Speed work can shave huge chunks off your marathon times

A group of people jogging
A group of people jogging
Image: Thulani Mbele

I have always thought that doing speed work was for track and middle-distance runners, until I moved from a 3hr 40min to a 3:22 marathon time, thanks to incorporating speed sessions twice a week in my training.

As the days draw closer to the People’s Race, you should at least have done eight weeks of consistent running. The numbers on the scale at the gym should be giving you a bit of a smile on your face and you should be enjoying your running.

You have built a solid base to be able to increase your weekly mileage by not more than 15% of your total weekly volume. Increasing your weekend long runs will also be beneficial.

I had gotten tired of running a comfortable sub-four-hour marathon and knew I could improve my times. Guys closer to their 40s were running sub-three-hour marathons in my club. I decided to start training with this group of fast runners we call Kenyans, not only because they’re fast but they look the part too.

You know, the dark skinned guys with the shiny chiskops, with a frame that would be in danger of being blown away should strong winds come.

We followed a structured programme for three months with speed sessions on Tuesdays and Sundays. The sessions on Tuesdays were done on the track, so that the effort put in could not be aided by either running downhill or hampered by having to struggle uphill. The track helps you perform your workouts with more precision and helps monitor your progression efficiently.

Speed training is very tiring and should be introduced gradually, starting with a session once a week and once you start recovering much quicker you can progress to adding another session. It took me two days to recover from my first speed workouts.

The workouts would consist of a 3km warm up followed by 6x400m laps running slightly faster than my 10km race pace, about 80%-90% of my full speed , and progressed to 800m, 1200m and 1600m repeats with a 90-second rest between the repeats or a 200m slow jog. The session would end with a 2km cool down jog.

The 1200m and 1600m lengths were done at my 10km race pace, slower than the 400m repeats. This type of training helped me improve my stamina to be able to sustain my race pace for a long time.

The weekend speed workouts were tempo runs, a reflection of the speed work I’d been putting in during the week, and included 5km, 8km and 10km time trials as well as running 16km and 21km at 42km marathon race pace.

To get through the Soweto Marathon, whether racing it or just running to finish it, your speed will be key to determining whether you have a successful race or not.

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