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Goal Pace Long Runs Equal Your Fastest Marathon
Are slow long runs and mid-week speed workouts not delivering race results that reflect your true ability? Try this common sense approach that teaches your body to run at race pace and may help avoid injury at the same time.
I knew I could break three hours in the marathon. However, after several failed attempts using traditional training methodology, it was time to try something new. Though unaware, I began using a method that has been used by elite distance runners. Coincidentally, it worked for me and might just work for you.
In January 1996, I started running to lose 40 pounds I had put on since serving in the military. Coupled with a better diet, running quickly took off the extra weight. I also found running enjoyable, so I registered for the Chicago Marathon. To train for the race, I followed the Galloway plan.
On marathon day, I felt great until somewhere in mile 19 when my pace steadily declined to almost 9:00 minutes per mile. I did not know it, but I had hit the wall. My finishing time was 3:10:07. Had the wall been avoided, sub 3:05 was possible. Thus, there was a better race in me. For the next two years I competed in numerous shorter races, including a few half-marathons but in 1998, I stopped racing.
Due to life changes, 10 years passed before I entered another race of any distance. In January 2020, I started to run seriously again. Based on race results from 1996, an immediate goal of breaking three hours in the marathon was set. A mid-May marathon was scheduled as the goal race. My training method reflected popular current methods. The mid-week speed workouts (tempo runs and long intervals) were new to me but initially appeared to work.
Injury Sets In
In April, I set a half marathon PR of 1:22:59. I was in the best running shape of my life and ready for the upcoming marathon. There were three 20+ mile long runs logged by that time. Based on the McMillan running pace calculator, a 2:52 was possible. However, two weeks later I suffered my first running injury and missed the race.
After recovering, I raced the Chicago Marathon in October. As in 1996, I was on sub three hour pace until the wall at mile 19 again slowed my pace. When the three hour pacing group passed me I tried to hang on but could not. My pace just kept getting slower. I finished in 3:04:40. A PR but not what I knew I was capable of.
Repeated Training Mistakes Lead to Further Injuries
Training in 2020 and 2020 included the standard weekend long run and a speed workout during the week. Both years I ran lightly in the spring and did some minor racing. In June I began training for the Chicago Marathon both years healthy and in decent shape. But I eventually suffered injuries both years. It seemed I had injured runner's syndrome.
In 2020, I stopped running almost entirely in July due to injury. I ran very little leading up to the Chicago Marathon, which I did run, but at a relaxed pace in 3:49:17. The next year, I continued to train while injured and had the arrogance to attempt to race. The wheels started to fall off at mile eight and were dead by the half. Extreme physical misery was the theme for the second half. 3:45:34 was my official time, but it felt more like 18 hours.
Rethinking Marathon Training
After three straight years of injury and failed attempts to break the three hour barrier, I started to rethink marathon training, throwing out everything I had read, tried, or thought I knew. I desperately longed for the fitness of Spring 2020, but had to figure out how to achieve it without injury.
A sub three hour marathon requires an average pace of 6:53 minutes per mile. I asked myself how could running long runs at 7:30 or 8:00 minutes per mile pace coupled with eight mile tempo runs at 6:15 minutes per mile pace make this happen? The answer was they could not. I never felt the speed workouts developed a faster pace at longer distances and it appeared to be causing injuries.
A New Approach
An idea struck that at first seemed odd. If I wanted to run 26.2 miles with an average pace of 6:53 minutes per mile pace, I needed to start running regularly at that pace and for very long distances. Slower long runs no longer made sense. My solution: goal pace long runs. Since most people do long runs at slower than race pace, it seemed this could be why runners hit the wall. Their bodies are not conditioned to race pace running over long distances. By using goal pace long runs, it was my belief that the wall could be avoided since my body would be conditioned to running at race pace.
