Ask The Experts: Marathon Training with Steve Smythe

Catch the highlights from Friday's lunchtime debate, when experienced coach - and Lucozade Sport Super Six mentor - Steve Smythe answered your marathon questions live in the forums


Posted: 8 February 2010
by Steve Smythe

Steve has run more than 60 marathons, holds a PB of 2:29, and has also won a British marathon title in his age group.

This is his 35th successive year of preparing for a marathon and for the last five years, he's run a series of consistent times at the London Marathon (2:46, 2:43, 2:46, 2:43 [his quickest in last 20 years] and 2:47). Over the years, he estimates he's run about 2,000 races.

Read the whole forum debate


Q. Most marathon schedules are based on past performances but my opinion is that you should train to improve your time. How can I work out what a realistic target should be? achingcalves

A. If you have run a marathon before then that should give you a good starting point and by running races over shorter distances you should get an idea of what is realistic. Most importantly though, your target should be flexible. If you start to see improvements in shorter races you can move your target forward - conversely, if you get injured or just can't train as hard as you were hoping, then you can move the target back. I'd suggest reviewing your progress each week and setting secondary targets (either faster or slower) depending on where you are in relation to your original goal.

Q. How important is it for a first timer to have a goal pace and be aware of splits etc? Wobbled

A. The most important thing for your first marathon is to enjoy it. Until you run the distance, there's no way of knowing what you are capable of - most people aim far too high based on their half-marathon time and then struggle to maintain their pace after 20 miles.

Q. What's the most important quality session of the week (after the long run) for a 6 - 7 min/mile marathon runner? Jokerman

A. I think the most important session is an interval session (400m, 800m, mile etc). It can lead to the biggest improvements in your speed endurance and causes a knock-on effect at all distances from 5K to marathon. Use the session to hit a range of paces - for example, in a session of mile reps, run some parts nearer to marathon or half-marathon pace, even if you run the majority at 10K pace. A marathon runner needs to train at marathon pace as well - you can't just rely on the faster sessions.

Q. Why do I need to do speedwork if my goal is sub-5:00? The Evil Pixie

A. The more speedwork you do, the faster you will get. Apart from running quicker times at shorter distances (which will give you a psychological boost), the sessions will also help you feel more comfortable running at a slower pace for a marathon.

Q. I missed a two-month training period earlier in the year and now find I'm lacking aerobic capacity.  Should I abandon speed and tempo sessions (and replace them with steady runs) or is there still merit in keeping the faster sessions in? FerrousFerret

A. I would still recommend the faster sessions but rein in your speed a little and take them slightly easier. That way, you should be able to improve your aerobic capacity and speed gradually (rather than doing lots of slow running and starting from scratch with the faster stuff). As long as your speed sessions and tempo runs are quicker than your long runs then they will be doing you good.

Q. I'm starting to worry my base fitness is lacking - is there anything other than running I can do to increase my core fitness? NorwichRunner

A. The most important thing about a running schedule is always the running. That said, you could try devoting one day a week to a gym session.

In about 30 minutes, I can usually fit in 10 minutes of stretching (and some core exercises), 15 minutes of weights and 5 minutes of rowing. The latter is a great all-round workout - I feel a few 500m intervals (with a minute's recovery) really help my overall fitness and strength.

Gym sessions for marathoners don't have to be drawn-out affairs involving lots of weights - dynamic stretches are great for keeping supple and warmed up.

Q. I always seem to end up missing one of my easy runs each week due to exhaustion - what impact will this have on my race performance? Ehine

A. As long as you do the main sessions, missing the easy ones won't matter. Sometimes your body just takes a while to adapt to the training and you might find it gets easier. Of course, sometimes you just get more tired!

Q. Do you specifically train at your lactate threshold or would you consider a weekly race a high threshold run? Jokerman

A. Lactate threshold sessions are vital whether you race regularly (when you tend to go over the threshold) or not. In an ideal world, you should aim to run a good 30-45 minutes at around half-marathon pace once every two weeks. The key to a good marathon is feeling comfortable for as long as possible into the race - regular racing or threshold runs enable you to cruise at a slightly faster pace without getting tired too early.

