5 specific workouts to show you’re on target for a sub 3
When racing a marathon nothing is guaranteed. You only have to look at Eliud Kipchoge, probably the greatest marathoner of all time, at the 2020 London marathon to see that anyone can have issues causing them to have an off day.
However, for running a sub 3 hour marathon, there are some specific workouts that, if you can hit or get very close to, will show you’re on the right track. Of course, none of them are the same as running 26.2 miles in 3 hours but they give a good approximation of your fitness and ability.
I promise I’ll include some less well documented sessions but it would be remiss of me not to mention Yasso 800s which, simply put, are 10 x 800m intervals where each interval takes 3 minutes. Standard recovery is 3 minutes in between intervals but I think you can get away with as little as 90 seconds.
You should not be flat out on these intervals. I equate the pace to be roughly 10k pace or around an 8 out of 10 effort. These are best done on the track for ease of measuring 800m (2 laps) and to keep the conditions consistent between intervals.
You can do these out on the road but there is nothing worse than turning halfway through a session to find you had the wind behind you for the first half and battling against it for the second half.
If you can get a consistent effort of 3 minutes across all intervals then you’re in good shape for a 3 hour marathon. Interestingly, this works proportionally for other target times too. E.g. for a 4 hour marathon, the 800s should take 4 minutes; for a 5 hour marathon, 5 minutes (though in this case I would suggest only doing 8 intervals as it becomes a very long session).
Sixes and Sevens
This is a really tough session but great for your confidence if you can manage it. Run 20 x 1 minute on at 6 minute per mile pace, 1 minute off at 7 minute per mile pace. It ends up being a 40 minute fartlek session.
Running a minute at 6 minute per mile pace is not bad especially if you manage the Yasso session above but the ‘recovery’ at near marathon pace is tough. However, with practice you start to see the 7 minute mile pace as easy (which it needs to be, certainly at the start of the marathon).
Again, I recommend doing this on a track or somewhere flat, looped and sheltered.
10x your 5k time
This one tends to break down a little bit at either end of the spectrum but I still think it is a useful gauge in terms of your expected marathon time. Run your current best 5k effort and multiply by 10 to get an approximate marathon time. Working backwards from 3 hours gives 18 minutes for a 5k.
Of course, for a marathon you need strength and endurance not just speed so it’s only a guide and some may find they can run a sub 3 hour and not get under 18 minutes and some may be better over 5k and struggle with the marathon but it is a good target to get under your belt.
Additionally, it is a good test of your mental ability. Both an 18 minute 5k and a sub 3 hour marathon are tough but in completely different ways. The more ways you find to challenge yourself and the more situations you come through mentally, the better for tackling new challenges.
Long Run Fast Finish
This was a game changer for when I broke 3 hours the first time. The idea is fairly well documented but I’ve seen plenty of generic marathon training plans that don’t include these runs. Run the last 3-4 miles of a long run (e.g. 14 or 16 miles) at close to half marathon pace.
For a sub 3 I would recommend the last 4 miles at 6:30 pace though this is really hard to do if you’re not used to it. At the start of the training cycle you might have a job hitting target marathon pace but that’s fine. You’ll get to feel what marathon pace is like and over time get faster.
This trains your body and mind to run at pace on tired legs which you will need to do on marathon day. I firmly believe that running as close to even splits as possible is the best strategy to running your best marathon. This means you have to run as fast in mile 26 as in mile 1 but the effort is much greater. The fast finish runs prepare you somewhat for this.
However, I also believe they have a less obvious benefit. Knowing you have 4 tough miles at the end means you are more likely to reign in your effort at the start of a long run which is also something you need to do on race day.
(Atlantic) 252 hour
Remember the radio station or am I the only one that is old around here?! This is an elaborate name for a simple concept; an hour long 9 mile tempo with 2 miles at marathon pace (6:50), 5 miles at half marathon pace (6:20-6:30), 2 miles at marathon pace (6:50).
Like the fast finish runs, you have to hold back for the first 2 miles (consider this the warm up). The next 5 miles are comfortably hard; a pace that you feel you can hold, you’re not quite on the edge but you are working. When you get this pace right you almost feel invincible.
The last 2 miles will feel a relief from the faster pace but you still have to keep moving. Again this is great practice for the marathon itself. You will feel like you want to ease off that marathon pace but you have to keep ticking those miles off in under 7 minutes.
The beauty of this is that it fits almost exactly into an hour. If you’re looking to progress with this workout I would keep the marathon pace constant and work on lowering the time for the middle 5 miles. The controlled but challenging pace makes this one of my favourite runs.
Try one this week!
Don’t worry if you can’t hit these in week 1 or even week 10 – a marathon training cycle is long and you will adapt greatly over the course. These represent targets for what you can achieve towards the end of the training cycle but you can start working up to them from the beginning either by reducing the reps or the paces.
There are many other sessions that can and should be incorporated into a good marathon training plan; these are just some of my favourites. Why not try one of these this week? What other sessions do you love in a marathon training cycle?