To Get Ready for a Sub-3 Marathon, You Need a Stiff “Marathon Test” Workout
Runners aiming for a sixth decade of sub-3-hour marathons all have a favorite test run to probe their readiness and build their confidence.
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A few tough men—and one woman—have run a marathon under 3 hours in every one of the five decade since the ’70s. Now that the 2020s have rolled around, some of them are still fit and fast enough to aim for their 6th decade sub-3. In our first article about the 6DS3 group, we introduced a few of them and in our second article, shared their secrets to longevity.
What does it take to run a sub-3-hour marathon for five decades, going on six? It takes a lot: good health, great motivation, consistent training, a sound diet, an eye on the bathroom scale, and much more. But nothing is more important than confidence—the firm belief that you can crack the 3-hour barrier.
For most runners, including the 6DS3 aspirants who will be aiming to break 3:00 hours again this year, confidence comes from a high-effort workout. Some call it a “marathon test” workout, some “marathon prep,” and some just say “It’s my ‘go-to’ workout.”
By any name, this one hurts. You probably need a couple of days just to psych yourself up for it. But if things go well, the reward is substantial. When you stand on the marathon start line, you’ll feel confident that you can knock out 26.2 miles at 6:52/mile or under.
Here are some of the favorite marathon-test workouts used by runners chasing 6DS3 this year.
Antonio Arreola: 60, 5’ 8”, 165 lbs; San Jose, CA
Arreola alternates 60-mile weeks with one 70+ week per month. His favorite marathon-prep workout is a 4- to 5-mile tempo run on the track, where he aims to average sub-6:00 with a negative-split effort. Recently, he ran 4 miles in 6:03, 6:01, 5:58, 5:53.
Chris Finill: 61, 6’ 0”, 167 lbs; London, England
Finill has finished all 39 London Marathons (going on 40), in part because he forces himself through a harsh test two months before London. On a typically damp, cold midweek evening in February, Finill jogs over to a local track. There he runs a solo 10,000 meters as hard as he can. “If I can run in the mid-38’s or so, I figure I’ll be okay for a sub-3 at London,” he says.
Kerry Green: 65, 5’ 11”, 160 lbs; Mansfield, OH
In one standard pre-marathon workout, Green runs twice around a hilly 9-mile loop (“Clear Fork Reservoir”). He aims for marathon pace the first 9-miles, then, between 12 – 17 miles of the second 9 mile loop, he tries to run at half marathon race pace. He reinforces this run by hitting the track twice in his final four-week. Once he aims for 8-10 x 800 meters in 2:52. The next time, he does 4-5 x 1-mile in about 6:00. These efforts aren’t getting any easier. “I used to call them speed work,” says Green. “Now they’re just plain work.”
Jim Garcia: 61, 5’ 9”, 150 lbs; Westford, MA
Garcia, a mechanical engineer, notes that a solid race, at any distance, is nearly always the best gauge of what you can do in another race—the marathon. He swears by a “rule” that says your pace slows by 15 seconds/mile every time you double the distance. For example, if he can run 6:00 pace for 5K, he can also run 6:15s for 10K, 6:30s for 20K (or half marathon), and 6:45s for 40K (or marathon). In other words, he’s ready for a sub-3:00.
Peter Lagoy: 60, 6’ 0”, 162 lbs; Hopkinton, MA
Lagoy says he has followed the Hanson’s Marathon Method prior to his recent marathons, meaning that he doesn’t worry about 20-milers. Instead, he focuses on 10-mile threshold runs at marathon pace. “If I can do that workout,” he says, “I feel pretty confident I can hit my goal in my marathon race.”
Mark Murray: 57, 5’ 9”, 145 lbs; Davis, CA
Murray believes he’s a better racer than trainer, and doesn’t include a must-do workout in his pre-marathon peaking program. That said, he has a favorite tempo run that he reserves for three weeks before his marathon. In it, he’ll run three 3-mile repeats at a slightly accelerating pace: 6:30s, 6:25s, and then 6:15s per repeat.
Steve Schmidt: 59, 5’ 11”, 155 lbs; Orion Township, MI
Schmidt is one of several 6DS3 runners who enjoys testing his fitness with a strong “progression run”—a moderately long effort that begins modestly enough but gets faster and faster as the miles accumulate. In December, he did a 14 miler that started at 7:30 pace, and dropped to sub-7:00s by the midway point. He kept applying pressure, and covered the last 4 miles in 6:45, 6:41, 6:23, and 6:18. “This was a good convincer for me leading up to the Houston Marathon [Jan. 19],” he says.
Tim Schuler: 57, 5’ 7”, 145 lbs; Letitiz, PA
Back in the days when he sometimes ran with U.S. Olympic marathoner Steve Spence, Schuler learned one of Spence’s tricks: Run on the track. The distance doesn’t lie, and you can set up a hydration table to practice drinking while running hard. Schuler likes to do a 10-miler on the track at 10 to 15 seconds faster than goal marathon pace. Occasionally, he’ll also tackle that old standby—20 x 400 with 100-meter jogs. In training for Boston, where he’ll attempt a 6DS3, Schuler hopes to average 85-86 for his 400s.
(Note: We only learned about Schuler last week after he read the first article in this series. He’s not on the ARRS list of 5DS3 runners, but ran two marathons, including a 2:44, as a 17-year-old in 1979, and won the 1997 Vermont City Marathon in 2:18:58.)
Bob Schwelm: 60, 6′ 2″, 160 lbs; Media, PA
Schwelm says he doesn’t have a particular “marathon test run,” but recently completed a workout similar to Schmidt’s, but even more granular. Schwelm’s 16-mile run included an easy beginning, some middle-miles fartlek, and a hard 2-mile stretch near the end. Specifically, he ran these three key segments: 6 miles dropping from 7:50 to 7:06; 5 miles of 60 seconds/60 seconds “on and off” pickups with an average pace of 7:30; and 2 miles in 6:40 and 6:36.
Nick Sirs: 63, 5’ 6”, 140 lbs; Grayshott, England
Sirs follows a pattern similar to Kerry Green’s, above. It has a double focus. First, he likes to get his long run up to 3 hours. “If I can feel good for that long, then I figure I’m ready to cope with a marathon,” he notes. He also has two favorite interval sessions that he tries to complete in the final month of preparation: 6-8 x 1000 meters in about 3:30, and 4-5 x 1-mile in just under 6:00 each.
Greg Skopec: 58, 5’ 8”, 140 lbs; Coralville, IA
Skopec likes to get ready for his marathons with a 12 to 15-mile run at marathon pace. He tracks his heart rate, and hopes to see it at 150 to 155 to make sure he’s not pushing too hard.
As an alternative, he might race a half marathon with a target finish-time of 1:25.
Steve Smythe: 61, 6’ 0”, 158 lbs; London, England
Like several others, Smythe concentrates his marathon-peaking efforts on a combination of marathon-pace running, and appropriately-faster track sessions. On the long end of things, he likes to do an 18 to 20-mile run with half the distance at his goal marathon pace. When he moves to the track, Smythe aims for 10 x 800 in 2:55 with a 2:05 recovery between repeats.
Next article in series: Who’s going to be first to hit the 6DS3 goal? It could happen Sunday in Houston.
(Amby Burfoot won the 1968 Boston Marathon. He offers KISS Training Programs (Keep It Simple & Smart) at RunWithAmby.com.)