Speed Work for Full and Half Marathoners

Running faster workouts in training will make you faster on race day

When you focus on longer road races, such as the half marathon and the marathon (as well as the less-common 25K and 30K events), your need to emphasize endurance workouts over speed workouts rises in proportion to your target distance.

For some everyday runners, that’s a relief; the notion of “speed work” in the classic sense turns many of them off, as it summons to mind intense repetitions around a track at searing, soreness-inducing intensity levels best left to speedy high-school and college runers. In addition, a lot of people simply aren’t fans of the admittedly benumbing experience of running between white lines on rubberized ovals.

But, even in an age of near-universal GPS-device use, the track retains undeniable advantages: it’s a soft surface, you can trust your splits and gauge your progression, and you need not worry about vehicular traffic. And, depending on where you live, you might have access to an indoor track when adverse weather makes speed or tempo workouts on the roads impossible. It’s therefore useful to have some track workouts in your arsenal specifically aimed at boosting your lactate threshold and your blunt-force endurance.

The emphasis here is on continuity and volume. For ease of reference, consider your 5K pace to be 5 percent faster than 10K pace, 10K pace to be 5 percent faster than half-marathon pace, and half-marathon pace to be 5 percent faster than marathon pace. This pegs MP at about 12 seconds per 400 slower than 5K pace at the faster end of the spectrum (15-minute 5K, roughly 2:27 marathon) and about 20 seconds per lap slower for a mid-packer (a 25-minute 5K, close to 4 hours for the marathon).

The Tempo Trial

These are long, sustained efforts of 15K to 20K in which you do all but the last 4K at your marathon race pace or slightly slower. With 10 laps (on a standard outdoor track) left, pick it up to your half-marathon race pace and hold that effort for 2K. Then, gradually work your way toward 5K pace. On your last lap, you should feel like you could do at most one more lap at that pace, but could handle another mile or so at MP if you backed off.

Threes and Ones

In this workout, you alternate 300-meter segments at your 5K race pace with 100-meter recoveries that take half the time of the 300s—not a jog, but roughly your everyday easy pace. Done correctly, this will keep you on about half-marathon race pace for each lap.

Example: a 20-minute 5K runner (96 seconds per 400) would alternate 300s in 72 seconds with 100s in 36 seconds, for an overall pace of 1:48 per 400. This translates to about a 1:35 half-marathon, within the wheelhouse of a well-trained 20-minute 5K runner.

For a 25-minute 5K runner (about 2 minutes per 400) would alternate 300s in 90 seconds with 100s in 45 seconds, for an overall pace of 2:15 per 400. That effort translates to about a 1:58 half marathon.

Shoot for a total of 30 minutes of this on/off running, however far it takes you.

READ MORE: 8 Common Marathon Mistakes

The Longest Ladder

Run repeats of 6K-5K-4K-3K-2K-1K with 1-minute jogs. No complexity or secrets here: this gets you used to the rhythm of sustained hard running. Run the first three at MP, then run the next three at half-marathon pace, 10K pace and 5K pace respectively. You can practice taking fluids on the go in this one, if you can manage the logistics (e.g., a makeshift or real infield table, a loyal assistant). Rather than shuffle aimlessly between reps, try to keep your cadence purposeful and close to 180 or so per minute even if you’re barely moving, so you maintain physical and psychological continuity even as you’re resting.

Rogue 1200s

These are 1000s at marathon race pace alternating with 200s at 5K race pace. For example, someone shooting for a 3-hour marathon would run 1000s in 4:15 and 200s in 43-44 seconds. For a 4-hour marathoner, the 1000s would be run in 5:42 and the 200s in 59-60 seconds. As with Threes and Ones, your overall pace should be about that of a half-marathon race, but with less time spent at higher intensity, you should aim for 45 minutes to an hour in all.

READ MORE: Get Faster with Regular Speed Work

Endless Miles

This one entails doing 1600-meter repeats at 10K pace interspersed with 400s at half that pace, thereby setting the recovery interval at half the time it takes you to run the 1600s. (Note: 1600 meters is four laps around a track and a close equivalent of a true mile (which is actually about1609 meters). A 37:30 10K runner would thus run 6-minute 1600s followed by 400-meter jogs in 3 minutes (or 12-minute pace). A 48-minute 10K runner would run about 7:43 for the 1600 followed by 400-meter recovery jogs in about 4 minutes. Start with six to eight of these and work up to 10.

Note that these are high-volume sessions, meaning that you should pay special attention to fueling and hydrating before, during and after the workout, and should allow yourself at least one easy day before doing any of them and two easy days to recover afterward.

READ MORE: Speed Work for 5K to the Marathon

Kevin Beck

Kevin Beck is a longtime contributor to various endurance-sports publications, including Runner’s World, Competitor and Triathlete. A former 2:24 marathoner, he has coached a range of athletes from high school to professional the professional ranks, and is the co-author of “Young Runners at the Top” and the editor of “Run Strong.”