6 Workouts for Running a Faster Marathon

Implement these long-run variations to lower your marathon PR

Would you like your next marathon to be faster than your last one? Thought so. Well, you’ve come to the right place. These six long-run variations will help you shave minutes of your next 26.2-miler.

We recommend that you incorporate them into your marathon training in the final 8 to 12 weeks before race day, after you’ve already built up enough endurance to run at least 16 miles comfortably through traditional slow-and-steady long runs.

READ MORE: Speed Training for 5K to the Marathon

Long Run with Cutdown

More than 80 percent of marathoners slow down considerably after 20 miles. Avoid this PR-killing scenario by practicing the opposite: speeding up when your legs are tired. The long run with cutdown starts like a traditional long run, with 8-12 miles at a steady, easy pace. Then comes the cutdown. Run a sequence of three miles where each mile is faster than the one before and the last is completed at about your lactate threshold pace (i.e., the fastest pace you could sustain for an hour on fresh legs). Finish with a mile cool-down.

Sample workout:
10 miles easy

1 mile at LT pace + 30 seconds

1 mile at LT pace + 15 seconds

1 mile at LT pace

1 mile in 8:35-9:00

Tempo-Long-Tempo Run

One of the staple workouts in the marathon training repertoire of Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario is a long run with double tempo blocks. Combining two important stimuli that are too often kept separate—running far and running fast—this session has the additional advantage of making the miles seem to pass by quickly. Warm up with an easy mile or two and then run at your lactate threshold pace plus 5-10 seconds per mile for two to four miles. After several more miles of easy running, repeat this tempo effort and then cool down.

Sample workout:
2 miles at easy

3 miles at LT pace + 5 seconds

6 miles easy

3 miles at LT pace + 5 seconds

2 miles easy

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Depletion Run

What used to be called running before breakfast is now called a depletion run and it’s something that most elite marathoners practice as a way to improve the fat-burning capacity of the muscles and enhance training effects that are stimulated by running with low muscle glycogen stores. To do a depletion run, simply run long at an easy pace on an empty stomach and consume only water during the run. If you’re new to this type of challenge, start with a shorter distance and gradually build up.

Sample workout:
14 miles easy, no food before/water only during

Back-to-Back Long Runs

Back-to-back long runs are popular among ultrarunners as a way to simulate the challenge of running well over 26.2 miles without the stress of actually doing so in a single workout. But they’re good for marathoners as well, especially those who struggle in the later miles. Like other long-run variations, back-to-back long runs can be done in a number of ways, but it’s most common to make both runs the same length and a little shorter than one’s normal long runs.

Sample Workout:
Saturday: 16 miles easy

Sunday: 16 miles easy

Long Run with Surges

Bill Squires, who coached Bill Rodgers to two American records in the marathon in the 1970s, was a big believer in throwing fast surges into long runs. It’s another way to cultivate the ability to push the pace on tired legs. Start with at least one hour of easy running and then start your surges, which can range from 2 to 12 minutes in duration and from 5K race pace to goal marathon pace. Each surge should be followed by enough easy running to allow you to fully recover before the next.

Sample workout:
8 miles easy

6 miles with the first 2 minutes of each mile at 10K race pace, the remainder easy

2 miles easy

Alternating Miles Run

This means run one mile at marathon pace, run one mile at marathon pace plus one minute and repeat. This long-run variation couldn’t be simpler, and it’s a core workout for many top marathoners, including members of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. But NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario puts a twist on it by having runners of all ability levels do the faster miles at “elite male marathon effort,” or the fastest pace they can sustain for about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Obviously, unless you are a 2:15 marathoner, this is going to be a little faster than your actual marathon pace. For instance, if you’re a 3:30 marathoner (marathon pace 8:01 per mile), the fastest pace you can sustain for 2 hours and 15 minutes is going to be about 7:45 per mile.

Sample workout:
1 mile easy

8 x (1 mile at elite male marathon effort/1 mile at elite male marathon effort + 1:00)

1 mile easy

READ MORE: Become a Faster Runner—In the Weight Room

Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald is an endurance coach, nutritionist, and author. His many books include The Endurance Diet and 80/20 Running. Learn more at mattfitzgerald.org.