Q. I'm practising with gels and sports drinks during my long, slow runs and definitely find they give me a boost. I don't want to over-rely on them though - how many gels would you recommend and when would you take them? Veester

A. Personally, I think my consistency and relatively strong race finishes are due to a mix of sensible fuelling, good pacing and solid training. I take five gels on marathon day - one in my porridge at breakfast, one at the start, one after 10K, and then two more at Miles 15 and 20 (which I think give me the biggest boost though some of it may be psychological). Before using gels, I would hit the wall more regularly and end up shuffling for the last few miles - in recent years, I've felt as though I've been racing and even overtaking people in the last six miles rather than just hanging on.

Q. I understand that 'time on feet' will help me prepare my endurance base for running a sub-4:00 marathon but if all my long runs are at 10-minute-mile pace, how will I be able to run 9-minute miles on the day? Iron Rach

A. You will need to do some work at (or faster than) marathon pace in preparation for race day, but this need only be a small percentage. When it comes to the marathon, you will be well rested and will have the incentive (and adrenalin) of the sense of occasion.

Running at marathon pace for a full marathon takes an awful lot out of you - most runners can only manage two marathons a year - so if you do too much marathon-pace work in training, it can actually undermine your fitness rather than add to it.

That said, do try and run some races or faster sessions as part of your preparation so your body isn't taken by surprise on marathon day.

Q. Have you found it harder to maintain the same level of fitness as you get older? Have you changed the way you train or diet?
Knight rider

A. My speed has deteriorated but in terms of marathon running, my fuel strategy is better, my pacing is good and I know what works for me in training. I take slightly longer to recover from hard sessions and do slightly less mileage but try not compromise too much - one of the reasons runners do slow down is because they ease off the training.

At my club, two runners set PBs and won national titles aged 55 - they started late but still trained hard. Most runners reach their peak five to seven years after they start hard training whether they're 20 or 50.


Don't miss our next live forum debate - part of a series in our 2010 Virgin London Marathon build-up. On Friday March 5, we'll be welcoming Paul Evans, former Chicago Marathon winner - and another Lucozade Sport Super Six mentor - onto the forums between 1pm and 2pm to answer more of your marathon training questions. Pop the date in your diary now!


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Hi everyone

Runner's World regular Steve Smythe will be online between 1pm and 2pm today to answer any queries you might have about your marathon training so far.

Steve has run more than 60 marathons, holds a PB of 2:29, and has also won a British marathon title in his age group. So, whether you're looking to run further or faster over the weeks ahead, make sure you pop your questions right here on this thread.

We're opening the discussion now so Steve will be able to get stuck in straight away at 1pm (rather than having to deal with too many questions all at once) - time to get posting!

Catherine
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:21

Oh go on then.

Due to a variety of circumstances I missed training for about a two month period prior to the new year.  I'm now back in the groove, but lacking aerobic capacity.  Should I abandon the speed and tempo sessions (and replace them by steady runs) until my LSR heart rate is back down to its normal level (usually 138, currently about 148) or is there still merit in keeping the faster sessions in?


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:27

What does Steve think is the most important quality session of the week, for a 6 - 7 min/mile marathoner?...(not including the long run)
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:37

Hi Steve,

I'm a first timer, plodding along on the pavements, but I'm starting to worry my base fitness is lacking and this is having a big impact on my running.

With the time left until London, is there anything else I can do other than running to increase my core fitness, and if so, what should I focus on and how often should I do so?

I'm concerned I may "burn out" by running 3/4 times a week and fitting gym work in too. Is there a recommended way I can balance it all out while still getting the most out of the time left?

Thank you!
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:42

 Hi i'll do my best to answer everything. Last year this was harder than the marathon though but luckily was only a hour or so!

