Tempo training is unavoidable if you wish to run faster, regardless of the distance you are training for. Tempo sessions aid the development of your VO2 max, help you optimise your running economy (RE) and raise your aerobic threshold.
The positive effects of interval training on long-distance running performance, based on an extremely high repetition rate, have been heralded since the 1950s, with Czechoslovakian Olympic runner Emil Zátopek being among the earliest and most famous proponents of their benefits. Today's studies have a tendency to highlight the added benefit of short-interval sessions, or rather high-intensity interval training (HIIT), compared to mere endurance-oriented high mileage. That said, tempo training for marathon runners should only ever account for a small proportion (< less than 25 per cent) of the total mileage. For without those all-important endurance runs that are necessary to train your fat metabolism, a full marathon is simply not a realistic goal (see the article “The Long Jog”). Additionally, the quality of your high-intensity hit-outs will always rely on the endurance base you’ve diligently built-up though long runs.
For your specific marathon preparation phase (spanning the last 12 weeks prior to the competition) the following tempo sessions are recommended:
- Long fartlek session. Length/duration: approx. 20 km, with intermittent intervals of 1km, slightly above race-pace.
- Sustained tempo run of 10 km to 15 km, intended to train your race-pace (i.e. threshold training, approx. 10-20 seconds faster than your anticipated marathon racing speed)."Threshold": transition from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism. Can be determined by a sports-physiological performance test. Experienced runners usually sense this threshold, roughly at the point where they are just able to balance and sustain their breathing with the running pace.
- Long-interval workout (developing your anaerobic capacity), e.g. the 1-2-3-2-1 km “pyramid” at 10 km race speed or slightly faster. The interval length can also be measured by time (e.g., 5 min - 10 min - 15 min - 10 min - 5 min), or the shorter version (1 to 5 min and vice-versa).
- Uphill running intervals of 500 m to 1km, expending roughly the same effort as your race pace. 5-10 repetitions (stronger stride, muscular endurance).
- Crescendo long run, with a steady increase of running speed in the form of continuous long intervals through to the end of your training run (effective and demanding workout to increase your fatigue tolerance).
- Run-throughs, or strides, with a gradual increase in speed over 80 m to 120m up to sprint speed. Ideal after an easy long run, in order to train your running form during fatigue.
The appropriate intensity for tempo training should be based on your competition goal. For instance, a marathoner will usually have little use for 200m intervals to train the specific long-distance running skills needed to run a solid marathon. The neuromuscular patterns and the energy supply used in such HIITs are contrary to the requirements of a marathon. Tempo sessions should be related to your target race-pace. Ambitious marathon runners complete the 42 km slightly below their individual anaerobic threshold (continuous load limit). This threshold can easily be determined within the scope of sports-medical performance diagnostics either in the lab or outdoors.
There is, of course, a risk of over-training or injury if the tempo training speed and/or frequency are too high. Therefore, you should only plan one to two fast sessions per week. In order to get the most out of your tempo training sessions, your muscles must be fresh and recuperated, which is why training after a rest day is especially beneficial. For the interval program it is advisable to start with a slow warm-up, strides, gymnastic exercises and basic ABC running drills.
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