Advanced Guide to Marathon Improvement
I have read altogether too many articles claiming “tips” and “habits” that will help a person perform better in their long distance sport (marathon, triathlon, etc), yet offer general, often useless information due to, what I assume to be, laziness on the part of the writer. As I have taken up the call to educate myself to the fullest extent I can, and in so doing, help others with specific, usable information, I am now before you telling you that I will help you better your endurance sport time with the methods I will detail for you here. Without further ado, let us begin.
Likely, you’ve been at your sport for a while now, and although this article is dedicated to all trying to improve, I believe it will be most beneficial to those frustrated by plateaus from enduring countless miles of training with little to no improvements; in other words, veterans of the sport. However, for those of you that feel various forms of aerobic training would be beneficial to your training, that mentality is a double edged sword. In truth, if you want to be a better runner, you need to run for a vast majority of your training. The same applies for bicyclists, rowers, and so on.
Not that various forms of exercise should be avoided, but a majority of your training should come from your specific competing sport as other forms of exercise may help, they do not emulate the conditions of the competition like, well, the sport you are competing in.
Simple, but effective.
What to do: If you’re a runner, run. If you’re a cyclist, cycle. So on.
Train Your Fuel
Now, while it is necessary to focus the majority of your effort on your sport, this does not mean one cannot train differently within that sport. For example, a marathoner will need to run a certain distance in a certain time, and yes, to get better, they will have to run; however, running relatively aimlessly is not the answer. As with anything you’d like to improve in, you should have a plan. In that plan, you should incorporate a large amount of LISS (low intensity steady state) running to facilitate the need to travel long distances without wearing out – this isn’t news. On the other hand, to think that avoiding HIIT (high intensity interval training) is also doing you a disservice.
While HIIT will not make you run faster in the long run, it will help you in short bursts when you need to climb a hill, speed up the pace for a short duration, or simply allow the body to have a slightly higher glycogen amount as, in respect to total glycogen, muscles hold a significant portion (1). The higher your total glycogen stores pre-endurance training, the longer you can endurance train, and as HIIT supplies greater glycogen levels, this is a prime opportunity to improve in several categories (2).
This isn’t discussed enough and I understand why, because it’s a relatively difficult variable to manipulate. If you’ve followed the likes of Lance Armstrong or other world class athletes, you’ll know that they do quite a bit of lactate testing.
In short, lactate is a product of glucose metabolism in the face of low or non-existent oxygen. Essentially, if your body can not deliver enough oxygen to the muscles, the muscles produce lactate. This lactate is felt when, during exercise, one feels burning sensation throughout the working muscles and can eventually reach a point in which it inhibits exercise altogether.
Back to the lactate threshold, if you are running, you would prefer not to be accumulating lactate, as high lactate is a sign that will force your muscles to slow down or stop entirely. So, there is a metabolic shift from energy with no lactate (low intensity exercise) to energy with lactate (high intensity exercise), and that cross over point is called the lactate threshold.
Why do we care about Lactate Threshold?
You may not, but that’s why you’re not maximizing your aerobic ability. The lactate threshold tells you to what intensity you can consistently run mile after mile without gassing out inexplicably. If you exercise long distance under your lactate threshold, then your muscles will keep serving you faithfully, but once you push them beyond that point, you will find your muscles will eventually stop on you. So, the reason why any of this is important is because you need to figure out your relative lactate threshold so you can train right under it without making the mistake of going over; or, better yet, bumping your lactate threshold up so that you can run at a faster pace without your muscles turning to lactate, and consequently going Brutus on you.
Physiologists can measure lactate in the blood and do so effectively every minute when doing a lactate test to determine where a person’s lactate threshold begins and how quickly the body can shuttle lactate out (3). This effectively tells them how to push the athlete’s lactate threshold up.
How does that help you?
Scientifically, it does tell us of the next variable we should try and manipulate, but unless you have a team of physiologists and lactate testing equipment, this is pretty useless. However, there are less exact, but still useful ways of finding one’s lactate threshold that do not require a team of scientists by your side. In this case, we will be using the 30 minute lactate test (10).
