Marathon Training – The Philosophy

Marathon Training – What Does It Take to Become a Marathoner?

That’s not an easy question. Most importantly it takes mental endurance, focus and toughness. But what about physiologically? A better question might be: what are the physiological limitations to marathon performance? If we can answer this, then we know what areas to concentrate on in marathon training. To simplify things (a lot!): we can isolate 3 very broad physiological elements to marathon running that we can focus on:

  1. Muscular Endurance:

Muscular endurance is the ability of our muscle fibres and neuromuscular system to resist fatigue. As we go on in the race fatigue means your body is able to recruit less muscle fibres, and the fibres that can be recruited will produce far less power. In short, running becomes very very hard work and we slow down. Through training we can make our neuromuscular system and muscle fibres more resistant to fatigue.

How to improve:

Increase weekly mileage/run frequency (lots of ‘easy’ runs)

Increase long run distance

Short (6-10 second) strides or hill sprints to develop neuromuscular fitness

  1. Fuel Efficiency:

At low exercise intensities the body burns a high proportion of fat compared to carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is stored as glycogen in the body. As exercise intensity increases the body is forced to use more glycogen than fat. Glycogen is very efficient to metabolise (turn into energy) but we have very limited reserves of it. We have almost unlimited fat reserves, but fat is relatively slow to metabolise. When glycogen runs out we can only burn fat and we hit the dreaded ‘wall’. Training to increase the size of glycogen stores as well as improving the body’s efficiency at metabolising fat is essential to improving fuel efficiency.

How to improve:

Increase long run distance

Include faster sections on long run

Run in fatigued/fasted state (do not do unless experienced)

  1. Aerobic Fitness

We are using this as a catch-all phrase for general aerobic fitness; simply put, aerobic fitness is the ability of our bodies to supply oxygen to the muscles and the ability of those muscles to use that oxygen to create energy to produce movement. Running any distance above 800m is primarily an aerobic activity, and marathon running is no different. Marathon running entirely depends on the ability of the body to create energy using oxygen.

How to improve:

Tempo runs (10k to half marathon pace)


Marathon pace long runs

Training Focus – It’s Personal

Marathon runners of all abilities are required to train all of the above. Which elements are more important depends on the speed (and so intensity) of the marathon runner’s pace. Physiologically running an average 4-5 hour marathon or a world class 2 hour marathon should be thought of very differently.

What Should My Marathon Training Focus Be?

For most runners who are relative beginners and looking to finish in any time (5+ hours) then muscular endurance is by far the most important element required to complete a marathon. We need to train our muscles to sustain the 5+ hours of effort it takes to complete the 42 km course, regardless of speed. Aerobically the beginner will find they are running the marathon at relatively easy pace. For the beginner muscular fatigue is the main enemy.

As the speed of the marathon runner increases, fuel efficiency starts to become more important as glycogen becomes the primary fuel source instead of fat at lower intensities. If pace or fuel plans are misjudged, the dreaded wall awaits – many a veteran marathon runner can tell you all about this!

Faster still, and aerobic fitness starts to play a more important role as the runner is racing at a relatively fast pace (even for them). Fuel efficiency is still important, but if we consider a world class marathon runner, running just over 2 hours, the marathon is less of an endurance event and more of speed endurance event. Aerobic ability is the key determinant of marathon performance at a world class level.

The Next Step…

In summary, knowing your target time or goals going into the race (based on current ability) is key to determining your overall training philosophy and physiological adaptations to target.

As a start point there are countless training programs online. However remember your body, your targets and your time commitments are all unique. If you really want to get the most from your marathon training, whether it’s your first or if you’re targeting a big PB, we recommend enlisting the services of a running coach. The unique service and feedback a coach can provide are invaluable to a runner. Find your perfect coach on the We Are Runners Coach Directory.

Most of all, enjoy the journey!