Pfitzinger Talks Marathon Training

Thu, 6 June 2013 - 1:27 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Olympic marathoner, coach, author, and exercise physiologist Pete Pfitzinger now works with High Performance Sport New Zealand in developing that country’s elite athletes. In January, he gave a webinar for health and fitness publisher Human Kinetics entitled Marathon Training: How to Optimize Your Training Program to Reach Your Potential. As we in the Northern Hemisphere continue spring training, let’s look at some insights from Pete about the different types of marathon training runs and what they are meant to achieve.

Training timelines. Most seasoned runners know that marathoners should allow at least 12 and as much as 20 weeks to train after an established base. This is due in part to the fact that it’s not advisable to try to improve more than two aspects of your running performance at the same time. Therefore, you simply need at least three months to work in all types of marathon preparation runs. 

New marathoners, note that many coaches consider an appropriate base six to 12 months of running at an absolute minimum of 15 to 20 miles per week. This is only half of peak training for basic, first-time marathoning and is essential before escalating to marathon mileage build-up. You also want to have a long-run base of at least one-third of your peak long training runs (which will top out at 18 to 22 miles). 

Using heart rate. When discussing the various training run types, Pfitzinger reminds us that heart rate is a useful measure of effort. Understanding goal effort for each workout means monitoring your heart rate to avoid training mistakes—both too intense and not intense enough are avoidable pitfalls with the use of a heart rate monitor. There are now even heart rate apps for smart phones that allow you to simply hold your finger over your phone’s camera to obtain heart rate info. It’s becoming ever easier, then, to make sure you’re in the correct zone for your scheduled run.

The following table represents the optimal heart rate zones, from most to least intense, for each of the seven training run types we’ll be discussing. In a future article, we’ll hear Pfitzinger’s advice on tapering, which can be thought of as the eighth training type since exertion (not simply mileage) changes, and it is essential to ensure that you are both fit and fresh for a personal best on race day.  


Training Run Type

Percent of Maximal Heart Rate (% of MHR)







Marathon pace


Long runs


General aerobic runs


Recovery runs




Determining MHR. Your heart rate starts low and builds up during the course of a run, hence the berth in target range. To determine your MHR, Pfitzinger advises that you warm up thoroughly for 20 minutes, and then run 3 x 600 meters up a hill at a very hard pace. The rests in between should be about three minutes of easy jogging. At the end of your third—and very probably even your second—repetition, you will be very close to or at your MHR.

The seven runs in detail. VO2max training, the most intense of your marathon training runs, should occur at about 5K race pace. Novice runners, this might be more like 3K pace, or a hard-running pace that you can only keep up for about 15 minutes. 

Also known as interval training, the goal of VO2max running is to teach the body to grab and use oxygen more efficiently. Jack Daniels has written extensively about manipulating recovery times and interval distances to maximize the time you spend at VO2max during these workouts. He remains adamant that running intensity should never change. Simply shorten recovery times to keep your heart rate in the target zone that optimizes the benefits of this type of training. Daniels’ other golden rule is never run intervals over five minutes in length—the fatigue is simply too great, outweighing any benefits and risking compromised workouts later in the week. You might try 2 x 1600 meters, followed by 2 x 1200 meters, then 2 x 800 meters. Recover with easy jogging in between for a duration slightly less—never more—than the duration it took you to complete the interval distance. 

The main idea behind VO2max training is to get your heart rate down to about 70% of maximum during recovery, then go again before it slows further. Timing your intervals rather than relying on a set distance is the easiest way to make sure you’re performing them correctly. 

Tempo runs are similar to VO2max runs but they are performed considerably slower. By way of example, if your MHR is 185 bpm, you would perform your tempo runs at between 152 and 168 bpm. 

Tempo runs improve your blood lactate threshold. These runs should be accomplished at a pace you feel you could maintain for approximately one hour in a race situation. But because they are 20- to 40-minute runs, they do not (or should not) tax the body with all-out effort. Tempo runs require a 20-minute warm-up and a 15-minute cool-down. The running that actually occurs at 82 to 91% of MHR may sometimes only be for 25 minutes, but this is sufficient to improve your anaerobic threshold if you do these runs regularly. 

