It’s the New Year and you’ve decided to set your sights on completing a full marathon—26.2 glorious miles! Good for you! Undoubtedly, you’ve been building up to this goal and you’ve found a training plan that suits your fitness level. But you probably still have a lot of questions. As a long-distance runner and half-marathon record holder, here’s the one I get more often than not: “What is the most important run I can do to prepare for a marathon?”
While a 15-mile tempo run (where you run 15 miles straight at marathon goal pace) ranks high, I’d have to say that a marathon simulation run is my go-to training method. So what is a “marathon simulation” and why does it lay the groundwork for the best race-day training?
This workout was introduced to me by coach Terrence Mahon, who led me through the first 5 years of my professional running career. I’m not sure if he was the one who originally came up with it, or if it was passed down from another sage, but I know some of the best American marathoners have this workout to thank.
A marathon simulation run is so effective because it mimics the intensity of a marathon without over taxing your body. I’ve done 18-mile tempo runs before marathons, and felt they made me go too deep, leaving me feeling flat for the race. But a marathon simulation run is challenging without pushing you to the point of pre-race exhaustion. To me, it’s the perfect marathoners’ workout. Now that you’re chomping at the bit to learn more, here’s how to get started:
Marathon Simulation Guidelines
- Do a marathon simulation run every two weeks during the last 12 weeks before your marathon.
- Make sure your last simulation is three weeks prior to your marathon (no sooner, no later).
- Make sure you last simulation is your longest.
If you’re an amateur: Your longest marathon-pace distance for a marathon simulation run shouldn’t surpass 10 miles. The workout: Run up to 10 miles at a pace 1-minute slower than your goal marathon pace. Then change into your running flats (the shoes you plan to wear on race day) and run another 10 miles at goal marathon pace. Finish with a two-mile cooldown.
If you’re a pro: Aim for 12 miles. The workout: Run up to 12 miles at a pace 1-minute slower than your goal marathon pace. Then change into your running flats and run another 12 miles at goal marathon pace. Finish by shuffling through a 2-mile cooldown, if possible.
Work up to your longest simulation by adding a mile to both sections of the run every two weeks until you hit your longest run. Here’s an example: If your first attempt is 7 miles, first at a pace that’s one-minute slower than goal marathon pace and then at marathon pace followed by a two mile cooldown, your next attempt two weeks later would be 8, 8, 2; your 3rd attempt would be 9, 9, 2, and your 4th would be 10, 10, 2.
These marathon simulation runs are so effective because they have you running hard on tired legs, which is exactly what you are going to experience 20 miles into the race. Not only does this introduce your body to the stress of running hard when tired on a physiological level, it’s an equally powerful mental training technique. When you’re deep into a marathon simulation run, you’ll be battling and channeling your thoughts just as you would during the race. Put simply, marathon simulations allow you to practice what you want to be thinking about when the going gets tough.
Lastly, completing a hard 22- or 26-mile marathon simulation run should bolster your confidence that you’re ready to go the distance. And, when you’re lining up at the start line on race day, having confidence in your ability is key.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.