As further background, this is my 35th successive year of preparing for a marathon and the last 5 years i've been reasonably consistent at London (with 2:46, 2:43, 2:46, 2:43 (my quickest London in last 20 years), 2:47. Over the years I've estimated I've done around 2000 races - I have over 1200 logged on the power of ten website.

Ferret.

I would keep the sessions in but just rein the speed in a little and take them slightly easier. This way you should be able to improve your aerobic capacity and be able to accelerate the speeds gradually rather than do lots of slow running and then start from scratch with the faster runs. As long as you are doing the faster and tempo runs quicker than your long runs then it will be doing you good. They don't have to be at your pre break pace.

Jokerman

For me the most important session of the week is probably my weekly race, though I wouldn't encourage everyone to race as much as I do!

As regards to normal sessions, I think the most session is a hard speed session ie intervals of 400m, 800, mile etc. This I think leads to the biggest improvements in your speed endurance and causes a knock on effect at all distances from 5k to marathon. In my sessions I do like to get a range of paces though and even in the course of a session of mile reps, some part would be nearer marathon or half marathon pace, and some even at 10k pace, even if the majority is at 10k pace.

A marathon runner though does need to do some of his training at marathon pace and so you can't just relly on the fast speed sessions


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:46

Steve

Why do you think there has been a decrease in numbers and standards in elite men's marathon running in the UK since the 1980's?


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:48

Thanks for that Steve.
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:49

Norwich Runner - as important as core stability is, the most important thing about a running schedule is the running and that must take priority but it would be a good idea to devote at least one day a week to going to the gym.

In about 30 minutes, I can usually fit in around 10 minutes of stretching (and some core exercises), 15 minutes of weights (using as many machines as possible) and 5 minutes of rowing. The latter is a great all round training tool - I used to do more but now content myself with a few 500m intervals with minute recovery and feel it is helping my all round fitness and strength.

If I have time I may then do some more stretches in the steamroom/sauna. Gym sessions for marathoners don't have to be long drawn out affairs lifting lots of weights an some dynamic stretches are great for keeping supple and warmed up.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:52

 Steve...Do you specifically Lactate threshold train, or do you consider your weekly race as your high threshold run for the week?
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:56

Hi Steve,

Have had a bit of a long slow run epiphany (see Andy's sub-4) thread in that it is time on my feet that is preparing my endurance base for running a sub-4 mara.  However, if all my long run are around 10min/miling (upto 22miles) what is it that can make me run 9min miles on the day?!


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:58

Matchstick man

Fundamentally people don't train as hard. Even UK club runners used to run 100 miles a week back in the 70s and 80s and now  even some of the UK internationals don't.

With improved shoes, scientific knowledge we should be faster but i think people have less time and work harder and have far more distractions. In terms of Uk runners a big factor is back in the 70s and 80s runners like Ian Stewart, Brendan Foster, Eamonn Martin could beat any runner in the world and were in touch of the world records - now the Ethiopians are running 26:20 for 10K and most Brits (Farah aside) know they have no chance of ever doing within a minute of that which is a big disincentive.

Of course we do have world beaters  amongst the women and Radcliffe's marathon world record could still be standing in 10 years and Radcliffe's success shows that GB women can mix it with the best.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 12:59

Hi Steve,

I've read a lot of people's opinions on fuel strategies for the marathon and I'm practising with SiS gels and sports drinks during my LSRs. I definitely find they give me a boost but don't want to over relay on them. What quantity of gels would you say is needed for the race and what timings/distances would you take them at? 

Cheers


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:02

Iron Rach

You need to do some work at or faster than marathon pace but only a small percentage.

On race day you will be tapered and rested and have the incentive and adrenalin of the big occasion.

Marathon pace for a full marathon takes an awful lot out of you - most runners can only manage two in a year so if you do too much in training then that actually takes away from your fitness rather than adds to it.

However, try and get some races and some faster speedwork in so your body isn't taen by surprise on marathon day.

Jokerman

Lactate threshold sessions are vital if you don't race regularly (and probably even if you do as in races you tend to sometimes go over the threshold.