That summer, beginning at 10 miles, I ran long runs at a pace between 6:45 and 7:00 minutes per mile. My training plan gradually increased distance all summer, but with regular "cut-back" weeks for recovery. The plan included three 20 mile runs two weeks apart before tapering began. A second change I made was removing traditional speed workouts. During the week, I just ran easy. My training weeks were very simple: Monday through Thursday were easy runs of six to nine miles in distance. Friday was a day off. Long runs were on Saturday. Sunday was another day off. Total volume was kept at a reasonable level, with peak weeks never exceeding 60 miles.
Saturday long runs became the most important run of the week and as the distances increased, the more challenging they became. But since fitness was naturally increasing, they could be accomplished. Conceptually, each Saturday was a marathon pace race at slightly increasing distances over the summer.
Race Success and a sub 3:00 Finish
On October 9, 2020, a warm, sunny day, I ran the Chicago Marathon with healthy legs in 2:57:10. After running miles 19 and 20 with splits of 6:39 and 6:37, it was clear the wall had been avoided.
My average splits for the race were 6:44. Afterwards I looked through my training log and found my average long run splits at distances greater than 15 miles were also 6:44 (plus or minus a couple of seconds). The race felt just another long run but 26.2 miles in distance. I was fairly confident my method had produced these results, but also accepted the possibility it might have been a fluke.
Training Method Repeated
Based on my recent PR, I believed I was capable yet of a faster race in cooler weather. Would 2020 be the year? Following the same training plan allowed me to again reach race day healthy and in good shape. October weather in Chicago is truly a mystery as temperatures can range from the low 30's to low 80's. Setting a time goal has to be flexible. When asked for my time goal this year, my standard answer was "depends on the weather."
Further Race Success and a sub 2:50 Finish
With temperatures in the low 40's and an overcast sky, conditions this year were perfect. I made no prediction, but was determined to break three hours again and perhaps set a new PR.
The first half of the race felt almost effortless. I went through it in 1:23:44 or just 45 seconds off my half marathon PR from April 2020. I was on sub 2:50 pace. What am I doing? Could this pace possibly maintained much further or should I slow down? Feeling strong, an instant decision to maintain that effort was made and my finishing time was an unexpected 2:49:03. Crossing the finish line, it took two glances at my watch before recognition set in. Words cannot capture the feeling that swept over me.
For two consecutive years and using the same training method, I avoided injury, did no hard speed work, ran a reasonable volume, and produced satisfying race results. Now I was convinced this was no fluke. I was on to something that I wanted to share. Could this method work for others? It didn't take long before I found the answer, though in an unexpected place.
Also Used by Elite Runners
As I began to outline this article, I learned that goal pace running was not a method of my invention. Renato Canova, who coaches Moses Mosop, (2:03:06 marathon PR), uses these type of long runs in training plans for the elite runners he coaches, see Running Times, September 2020. I did not read the Canova article until the week after this year's race. It was fulfilling that a world-class coach reached similar conclusions to my own regarding long run methods. It should be noted that Canova's runners do regular speed work. Since this long run method is used by elite runners and has shown success at an amateur level, it could be a new way of approaching marathon training.
V02Max and lactate threshold have been researched extensively as they apply to running. Exercise physiologists have structured training regimens designed to improve these two components. A third component, running economy, is less understood. The more economical a runner is at a given pace, the easier it is to maintain that pace because less oxygen is required. Exercise physiologists, also, believe that runners are most economical when running at the pace that they normally run.
According to exercise physiologist and author, Jason Karp Ph.D., goal pace long running could be gradually improving running economy, which makes sense. Because long runs account for a large share of total training mileage, it seems that running all of those miles at goal pace naturally increased my running economy at that speed. The faster 2020 result could be indicative of a further increase in economy from last year.
It was a four year journey driven by the belief that my true running ability had not been reached. Difficulties reaching one's untapped potential are frustrations commonly known to distance runners. I may never run a faster marathon, but will take solace in knowing that my true running potential was realized and gave me a great race.
Authors note: this method is also applicable to half-marathon distance.