The Art of the Marathon-as-Workout

If you’re a relatively inexperienced runner, or a back-of-the-pack runner, stop reading now. This one’s not for you. Unless you’re just curious—then go ahead and keep reading.

For most experienced competitive runners, a marathon is a race. You sign up, pin a number on your belly, and go for broke. The workouts that serve as preparation for the marathon—long runs, tempo runs, steady-state runs, etc.—are completely distinct in form from the event itself. But they don’t have to be. I routinely runs marathons as workouts in preparing for the marathons I race. Crazy as this practice may sound, I find it effective and enjoyable, though not without risk, and I hope this article persuades at least one person to try the method.

The way I typically do it is quite simple: I run 26.22 miles (a marathon is NOT 26.2 miles, folks, and those extra couple of hundredths make several seconds’ difference!) about 10 percent slower than I could or than I hope to run in the race I’m targeting. So, for example, if I’m hoping to run my next marathon in 2:38:50, I might run a marathon workout in 2:54:43, give or take.

In fact, I am hoping to run my next marathon in 2:38:50, and it so happens that I ran a marathon workout last weekend (eight weeks out from the event). My goal in this case was a little more conservative—2:59:50—on account of the summer heat wave that swooped in just in time for the session, but I felt good despite and cruised to a time of 2:57:11. 

There’s a huge difference between running a marathon at 100 percent effort and running a marathon at 90 percent effort. If you go all-out, you can’t walk down a flight of stairs the next day. But I feel absolutely fine the day after my latest marathon workout, completing two short, easy runs the very next day.

Benefits of marathon workouts

In my experience, marathon workouts offer a couple of benefits:

  1. One is that they’re a little different from any other workout, being long and moderately aggressive in pace. As such, they occupy a sweet spot between normal long runs, which may cover the full marathon distance or more, and marathon-pace workouts, which are done at goal marathon pace but are necessarily shoulder. None of the more common workout types provides quite the same stimulus as a marathon workout.
  2. A second benefit of the marathon-as-workout is that it can be a great confidence builder. Because these sessions are done a little slower, but only a little slower, than marathon race pace, you can finish them with a pretty solid time and plenty of running left in your legs. When they go well, they make your goal time seem more attainable.

Obviously (at least I hope it’s obvious), you need to be in very good shape before you attempt such a workout. How good? If you can run the full marathon distance at your normal easy run pace and feel no worse the next day than you do after a much shorter easy run, you’re ready. I typically do my marathon workouts between eight and three weeks before a “real” marathon. If you do it any earlier, you may risk peaking too soon; but do it any later and you risk interfering with your taper. And yes, one marathon workout per training cycle is plenty!

Marathon workouts can be done solo from home or in the context of a formal event. I’ve done both many times. The advantages of the latter include the motivation provided by other runners and spectators and also the fact that your nutrition is taken care of. Plus, you get an official marathon finish to add to your resume. The main disadvantages of doing a marathon workout in an actual marathon are the relative inconvenience compared to the solo option and the risk of getting caught up in the excitement and running too fast. Indeed, in my experience, most runners who have the fitness to do a marathon workout don’t have the discipline to hold back 10 percent if they attempt it in an actual race environment.

My own cautionary example dates back to 2008. I was in the best shape of my life and targeting a sub-2:40 performance at the Sacramento Cow Town Marathon. But a couple of weeks before the event I developed a hot spot in my right foot that curtailed my training, so I decided to run it as a workout and make the Silicon Valley Marathon my “A” race, giving me two more weeks to get sharp. I ended up cruising to a time of 2:46:58 in Sacramento, but by the time I got to Silicon Valley I was overcooked and only managed to run four and a half minutes faster, falling short of my goal. I realized too late that despite the injury setback I was already too close to peaking to delay my “A” race and should have gone ahead and taken my shot in Sacramento.

The lesson here is that, although runners who dismiss the marathon-as-workout as crazy in its very essence are wrong, there are plenty of crazy ways to run a marathon workout. So, if you’re experienced and fit and adventurous enough to try this method, plan and execute it with prudence. (I love it that I just ended an article on running marathons as workouts with the word “prudence.”)