By Christopher Cudworth
You may wonder, “How do they do it? What makes it possible for those runners to race so quickly?”
The answer is surprisingly simple. They can race that fast because they’ve trained at a much, much faster pace.
This single technique seems to be the most under-appreciated method of getting faster in a marathon, half-marathon or any distance race below that. Even milers run intervals at a much faster pace than their PR if they hope to lower their times.
For all its universal applications, and many runners and cyclists do get this principle, it still helps to refresh the reasons why faster tempo running and riding really do help you run or ride at an overall faster pace.
The reasons are both physical and mental. The physical training of higher leg turnover in running or faster cadence in cycling is plain enough in purpose. But it’s the mental benefit of faster tempo that is harder to sustain over the long run. So you’ve got to rehearse the faster tempo in order to believe that the rate of return is worth it, and that you can sustain your pace over multiple miles.
The marathon mentality
Running 26.2 miles is a rite of passage for millions of runners. While not a habitual marathon runner, it often occurs to me how long a marathon really is when I complete a certain cycling loop that happens to be, you guessed it, 26.2 miles on the button. Looking down at the cyclometer or the Strava I check the average speed and distance and think: It’s amazing someone can run that far in 2:03:23.
That’s right: The fastest male marathoner now averages 4:42 per mile for the 2:03:23 record set in Berlin. The fastest female is 2:15:25 or 5:09 pace. Those times seem ridiculously fast. But not if you break it down.
Breaking it down without breaking down
For most of us, the entire idea behind marathoning is to finish the race. But ultimately you’d also like to be able to run faster. That’s a matter of teaching your body to handle a faster tempo and convincing your mind that it’s possible.
The marathon is really two races in one. First you calculate the pace you want to run to reach your target time. That is one race. Then you train to run the number of hours required to complete the race. They are really two separate issues that add up to one problem: training long enough to finish and fast enough to PR. Marathoners can easily forget to do one or the other.
A faster “steady state”
Just think: the world’s best marathoners treat 4:42 pace as their “steady state” for 26.2 miles. Here’s how they do it: these runners go much faster than that in practice. A runner capable of running 4:42 per mile will run mile repeats at 10 to 30 seconds faster than that in practice.
Without that rehearsal of quicker leg turnover, the pace of 4:42 per mile would feel fast and the tempo would seem hard to sustain. You see that in many mid-pack runners, who seldom surge or change tempos through an entire marathon. That’s an “inactive” approach to racing. You need an active approach in which your mind and body has previously been tested to handle faster or slightly changing tempos.
Think about those elite marathoners: When you’ve run 4:20 miles in practice, 4:42 feels like a jog. You might even throw in a 4:30 mile surge during the race if needed, and not feel strained.
Break the mold
As a last-minute tempo experiment, I once raced a mile on a Friday night before a Sunday morning 15K. The legs felt great and I won the race in 4:22. The next day I did a light sustained jog and by Sunday morning the effects of the mile wore off but the relative pace of the 15K still felt easy and smooth by comparison to the faster mile pace I’d run. The muscle memory of that fast tempo mile made it seem easier to run the 15K pace where I set a PR.
Taper and turn it on
You can do this with the marathon too. In the four weeks leading up to the marathon there tends to be so much emphasis placed on getting in that last 20-miler. Yet too many marathoners skip the benefit of up-tempo running and what it can do for your ultimate race effort. When you’re engaged in your taper for the race your legs should begin to feel less stale. That is an ideal time to do some controlled, uptempo training. You also need to add in surges of 3-5 minutes at a 2% faster pace during your longer runs over the buildup months. If you’re currently an 8:00 per mile marathoner, these surges should be done at 7:45-7:55 pace. The difference in your racing long term at that pace will result in a marathon time 2-3 minutes faster. It worked at 25K for me. It will work at the marathon distance too.
If you plan to average 8:00 per mile in your next marathon do you have a plan to do some training at 7:30 per mile? It can really help. The 30 second rule seems to apply to racers of all speeds, in fact. You need to run tempo work that much faster to open up the body’s signals to more speed. Obviously a solid warmup and cooldown are desirable before and after speedwork.
But don’t skip it. It’s an immutable rule. If you want to race faster you have to run faster than your race pace to make it feel easy. It’s s simple trick, but one too often forgotten by the middle of the pack who stand to gain the most by kicking their own asses in practice.