Marathon Training – Specific Endurance

Marathon Endurance Training

In today’s blog post I want to delve deeper into Specific Endurance (SE) training for marathon running. This is the training which most closely relates to the race you are training for, mimics the demands of that race and prepares the body for exactly what you will face on race day.

Specific Endurance Training

Specific Endurance workouts are designed to teach the body to withstand the same stresses that they will face on race day. Specific Endurance workouts might be found at any stage of the athletes program but they will be most frequently utilised during the last period of training before a target race – what we call (perhaps unsurprisingly) ‘The Specific Phase’.

The exact pace and design of an SE workout will depend on the event and the athlete in question but we can generalise and say two things.

First of all that the speed of an SE workout must be very close to that of the planned race speed. I use a general calculation that anything within 5% of the speed of the race is considered SE. (Worked out in a way that mathematicians may not agree with but for example a race at 3’00”/km I would consider that SE is as follows: 3’00”/km = 180seconds. 180/100 = 1.8seconds is 1% x5 = 9seconds so SE for an athlete racing at 3’00”/km would between 2’51” – 3’09”.)

This is a rough guide not an exact formula but generally speaking I would say that any workout designed to directly influence the race performance needs to fall within these parameters.

The second assumption we can make is that over the course of a training program the volume of running within this SE zone will increase. This is an increase within a given workout and an increase in the frequency that we use these types of workouts.

Far away from the race itself we would be focusing on Aerobic and Speed Support with small doses of SE. This might be in the form of an infrequent SE workout in its own right, or more likely take the form of one part of an overall workout. This is important to note as I am a strong believer that you should be running at or very close to target race pace right from the beginning of your training cycle; only that the amount of that running will be small initially.

The progression of Specific Endurance is (almost) always a progression of volume not speed. This means starting at the correct pace and over time increasing your ability to run at this pace for longer and longer periods of time. Rather than for example starting with a set workout and then trying to get faster – with SE workouts we tend to start with a smaller volume, or longer recovery periods, or shorter intervals, and over time increase the volume, reduce the recovery periods, or increase the length of the interval.


Common Mistakes in Specific Endurance Running

Two common mistakes which can be made with regards to SE running:

One – not doing it or not doing enough of it. It amazes me that athletes will try to hit certain times in races without having practiced it in training.

I believe many marathon runners could run a much faster marathon 6/8 weeks after the race they actually run if they undertook a period of SE training during that period. With many athletes focusing on long runs at a (relatively) slow speed and 10k type speed workouts they arrive at the start line of their marathon at about the same time that our athletes arrive at the start of their Specific Phase of training with great aerobic support and great speed support but little Specific Endurance.

Two – Doing a Specific Endurance block of training without a sufficient base of Aerobic and Speed Support. I have made this mistake myself as an athlete and it is an easy trap to fall into. Specific Endurance training can see an athlete make dramatic improvements in their shape in a relatively short period of time and the workouts themselves are ‘sexy’ as much as endurance running can be.

That is to say they are impressive looking and sounding workouts and if you are looking to get in good shape quickly it can be tempting to try. However, this training simply does not work if the athlete doesn’t have a very strong level of basic fitness with lots of aerobic and speed support workouts already behind them, and the athlete must already comfortable running at race speed for shorter periods of time (IE – Race pace doesn’t ‘feel fast’)

If you try a Specific Endurance phase of training without a sufficient background you will likely breakdown from fatigue and staleness and the outcome will be far worse than if you had raced without this type of training.

One of the reasons for this consequence is that SE workouts by their very nature are incredibly hard, and require longer periods of recovery after them than do other types of hard workouts. One of the features of the Specific Phase of training is that we reduce the number of workouts performed and each workout is ‘bigger’ in terms of ‘volume of intensity’.

Therefore the period of recovery between workouts has to increase in order to accommodate this increase of intensity of the workouts. The speed of running between the workouts reduces and it’s objective is simply for recovery rather than building aerobic support. (We do enough Aerobic and Speed Support running to maintain what we have already built – we are no longer trying to increase these abilities)

This means that an athlete who already has poor values in these areas of support now tries to perform intense workouts with little or no base support running – just hard specific workouts with lots of recovery jogging in between and the result is that they reduce their basic fitness levels even further without being able to benefit from the specific workouts either.

An athlete with good but not great levels of aerobic support will get through these SE workouts OK but they will be using too much mental and physical energy in order to perform them without pushing themselves a little too hard and would likely not recover adequately. This is where the skill of the athlete/coach is really important to judge the intensity these workouts should be placed at, and the frequency with which they are used.

Here is an example of a few of the types of Specific Endurance workouts that we might use with an athlete preparing for a marathon.

Fast Long Runs

Continuos runs performed either at a constant speed or in progression. EG: 30km @105% of the speed of the race (again probably not mathematically correct but it is easier to explain and understand that 105% of the speed is slower not faster than the speed of the race) For a runner aiming for a 2hr15’ marathon (3’12”/km) this would be running long runs at around 3’20”/km

Specific Fartleks

During this type of workout we often practice running at the exact rhythm/pace of race. EG Marathon workout mid build up might be: 8x3km @100% of race speed with a fast 1km recovery between (race pace + approx 25- 30”/km) For the above hypothetical marathon runner this would be: 3kms in 9’36” w/1km recovery in 3’35”-45” Total run 31km in 1hr 42’/43”

Long Intervals

Track (or non track) workouts at slightly faster than target race pace. For same marathon runner an example might be 10x1600m @95% of race speed (percentage worked out asI explained above) = 1600 in 4’52”

These are isolated examples and do not show how we would progress these workouts over a course of time. Below shows a typical progression of Specific Fartlek workouts we might use in the course of a marathon build up
8x2km w/1km rec (Total volume 23km, 16km@ race speed)
8x3km w/1km rec (Total volume 31km 21km @race speed)
6x4km w/1km rec (Total volume 29km 24km @race speed)
5x5km w/1km rec (Total volume 29km 25km @ race speed)

Despite the total volume being lower on the latter two workouts the volume of specific speed is higher so we would consider these to be more specific workouts. This type of workout would need to be balanced with longer runs at slightly slower speeds, and shorter intervals or continuous tempo style runs at slightly faster speeds.

During a Specific Phase of training we would place the main emphasis on these SE workouts. It is important however, to maintain some workouts in the program which are significantly faster than race speed and some runs which are significantly slower (but still good aerobic runs) in order to maintain the previously developed Speed and Aerobic Support. Without these workouts included you run the risk of becoming stale due to the race pace starting to ‘feel fast’ which is the opposite of what you want to happen at this stage.

An easy way to ensure that you meet these demands is to use combination workouts which include both aerobic and speed support in one workout. IE 10-15km aerobic support run, followed by a series of short intervals on the track. These can also of course be done in isolation and this is at the coach/athletes discretion.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on Specific Endurance training for marathon runners and at the very least it has given you food for thought.