Finish lines are magical places. Nothing else can quite beat the exhilaration that comes from completing a marathon you’ve been training furiously for, especially those first few races that must have seemed understandably hard to finish. For seasoned runners, each finish line is an opportunity to better previous times, and they train accordingly for every upcoming marathon.

By following a focused schedule that concentrates on specific race-day training and adding some structured speed workouts to your routine, you too can get close to that desired time goal by your next marathon. Here are some effective suggestions to introduce some speed work into your training and prepare your legs—and mind—for a faster race.

To run fast, train fast
There are no shortcuts to cutting down your previous marathon time if you aren’t consistently working towards that goal. If you have a finish time in mind, factor it into your training to determine a minimum pace for your practice runs. For example, if you completed your last marathon in, say, 3 hours 10 minutes—or an average of approx 4.5 minutes per kilometer—take that as your practice base time and work on improving it with each kilometer you run. If you could increase your average pace to cut down even 20 seconds a kilometer, think of what it could do for your overall time.

Run in race conditions to get used to the exertion
Run in race conditions to get used to the exertion

Run the distance
For reaching a desired time goal on a 10K, it’s important to practice on several 10K distances, so that your legs are used to that kind of pressure. The same goes for any timed race. Now, it isn’t possible for everyone to get in a marathon-length workout every day, but you could consider signing up for a practice half marathon about 4-6 weeks before your race. Concentrate on increasing your pace here, and build in intervals of high speed training, particularly towards the end of your run when you’re on tired legs. This allows your muscles to be prepared for race day and gives you enough time to work on improvements.

Use intervals like a boss
Intervals essentially consist of alternating between short bursts of very fast running, followed by an equal or greater amount of recovery time, where you do a mid-paced jog or walk. Fartleks are especially good at improving your pace and they also keep you from being stuck in a rut on an otherwise flat course. Running faster will force you to break out of your comfort zone and start recruiting your previously unused muscles, while the active recovery time prevents injuries or overstrain. You can pace your intervals by time (10 mins medium followed by 5 mins of fast running) or by kilometer (walk-jog for 1 km and run for the next); in case of the latter, try to run each interval at a pace faster than your desired time goal to get your legs familiar with the speed.

Increase your mileage
Maybe it isn’t possible for you to sign up for any practice races before the big one. In that case, concentrate on increasing your weekly mileage by running fast for longer periods and distances. Start by increasing your training distance by 5-8% over the first few weeks and continue adding more length as you get adept at battling the initial fatigue. By running extra miles every week, you improve leg strength and increase blood flow to your muscles, both of which translate into faster speeds on race day. However, take caution and increase your mileage by less than 10% every week, as anything more often leads to injuries.

Start by increasing your training distance by 5-8% over the first few weeks
Start by increasing your training distance by 5-8% over the first few weeks

Be as prepared
Unlike your practice sessions which can be modified as per your needs, race day comes with a whole range of challenges that are often beyond your control. It always helps to read up on the elevation on your marathon course, typical weather, the kind of crowds expected and race-day facilities, so it’s not all a complete surprise when you turn up. If your chosen marathon has a hilly stretch for 4K, run this distance during your uphill practice sessions. If it’s a local marathon you’re training for, see if you can do some long training runs on the actual venue to familiarize yourself with the conditions. Studying your course prepares you both physically and mentally for the day. Lastly, remember to eat and sleep well before your race—nothing quite takes the minutes off your finish time like fatigue or too many trips to the facilities.

Images: Brooks Running

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