Ask The Experts: Steve Smythe on Marathon Training

Steve has run more than 60 marathons (26 London Marathons) and as well as holding a PB of 2:29, he has also won a British marathon title in his age group. This spring, he joins us as one of our ASICS Target 26.2 mentors, working with Colin and Lee as they look ahead to the Paris Marathon on April 15.

Read the whole forum debate.

Q. I have a few questions about the longest training runs:
1. How should you build up to them?
2. How long should they be?
3. How many times should you run your longest run?
4. How long before the event should you take on your longest run? Dan Ellingworth

A.  1. I prefer going up a few miles each week with the occasional easy week in between, for example (in miles), 15, 17, 19, race/15, 21.

2. It depends on your speed and your training miles. A run of 21-23 miles is long enough for most people but make sure you don’t pace it too fast.

3. There isn't a rule and it's down to personal preference, opportunity and fitness. Ideally three runs of 21-23 miles would be what I’d aim for.

4. Take on your longest run three to four weeks before the event. Some people like to do a half-marathon race three weeks before the marathon, so their longest run is a month before. Your last three training weeks should be the taper, so I try to run around 15-18 miles two weeks pre-event.

Q. I have a few questions about fuelling:

1. How should I hydrate before long runs of more than 12 miles?

2. What should I eat before long runs? If it helps, I tend to do them on Sundays at 9.30am. dprovan

A. Firstly, it’s important to be well hydrated the evening before your run and not just on the day, then drink a reasonable amount pre-run. I usually feel happier with half a litre or so, but some people like to drink more. The weather, the speed you are running at and the length of time you’ll be out are all determining factors. It's a sweepingly non-scientific statement but the key is to be sensible. Drink enough so you don't get thirsty or badly dehydrated, but not so much that you have to keep stopping for the toilet or that you feel bloated. Drinking too much is as dangerous as not drinking enough.

When it comes to eating, I personally like to have carbs the night before a long run and then a small breakfast an hour or so before (some people need up to two hours to digest), then maybe an energy drink or bar pre-run. On longer runs I top energy levels up with gels or blocks.

Q. When I’ve run marathons previously, my training was predominantly running based. This year I’m also taking part in some cycling races (for example, the Etape Caledonia) but I still want to run at least one marathon.

What would suggest as the best cycle-run ratio to get me round a marathon? Would it be best to cut back on some training sessions but keep the long run, or ditch the long runs and keep the other sessions? Rod Wallace

A. Long bike rides give you good endurance but they are not specific enough to be good training for the marathon on their own. If you were to exercise six times a week, I would say you’d need four runs (one long) and two bike rides. Then on days with easier, shorter runs you could double up and do extra bike rides.

Q. I’m running my second marathon - but my first London Marathon - in April and I want to know how to improve my pace and get a PB? Keeley Howson

A. The best thing is to work out the average pace per mile of your first marathon. So if it was 9:30 min/mile and you think a 9:00 min/mile pace is possible, then once a week try to cover some of your runs at 9:00 min/mile. You can still do the bulk of your long runs at 10:00 min/mile but every few weeks try doing some of the second half of your run at 9:00 min/mile.

Also, do some speedwork or tempo running where you aim for a pace that’s one minute per mile faster than your goal pace. Do some races and pace a 10K race one minute per mile faster and a half-marathon 30 seconds per mile faster than your goal marathon pace. The faster you can do the shorter runs, the more your speed will improves and you’ll have more time and feel more relaxed when you run at marathon pace.

Q. At what point in your training programme should you decide on your goal marathon pace? My current half-marathon PB (1:36:27 in Dec 2011) would suggest a marathon goal of 3:25 is possible (current marathon PB is 3:39 in Oct 2011). However, my long slow runs are currently around 8:15-8:25 min/mile pace which suggests I might be capable of something closer to 3:15 (and a London GFA). FerrousFerret

A. It’s negative of me to point this out but I think 90 per cent of runners don't reach their goal targets based on half-marathon and training pace times, either because of aims set too high, poor pacing on the day or fatigue in the last 10 miles. Sub-3:30 seems a formality but if you can run a half-marathon at 1:33 in March, then I would start aiming for a target of 3:20-3:25.

A time of 3:15 is not really feasible with a 1:36 half-marathon PB and you would need to get that down to sub-1:30 to have a realistic chance of that. The current pace of your training runs suggests you have either improved a lot since last year or you are doing them too quickly. 

Q. How important do you think strength training is for marathon running? I was recently talking to a friend of mine (a Level 3 UK Athletics Coach) and I asked him how to shave minutes off my time. I'm already an ideal racing weight and my CV system is good, he told me to get in the gym. Do you agree? If you had one tip to give experienced marathon runners the edge, what would it be? kittenkat

A. Gym training and specifically core strength can undoubtedly help, especially if you have weaknesses in that area. In the big scheme of marathon running, I don't think it's the most important thing, compared with endurance, consistency of training, pacing, hydration etc, but it could be the final part of the jigsaw and the part that will stop you getting injured.

To me, the most important thing to have that edge is speed. Twenty-six miles is a long way and the long run is the most important session, but how fast you ultimately run the marathon is determined by your speed. Paula Radcliffe has run the marathon significantly faster than any other woman partially because she trained harder but also because she has the top 10K speed of any serious marathoner. So she wouldn't have been able to run 2:15:25 had she not been capable of running a 30:01:09 10K.