In an ideal world, once every two weeks you should be  running a good 30-45 minutes at around half marathon pace. The key to a good marathon is to feel comfortable for as long as possible into the race and regular racing or threshold runs enable you to cruise at a slightly faster pace without getting tired too early and staying relaxed


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:06

Hello Steve

Two questions:

- Most marathon training plans are based on past performance in that they give you a time based on a recent 1/2 mara or marathon. My take on it is that you should take this into account but train to improve a time. How can a mediocre 39-year old runner like me (1.10 ten mile pb, 3.19 in NY 2009 targetting 3.09 in VLM) work out what a realistic stretch target should be for their training?

- I always struggle with deciding on a goal pace for marathon day: what is the most important indicator in training performance or key session that a runner can take into account when deciding a target ?

Cheers

AC


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:10

My question is I am attempting a 3:45 in Blackpool and my first mara was London last year where I ran 4:31, all pacing signs are good for 3:45 or just under this time.

I've just got my form for Abingdon in the Autumn - what should I aim for?? I'd like to do 3:15 but I'm not sure another 30 minutes off is realistic...how do you set realistic but tough targets for yourself?


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:11

Veester

There is a lot of good fuelling strategy advice on the Lucozade super six threads.

Personally I think my consistency and relative strong finishes in my last half dozen marathons are due to gels together with good pacing and training. I like 5 on the day. One in my porridge, one at the start, one around 10k, and then the two that I think give me the biggest boost (though its probably mentally) are the ones around 15 and 20 miles. 

Until I used gels I was hitting the wall far more regularly and shuffling the last few miles - in recent years I felt i've been racing and overtaking in the last 6 instead of hanging on.

remember this year Lucozade gels will be on the London marathon course so it's a good idea to try them on your long runs now - you  could do a mixture of the SIS and Lucozade ones.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:11

Have you found as you get older it is harder to maintain the same level of fitness? Have you had to change the way you train or diet to keep the same level of fitness. Do you think you could better your recent  brillaint time of 2.43 or do you feel you have reached a plateau (no disrespect by the way)? As a 40 year old man I am still improving but I am guessing I will eventually reach a point where it is harder to improve.
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:12

What pace is your standard type of aerobic run Steve? MP + 60secs/mile?

I like to start alot of my aerobic runs easy, and then progress through the gears. Finishing at MP pace or even threshold pace. It's done on how I feel tho, and nothing is pre-determined. If the legs aren't there, I'll keep it all easy.

Any thoughts?


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:15

Hi Steve,

You've covered some of this already, but I just have a question about which 3 harder sessions per week you would recommend. VLM 2010 will be my first marathon and I am targeting 3:15. Last year, I was doing one session of 800m or 1600m reps, one tempo run and a long run, plus a couple of easy/recovery runs per week. Do you think it would be a good idea to introduce a mid-week steady run, around MP for 10-12 miles for one session; make the second harder session either intervals or tempo (alternating each week), and obviously keep the long run as the third?


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:17

Aching Calves

Your target should be a moving one. By training sessions and races over shorter distances you should get an idea of what is a realistic target. If you have run a marathon before then that gives you a good starting point.

Ideally if you start to see improvements in shorter races you can move your target forward oor if you get injured or have training setbacks or just can't train as hard as you were hoping, then you can move the targets back a bit.

It is good to have a challenging target but there is no point having an unrealistic one that you have no hope of reaching.

Therefore I suggest after each week review where you are and how realistic your original target is and put in a secondary target (either faster or slower) based on where you are.

By race day you shhoudl really know what sort of shape you are in and the time should be based on a mixture of your half marathon performances, your long run performances and your previous marathon record.

Curly 45 - first see how Blackpool goes before you make any decisions on Abingdon.

3:15 may be too ambitious but after Blackpool and a recovery  you may have gained fitness but the key is to be patient and realistic and use your other race times to guide you.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:19

Hi Steve,

What do you think was the difference in the year you ran the 2:29? What went "right" that year?

