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The long and winding road to Marathon improvement

Gavin Hall explains his practical steps in coaching "mere mortals" for the marathon.

I love the marathon: running it, coaching athletes to complete it and most of all, coaching club runners who want to improve their performance. We are not talking about Olympians here, but of athletes who aim to break a personal goal of, say, 3.30, 3.15 or even 4.00 hours, often whilst balancing the needs of a job and a family. Many such athletes are offered a deluge of advice on the subject of training for an improved marathon performance, all of it well-meant, but much of it at best misguided. No wonder then that so often they become confused, disheartened, injured or disappointed. Hence this paper on my practical steps for those coaching "mortal" athletes, seeking to perform at a higher level. It may not see them on the aeroplane to the next Olympics, but it will provide them with good memories that last a lifetime.

The Confession

I am no marathon expert. I am still serving my apprenticeship in this subject, and I hope to continue to do so for another fifty years or so. However, I have sought to learn from personal experience, and the works of the marathon masters, applying their wisdom to the cause of the humble club runner. My advice may conflict with many - all I can say is that it seems to work consistently well for my athletes. If you have a better plan, then please let me know!

Step One - Treat Each Athlete as an Individual

When discussing training with any athlete, bear in mind that a training program is unique for each athlete and that an approach of "one size fits all" is not the solution. Spend plenty of time understanding each athlete as an individual. Go through each training diary for the last year and see the world from the athlete's eyes. What was the plan? Why was it like that? What went well? Talk about lifestyle. What time is available to train? What gets in the way of training? What new opportunities for training time are there? What was the performance last time? What happened last time out (exactly, before, after and during, mile by mile)? What is the new performance goal? Why is that the goal? Piece together the evidence and reflect upon it before reaching conclusions. What factors strongly influenced the athlete's performance during the last attempt at the distance? How could they be overcome this time?

Step Two - Select a Goal Race Some Distance Hence

Fundamental to success is allowing plenty of time for preparation, especially where weekly mileage will become significantly increased. Twenty to thirty weeks of steady preparation may not be unreasonable, even from a good base level of fitness. Consider the environment - choose an event that will be fundamentally flat and is likely to be cool. Choose an event that will attract a small field (easier pace management and avoids unnecessary swerving).

Step Three - Establish the Cornerstones of the Plan

Weekly Distance

As a "rule of thumb", 50 to 75 miles per week seems to hold a lot of merits. Anything less than 50 miles may not allow for V02 max improvement, and more than 70 miles may bring diminishing returns and maybe career/marriage threatening! Allowing plenty of build-up time (increase distance by a maximum of 10% per week) is vital and check the training diary each week to ensure that no "extra" sessions are creeping in!

The Long Run

In my view, extending the long run to the target race time (not distance), and repeating it at that level several times during preparation is key. Remember to schedule plenty of recovery time between these sessions. Think again about the long run. How can you help your athlete to hold his or her pace steady at around one minute below goal pace? This is not just going to happen - you have to make it happen. Consider mile marking some favoured routes or recruiting the stalwart pacers of your club as "sparring partners" to help your athlete to keep it consistent.

Speed Training - is it appropriate?

Here is where even the real experts can disagree. Yet again let us remain practical; there has to be a planned level of running faster than goal pace, and a planned level of running exactly at goal pace. How else is goal pace going to become maintainable over the marathon? Think again about speed. Exactly how fast will your athlete need to run to achieve the goal? Does he or she even know? How exactly does that pace relate to half marathon pace, 10k pace, 800m pace and 400m pace? Consider a weekly track session, a weekly race-pace session and how you will progress these sessions as the weeks roll past. Do your research on these subjects and start by looking at Frank Horwill's superb on-line materials (just search using his name).

Recovery and Rest

It is time to plan that active recovery and rest, it is just as important as running. We all know it. We have all probably ignored it at times. Do not let your athlete make the same mistake and make sure that the rest is taken. And almost finally, let us not forget the taper. Research it, agree on it and do it. And finally, let us not forget the night before and the morning before the race. Let us plan it and rehearse it a dozen times in training. This should include the food, the drink, the kit, and sleep. Find what delivers optimum self-confidence and performance for each individual and stick with it.

Step Four - Motivate

The sad fact is that for most mortals, training for a significant marathon performance improvement is not going to be great fun. Most often it will include extended periods of running in the dark and or rain, extended periods of grumbling from any loved ones on the scene, and extended periods of wondering if it would not be easier to focus on the 10k. What can you do to motivate and encourage your athlete? Can you create and help visualise a picture of success so compelling as to drive out those negative thoughts? Can you plan time to listen to feedback and to inspire confidence? I hope that the above makes some practical sense. I do know that if carefully applied, it can help cut an athlete's marathon personal best time down to size.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HALL, G. (2004) The long and winding road to Marathon improvement. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 15 / September), p. 3-4

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • HALL, G. (2004) The long and winding road to Marathon improvement [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Gavin Hall is a British Athletics level 3 performance Coach specialising in Endurance events. He is an active endurance athlete, running two or three marathons a year and some of the longer distance triathlons.