Completing a marathon is a tough ask, but when you decide to move from completing to competing, you really learn the meaning of hard work. We don’t necessarily mean vying for a podium spot – but we’re talking sub-3:30 or faster. If you have decided you want to run a fast marathon, you’ll need to be determined. Follow these rules for your best chance of success.
Marathons take a long time – even when you’re running them pretty fast. No wonder we love to daydream our way around the course. Rule number one when you want to run fast is to stop that and start paying attention to your pace, all the way around. One false move in the first 10 miles could see you with a deficit you can’t make up – or overcooking it and paying the price later. Learning to pace yourself is a good idea, but precision is your friend and that means you need gadgets to help. Use a heart-rate monitor or GPS watch in training to work out your desired marathon pace, make sure you can stick to it, and then to hold it on race day. Work out your acceptable margins of error – it’s not realistic to hit exactly 7mins 15secs on every mile but you can aim for between 7:10 and 7:20, for example.
If you can run a marathon, you should be proud of your body and what it can achieve, but you may need to ask a little more of it once you’re aiming for a really fast time. In running terms, excess fat is just additional weight you have to bring with you on every step, and losing it will help to make you faster. Be very careful about how you approach this though: enlist help from a dietician or coach to make sure you don’t drop below a healthy BMI.
Once you have chosen your target marathon for a faster time, do everything you can to get to know the course. Slight inclines can feel like mountains when you’re at mile 22 of an on-the-limit marathon, but if you’ve prepared properly you’ll know how to spread your effort so that you can cope with the ups and downs. You should also find out all you can about drink stations so you can plan and practise how to fuel your marathon.
To avoid blowing up during your marathon, you need to stay well below your lactate threshold during the race. However, you can raise your lactate threshold (so you get to a higher speed and heart-rate before you hit it) by including plenty of threshold sessions in the few months leading up to your race. You can estimate your threshold pace but if you’re really determined to go faster, then it’s worth having a test with a sport scientist or coach to work out your personal lactate threshold as accurately as possible. You can then train at or just below this level for gradually longer periods.
Improving your running form helps you avoid injury but it’s also a way of fine-tuning your performance so that you can hold higher speeds for longer. Working on drills to reduce your ground contact time, speed up cadence and improve hip flexibility will all help you run faster and fatigue slower. It takes time for these drills to work, though, so expect results in months rather than weeks – and attend coached sessions so you can be sure you’re getting the technique right.