30 Minute Lactate Test
What you will need:
Heart rate monitor
Step 1: Warm up.
Step 2: Start timer and distance measure/heart monitor. Begin running at an intensity that fully challenges you (you cannot talk while running), but you can sustain this speed for 30 minutes.
Step 3: After the 30 minutes are up (as indicated by your timer), you will look at the distance traveled or heart monitor.
Step 4: Taking distance traveled (in meters) and dividing that number by 1800 seconds, you will be offered your estimated lactate threshold. Or, taking your heart rate immediately after exercise (preferably during, as well), taking that average as your lactate threshold heart rate.You know your lactate threshold (in m/s or HR), now what?Well, there are a few options on how to use the information.
Basic Lactate Threshold Training Methods
1. One can run at lactate threshold (as measured by distance/time) anywhere from 15-45 minutes, depending on ability (5).
2. Running intervals of 4 times 1 mile at lactate threshold before relaxing on pace for a minute between bouts (5).
3. Running regular, comfortable pace until the last 5-6 miles in which one would run at lactate threshold (5).
If you base your lactate threshold on heart rate, then your intensity should be around 5-15 BPM below your measured average heart rate during lactate threshold testing (4).
There are several options on how to use this information, but the bottom line is to push the body around that lactate threshold to then elevate that threshold further. Possibly retesting said threshold every several months to see if any improvement has occurred.
Although VO2 max is a point of solid debate on if it truly does help in long distance performance, there is a strong relationship between performance and VO2 max in sub optimal VO2 maxes, so I feel it important to mention (9). If you are not familiar with the term, VO2 max is the most amount of oxygen a person can use. As you know, oxygen is vital for long distance performance, and as that is the case, increasing the amount we can consume and use is right up there in important ways to improve. Trained individuals have seen little benefit from VO2 work, but untrained persons should certainly try and improve VO2 max considering what data does exist, does show strong correlation (9).
Hydration has a strong influence on blood volume and through its impact on blood volume, has an impact on the heart. As we sweat, we lose water (duh..), and as we lose water, our body has to adjust to that loss by changing various variables. Those variables make up a phenomenon called the cardiac drift. The cardiac drift is the shift of cardiovascular responses as exercise commences and sustains. In this case, stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out of the heart per beat) is reduced and to compensate, heart rate increases to maintain cardiac output (SV x HR). Not only that, glycogen is used at a faster rate and lactate levels increase when body temperature rises (11)(12). As we release 80% of our body heat through evaporation during exercise, it is wise to give the body enough water to do so effectively (14).
What to do: Drink water or some sports drink before, during, and post exercise (13). Not revolutionary, but at least you know why now.
Now I feel satisfied. You have now been equipped with advanced techniques on how to markedly improve your performance in a slew of aerobic events. If you incorporate these techniques into your training effectively, you will see increases in performance. You should now understand the basics of each point, why each is important to your success, and how to optimize your training based on each point provided.
As simple as this is, some people do not consider the profound effect this has on their system. In essence, try to spend a week or more in the competition environment (if you plan on doing a meet in Florida, you should train some in Florida), because the body needs some time to adjust itself to the climate. This will make a difference when competition time comes around. The benefits of this practice are numerous:
Sweating Earlier/More Efficiently
As unappealing as that sounds, the better able your body is at cooling you down, the better it will perform. So, a more active person will actually sweat sooner than a less active person, and the same is true of a trainee who has acclimated to their environment.
Skin Blood Flow Restricted
Although this may sound like something you may not want, it actually means more blood is then shuttled to the muscles and this, in turn, will increase performance in various ways (lactate shuttle, oxygen delivery, carbon dioxide discharge, etc).
Blood Volume Increase
Your body dictates how much blood you carry, and one of the influences on your body is your environment. As such, if your environment has high humidity, high heat, or both, your body compensates by increasing blood volume for delivery.