I'm making my debut this year at 22 and looking to run ~2:29/30 (dependant on weather) - what sort of HM and 10k PBs did you have around the time you ran your 2:29?

 For your weekly long run what sort of pace were you running at compared to marathon pace? Did you use gels on your long runs or were you worried those would affect the training effect causing the optimisation of lipid (fat) burning?

Best,

HH


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:22

Ditto Knight Rider's question


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:24

Thanks Steve - I set a sub 4 originally for Blackpool so I have no problem moving targets etc but I just like to have an ultimate goal in mind for my big picture, little picture mind games 
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:25

Steve, I've been following the RW schedule for the VLM (would ideally like about 4:15 tho might be ambitious for my first marathon - best HM time is 1:58).

My question is: I always seem to end up missing one of the scheduled runs each week due to being just too exhausted and achy. This generally happens after I've done the 3 mid-week runs and I have to skip the 'easy' one that comes before the weekend's long run just to allow my body to recover... It might be because I've never done this kind of mileage before that I just don't seem to be managing it, but I'm wondering how much it matters? Looking at some of the injuries and niggles people some people seem to be picking up I sort of feel like I'm doing the right thing listening to my body and avoiding injury and I come to the LSR fresh at the weekend. But I'm also worried about what impact it will have on my training and ultimate race performance if I skip this almost every week? It is only the 'easy' run I've been skipping rather than the speed sessions or LSR.

Thanks!


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:31

Hi Steve, how important is it for a first timer to have a goal pace and be aware of splits etc? 

I'm doing my first marathon this April but on the back of just one race (so far) and having a hard time deciding what goal to set. I did a half marathon in September in 1.46 which gives me a predicted marathon time of 3.45ish. I feel this is very optimistic given I've been running less than a year at present and am nervous of injuring and/or disappointing myself if I set out to run this in April. But I don't want to fall flat by going out without much thought to pace etc... I'm female and 25 if that helps.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:33

I have 2 marathons planned in 7 weeks, the first being a training jog and the 2nd being the race. What pace should I do the 1st marathon at if I am looking for a sub 3hr in the raced marathon?
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:33

Hi Steve

What importance do you put on 'sports massage'. I can understand high mileage elite runners regularly getting a 'sports' but would a good Swedish massage not be good enough for the rest of us. Alternatively would a good sports massage be of greater benefit for slower runners?

Thanks 


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:34

Jokerman

I did a lab test to determine my threshold but for me I suspect my threshold now is only 20-30 seconds a mile quicker than marathon pace.

All being well I will run 6:15s at the marathon and my threshold is probably at 5:45-5:50s

Knight Rider

I'm not as fast as I used to be and my speed has detoriated ie used to be able to run 32 for 10k and now its around 36 but in terms of marathoning, my feul strategy is better my pacing is usualy good and I iknow what works in training. I take slightly longer to recover from hard sessions and do slightly less mileage but try and not compromise too much because I feel one of the reasons runners do slow is they ease off the training.

At my club we had one man and one woman setting pbs and wnning national titles at 55 because they started late and trained hard at late age. Most runners reach their peak 5-7 year after they start hard training whether they are 20 or 50.

My peak was probably at 29 and I should have run a quicker marathon then (my pb was at 23) but I didn't know as much about running as I know now.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:34

Martenkay

Yes I had a great massage yesterday - thanks Trev!

Yes apart from doing the legs and back a lot of good, they also enable you to foresee a potential problem and avet a major injury.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:36

*waves* Steve, some people have asked me why i am doing speedwork when my goal is sub 5 ... What is the reasoning behind it? Thanks ...ep
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:37

Jiffleking I would suggest running marathon 1 at 3:15 pace

but if you are  feeling strong and have done sufficient training then you could try and run sub three pace for the last 3 miles.

I have been follish enough a few times to do 2 in a week. Once I did Boston on Monday and London on Sunday (2:47 and then 2:58) I think and another Sri Chinmoy one week in 2:56 and then Poly in 2:47 the following. It was definitely easier doing the first one at 90% than doing the fast one first!


