The Key to Marathon Training

Great, you’re training for a marathon! So get going, and run as fast as you can, right? Wrong. 

When training for a marathon there are many components that need to come together to hit your goal, whether it is a completion goal or a time goal. The components that are required include aerobic training, anaerobic training, strength, mobility and flexibility. But for a marathon, the key component needs to be aerobic training. 

Aerobic training occurs when your body has enough oxygen, allowing your body to use the oxygen it needs to power the muscles. The faster you run, the more energy you require. During a marathon your body needs to conserve as much energy as possible. If you run faster than your aerobic threshold you will utilise your fuel stores fasters, and more likely to “bonk” or “hit the wall”. It has been found that running 80% of your training easy, could make you up to 23% faster. 

The 2007 study researched the Impact of Training Intensity Distribution on Performance in Endurance Athletes saw that the subjects who were given more aerobic training than anaerobic training performed better in a 10.4km cross country race at the end of the training block. Even though the lower-intensity group spent less time training at race-relevant speeds, they improved more than the higher-intensity training group. The first group improved their time by an average of 2 minutes and 37 seconds, while the second group improved by an average of 2 minutes and 1 second.

So, why do so many runners and athletes overlook this training component? It can be thought it’s because its not the glamorous part of training. Aerobic conditioning takes time, discipline and most importantly controlling your competitive nature (or ego!). Due to these reasons, many try to find an alternative route, often avoid aerobic training, and can even get obsessed with chasing times on Strava! 

Some of the key benefits to the body when we train aerobically are:

  1. Capillary development: These are the smallest of the body’s blood vessels.  The great number of capillaries you have surrounding muscle fibre, the faster you can transport and supply oxygen and glucose (carbohydrate) to your muscles, and remove waste products (e.g lactic acid and carbon dioxide). 
  2. Increased myoglobin content of muscle fibres: A protein in your muscles that binds to the oxygen that enters the muscle fibre. When oxygen becomes restricted, myoglobin releases the oxygen to the mitochondria to produce more energy. So the more myoglobin you have in your muscle fibres, the more oxygen reserves you have to sequester to the muscle under aerobic strain.
  3. Mitochondria development: Mitochondria are microscopic organelles found in your muscles that assist in the production of ATP (energy). In the presence of oxygen, mitochondria breaks down carbohydrates or fats (lipids) into usable energy. Aerobic training increases both the number and the size of the mitochondria in your muscle fibres. So, the more mitochondria you have and the greater their density, the more energy you can generate during exercise.  

You will have runs in your training plan where fast running is required (e.g your track sessions). But on the slower days, when training aerobically, not only will running faster result in diminished aerobic development, it will also increase the chances of injury and overtraining. Easy days are easy, for the simple reason your need to recover from a heavy load. This is the single biggest mistake runners of all experience levels make in their training.

Your optimal easy run pace for aerobic development is between 55 and 75 percent of your 5k pace. Specifically, for your long runs, the research indicates running 50-55 percent of 5k pace provides near optimal physiological aerobic adaptation. But there are also two huge bonuses for training at this pace:

  1. You decrease the risk of injury and have less muscle tissue damage
  2. Running slower means you most likely can handle more volume

By showing self-control and containing your running pace in training, specifically on sessions are keys to developing your aerobic system.

Now, go smash your marathon goals!