserting this workout from time to time during the base phase helps the athletes stay in touch with the race mentality that’s so vital to peak performance. So, even during all the relaxed running during the base phase, the workout keeps the athletes connected with their competitive juices, which helps them in their transition out of the base phase and into the more intense training phases.

Read more of our “Best of” Workouts.


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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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