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:39

Hi there

this will be my first Marathon, am very excited ! can you recommend an ideal warm up & stretch period before my long runs

Many thanks


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:42

Elhne

as long as you do the major sessions then missing the easy ones don't matter. NB sometimes the body adapts to the training and it gets easier. sometimes you just get more tired!

Wobbled

the most important thing about a first marathon is to enjoy it so set your sights lower. Until you do a marathon, there is no way of knowing what you are capable - most people aim far too highbased on half marathon times and formulas and most runners struggle to hold pace after 20 miles - especially if it's hot.

So aim for four for your firs one and if you run 3:57 and feel easy go for 3:45 next time.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:44

Hi Steve

 Im doing the London marathon for the first time this year!! scared!!! I have been running for a while now and really enjoying, i did the great north last year.

However!! Im finding it hard to fit so much training in! Im a pig farmer so work quite long hours, i also ride horses and also play hockey and have a match every sat! So all in all i think im quite active, does any of this help me?

 Ive done my long run for this week which was 16 miles and two 8 miles which is fine but my plan says i need to do more however im playing hockey on Sat and Sunday! What would you think of doing a 3 day plan? with everything else i do will i be ok? I want to do well at London and know i need to start doing some speed work or is hockey good for this? I play midfield so i do run alot!!! I know ive asked a lot but think i will kill myself if i try run every day then on my rest days play hockey!!!

 Thanks 


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:47

Hobbling - for my 2:29 I ran 100 miles a week from january. was probably in 32 10k shape, 53 for 10 and 70 for a half. I went through in 73:30 in the marathon.

Breaking 2:30 so early was a bad thing for me as it took away my ambition to run faster as I thought 2:25 was unlikely and so I raced shorter races.

There were no gels back then - n race day I just had a sip of water and a cup of tea for breakfast.

I probably did my long runs at seven minute miles but raced every week.

caroline I like to have a short jog before the marathon - I live 800m away from the start so that's lucky and then I do a few stretches but for a marathon you don't need too much pre exercise, it's a case of saving energy and the chances are because of the numbers of runners, you'll be starting slowly anyway.

Curly - sub 4 is a good starting point - it's a much bigger target.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:51

Thanks Steve, been having issues with tight calves, I'm guessing a gentle jog prior to my runs is going to help ?
Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:56

Steve...What's the length of your long run? And is this consistent throughout the year?

Cheers for your time btw.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 13:57

Kate

If you do three big sessions a week - long run, speedwork, tempo then you could probably just about get away with it but the more you do the easier it will be and the faster you will get.

However doing alll the sessions and doing lots else means you will just get tired and probably injured

The hockey probably helps but not sure about the riding!

It's difficult when you have a busy life and lots of alternatives but it may be best if you can to put some of those activities to one aside until after the marathon. Once the marathon is over you will probably want a rest from running and will enjoy the riding etc more!

 EP

You do the speedwork because it's on the schedule and have to set an example!

The more speedwork you do, hopefully youu will get faster and apart from running quicker times at shorter distances which is great in itself, adds a pyschological boost, it also means you feel more comfortable running a slower pace at marathons.


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 14:01

Gul Dar

your training looks well balanced as it is but perhaps a marathon pace run every 2-3 weeks would be a good idea.

You don't have to do a long, slow run  every week and a race every third week or a marathon pace run may get you fitter


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 14:04

Hi Steve.

 training for London, my first marathon, and i was up to 14 miles on LSR. Had to miss the past 2 weeks due to knee injury (Poplitial tear), but now nearing recovery.  I'm worried about the time lost and the time left and wondered the best way to make up the miles, bearing in mind i will be taking baby-steps for the next week or so while i get back on the road....drop recovery run? drop fall back weeks? add a mile or 2 to LSR?...etc.

 Many Thanks


Posted: 05/02/2010 at 14:06

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