Likewise the men who run 2:03-2:05 for the marathon are all capable of running sub-28:00 for 10K.
This doesn't mean that all runners who run sub-28:00 10Ks can run 2:03, but comparing two runners doing the same training and length of long runs, the one who will feel most comfortable and almost certainly run the quicker marathon is the one who has the most speed. So it’s important that some running time every week is dedicated to running quicker than your marathon pace.

Q. What's the easiest way to maintain a steady pace during a marathon? Should I even try?

I'm running my first marathon in October (The Preston Guild Marathon). I'm 44 and I returned to running in March 2011 after 30 years. I've been running in Vibram FiveFingers since the outset. I ran 10K for the first time on Sunday in 1:15:00. My pace was up and down like a fiddler’s elbow according to Sports Tracker. Should I just run how my body feels or aim to maintain a steady pace?

I'm also contemplating doing the Blackpool Half-Marathon on March 11 (seven weeks on Sunday) as my first proper race to assess where I'm up to with my training and fitness. Is that too much, too soon? I'm currently doing 10-15 miles a week, running three times a week. ChopperUK

A. Good luck in October, you have plenty of time to build up mileage, endurance and knowledge. In the early months when you aren't running too far, running how you feel may be ok but in races and key long runs, even pace is essential to maximise efficiency and endurance. And you need to do it during the run and not analyse it afterwards.

Maybe the Blackpool Half-Marathon is a little early unless you go in with few expectations. I would have said you may be better waiting until May for your half-marathon. However, if you feel your pace is gradually picking up, and in two months you’re fitter, faster and stronger, then you should be fine.

ChopperUK: Cheers Steve, thanks for the encouragement. There's a lot of info on this website and others to get through, so as you say, hopefully an October race will give me plenty of time to prepare (both mentally and physically!). Do you have any suggestions on how to keep an even pace during a run, instead of looking at my phone's pace indicator every few minutes? Or is that what I'm meant to do?

A. For now, glance at your pacing aid every four to five minutes but as you get more experienced that should lessen.

Kate Dobinson 3: I turn on audio 'announcements' on my iPhone app Runmeter and it reads me my speed/pace/distance for every mile or whenever you set it for. You could see if the app you use does the same. It saves looking at your phone every few minutes.

Q. What in your opinion should be the maximum distance for a tempo run in order to obtain the greatest marathon benefit? Please don't say 26.2 miles! Martenkay

A. I like to run a 20-miler at close to marathon pace about a month to six weeks before an event, but I wouldn't recommend this to inexperienced runners and I only like to do it in a race situation. However, I think it is harmful to race over 20 miles, by which I mean running as fast as you can, which in theory should be quite a bit quicker than your marathon pace.

I think a better ploy is to run 10 miles easy and relaxed, and then run the second half (or a section of it) at marathon pace. I also like to run and recommend a couple of half-marathons in the build-up. You’ll run faster than marathon pace and running in a race situation is always more rewarding.

Personally, I would never attempt a solo tempo run of more than 15 miles as it would take too much out of me and I also struggle to run a decent speed without the stimulus of competition.

Q. I’m training for my first marathon. I've done a couple of half-marathons but never really got to grips with pace. How much slower should the long run be compared with marathon pace? At the moment there seems to be about a 2:00 min/mile difference between my fastest and slowest runs. Should I be aiming for steady pace or go by perceived effort or heart rate? Susiebuzz

A. Pacing is essential for maximising performance and investing in equipment such as a Garmin is essential if you are struggling. One minute per mile slower than goal marathon pace is fine for the majority of your long runs. If you are doing some running at 10K pace then one minute per mile faster is Ok too, so the two-minute differential isn't a problem. Without the likes of a GPS device, heart rate does give a good guideline but it can vary due to other factors. Perceived effort is OK but again it isn't foolproof, especially if you are inexperienced. Do some runs at marathon pace and try to get some races in to increase your knowledge about your pace and ability.

Q. I'm running a marathon a month in 2012 for Help for Heroes (two half-marathons a month in the first six months and then a marathon a month for the remaining six months). If you have any tips on my training structure I would really appreciate it.

At the moment I complete a half-marathon in two hours and my goal is to get it to sub-2:00. Should I be focusing on speed as opposed to endurance at the moment? I don't want to burn out too quickly as I have so many races to run but I want to be proud of my times and improve on them each time. 

I'm doing two training runs at 6 miles+ per week and one longer 10 mile + training run at the weekend. Is this the right amount of training or should I be doing more? Kate Dobinson 3

A. Good luck with it. I suppose if you are racing every few weeks, you don't need too many other long runs but I would suggest a slow 20-miler once a month for the first six months, which could become a faster 15-miler once you are into the marathon phase. Once a week focus on your speed and try to run nearer 8:00 min/miles for either three-mile tempo runs or mile reps. The half-marathon races should be training in themselves but I would suggest only racing flat-out once a month and using the other long run as training.

Q. VLM training is going well for me so far and I’m planning to enter a half-marathon in March. My PB is 1:35 and I think this could come under attack this year. Is there any harm in pushing for a PB in this race or should I try to maintain marathon pace for practice?

Also, the long slow run pace in the RW 3:30 schedule feels so slow! Would I benefit from increasing my pace? Tempo Tom

A. Yes, definitely go for a half-marathon PB. It will increase confidence and enable you to see what you are capable of for the full distance.

Yes, increase your training paces - it looks like you might be capable of much quicker than 3:30, so gradually up the pace by 30 seconds per mile.

On the next page: Find out how to train for your first marathon and whether drinking impacts on training.