Heart Rate/Stroke Volume
Earlier I mentioned that a lack of water leads the body to an increase in heart rate and decrease in stroke volume. Well, if you allow the body time to acclimate, those changes aren’t as severe compared to a non-acclimated trainee.
Glycogen Use Decreases
Similarly, I mentioned this earlier, the over use of glycogen in hot weather decreases due to acclimation, as well.
What to do: Get into your event environment about a week early, train in similar environments.
Overall, make sure you train your sport, but be sure to not ignore high intensity work. Train just under your lactate threshold, and if you feel it worthy, increase your VO2 maximum. As competition rolls around, be sure to take 3-4 days off prior to the event and take in a large quantity of carbohydrates during those days. Within hours of the competition, be sure to drink enough fluids, and during competition as well. Finally, if possible, arrive at your competition venue (if it is in a different state, for example) a week early to allow your body to acclimate to the environment. If not, then imitate that environment as best you can. Happy training!
What is your VO2 Max?
Well, I know a lot of people do not enjoy math (most days, I hate it, too), so instead of me writing it all out long hand (it can be a lengthy equation), simply click HERE (8) and it will take you to several calculators to find your relative VO2 max.
VO2 Max acquired, now what?
Most aerobic exercise (what most people do when they are running) tends to be submaximal and it is thought that style of exercise can increase VO2 max in its own right, while providing the benefit of having lower risk of injury (7). However, a series of studies showed that the same, if not better, results could be achieved by training between 90-100% of VO2 max (7)(9). This heightened intensity is especially necessary for trained individuals that will see small (if any) results.
What to do: For all trainees to see results, train between 90-100% of VO2 max between 35-45 minutes, 2-4 times a week.
Again, let me reiterate that most agree that high intensity VO2 max range (90-100%) is the most beneficial, and offers the best chance for VO2 max increase in untrained (definitely) and trained (possibly). That being said, VO2 max and performance and strongly linked, but we need more research to definitively say they are cause and effect.
If you understand what periodization is, then likely you already incorporate tapering in your programming, but if you do not, listen up, because come competition time, this will make a huge difference in performance. What if I told you if you did less work you would do better in your competition? Some of you might think that’s stupid, and in a certain light, it can be, but to your body its almost like a magic performance pill if done correctly.
The idea is you train for several months at varying intensities, go about your individual training, what have you, and then the week of the competition you take off and do not perform any form of exercise. Your body, as we know, needs glycogen to perform in any event, and training right up to competition actually subdues the body’s ability to maximize glycogen levels. Famous studies by a physiologist named Christensen in the late 1930s showed that carbohydrate consumption 2-3 days prior to an event increased the amount of glycogen available for use during the event (2). So, the cessation of training a few days before the event while a high intake of carbohydrates allows for the full amount of necessary glycogen to replete. Another piece of interesting information is the rate of glycogen replenishment takes at least 20 hours to fully go from depleted to replenished, often this process will take longer than 20 hours, however (2).
What to do: Cease training at least 3 days before competition, consume large quanitites of carbohydrates.
Let us hit a simple note. Everyone knows hydration is important, but few people really understand why. Hydration in an aerobic event, especially, is not only important for safety reasons, but actually serves as a performance boost, as well. If we were to compare a person who did not hydrate peri-workout to a person who does, we would see some physiological differences in several areas leading to better performance for the one who chose to hydrate.
Written: Nicolas Verhoeven
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14. Wilmore, & Costill. (n.d.). Thermal Regulation and Exercise. Retrieved June 26, 2015, from
Illustrations (In order of appearance):
So, to reiterate, on an acute performance level, having an added amount of fast twitch fibers as supplied with HIIT could prove useful when bursts of higher intensity are needed, as well as increasing muscle glycogen levels (although, I could not find a figure on how much the increase would be – presumably small, but still impactful).
What to do: Incorporate HIIT (sprints, high velocity cycling, for example) 2-3 times a week.