The third-highest intensity on your marathon training schedule is running completed under the category known as speed training. These runs are fast, yet relaxed. A good way to describe the perceived effort appropriate to speedwork is to call it “rapid and tolerable.” This type of training is good for running economy, including such diverse elements of racing as oxygen use, turnover, and stride length. You might try 80- to 120-meter reps, on a track, for a total of 16 reps. Try striking out comfortably fast on the straight-aways, followed by easy jogging on the bends in between each next straight-away.

A variation that utilizes inclined running might include 10 to 15 seconds up a moderate hill, four times, while jogging back down in between. Next, jog for five minutes, then repeat for another session of four. 

Continuing in descending order of intensity, we next have marathon pace runs, which are a version of the long run discussed in greater detail below. Pfitzinger says that marathon pace runs are best structured something like this: three easy miles followed by 14 miles at or near race pace, and then one mile of recovery running, for a total of 18 miles.

Recall from the chart that your marathon pace should be 79 to 88% of MHR, with the low end of the range settling in after your three mile warm-up, and then eventually reaching but not exceeding the high end anywhere after that. 

Runs are generally considered long runs when they are about 16 miles or more. This type of training should occur 10 to 20% slower than marathon race pace—and not much slower. This is in contrast to the once-popular idea of long slow distance that many runners are still accustomed to hearing about. The latter term implies that runs of any pace are optimally adaptive; just get the actual mileage on your legs. In Pfitzinger’s view, running too slowly simply results in insufficient specificity of training for your desired finish time. In fact, if you have a training schedule that permits once-a-week long runs, it’s useful to make one or two of these at race pace if possible. Do favor soft trails on these runs, and don’t increase them in distance by more than 10% per week. (Jack Daniels has said, and Pfitzinger agrees, that you’re wise not to add more than one mile per week to any given run.)

The last two runs can be replaced with crosstraining to taste. General aerobic running occurs at about 15 to 25% slower than marathon race pace. Though common and frequent, and therefore a substantial amount of your overall training volume, this training type is not the most important type. Keep your heart rate at 70 to 81% of MHR for between 45 and 70 minutes, and you can choose spinning, swimming, or elliptical exercise in lieu of much of this general aerobic running.

A word about “medium-long” runs: though not really a separate category, in between the roughly hour-long runs we call general aerobic and the long runs of 16 miles or more, Pfitzinger categorizes anything between 11 and 15 miles as “medium-long.” Each week, it’s advisable to try for both a long run and a medium-long run. His rule of thumb here is that if your long run at the outset of training is 12 miles, you should be able to achieve at least one long run in the 21- to 22-mile range three or four weeks before your race. But a runner whose greatest distance on a single run is only, say, eight miles at the outset of training will not likely be ready for a 20-miler before race day on the 12-week training plan. Do allow more like 18 weeks for total marathon training if this is your current longest distance.

Finally, runs with a target heart rate between 60 and 75% of MHR are considered recovery runs. This type of training is vital as it pumps blood through your muscles to help you repair, rebuild, and refuel. However, like general aerobic training, these runs can be substituted with the crosstraining activity of your choice. Easily spinning for 45 minutes is appropriate, as is a 30- to 40-minute easy run. In the 185 bpm MHR example, the target heart rate here would be 139 bpm or lower.

Do not forget that there is a recovery week every forth week in your training cycle as well. Decrease your mileage by 20% for that week. Decrease intensity along with it—avoid intervals and speedwork, and deploy a less intense version of the tempo run that week.


Human Kinetics, “Marathon Training: How to Optimize Your Training Program to Reach Your Potential” by Pete Pfitzinger, webinar, Jan 18, 2012,



(RUNNING & FITNEWS® March / April 2012 • Volume 30, Number 2)


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