Woman giving high fives at the end of a race

Why You Need
to Train on the Track

By Molly Huddle, Saucony Athlete

Whether you have a wicked streak of Boston finishes or are stepping up to your first 26.2 start line, you’re probably familiar with the importance of mileage, the confidence gained from tempo runs and the sacredness of the “Sunday Long Run.” These are the time-tested building blocks of marathon training.

A lesser known tip I have found useful in the marathon buildup is to include some faster track sessions into what I affectionately call “the slog”. Before your calves cramp at the thought of putting on spikes, let me explain!

The way I’ve used track reps as a marathon workout is different than how I would approach them in a season where I’m targeting shorter races like 5K and 10K. With the marathon, the focus is on long reps, tempo runs and even the long run becomes like a workout. I do the faster workouts less frequently, and the times are less important to hit as precisely as during track season. As far as emphasis, the track days take on a similar intensity level as the long run used to during my 5K days: get it done, the pace is somewhat flexible, and it should complement the rest of the training but not make you so tired that it takes anything away from the more important days.

There are a few benefits to these speedier sessions:

They Freshen the Legs
While you are building marathon-level endurance in your heart, lungs and legs with all the mileage, you may also find yourself trudging through tired days in the middle of those multi-month marathon buildups due to muscle fatigue and glycogen depletion. It’s good to give your legs a break every week and a half to two weeks with a workout where the volume isn’t so high. Although the pace has somewhat of a sting, I still found these days borderline delightful when they would pop up on my training schedule because they were less of a physical grind and felt like they were over relatively quickly, leaving me with some energy (I know I make marathon training sound brutal but it’s really rewarding!).

They Keep You Moving Well
A lot of the threshold work required to get you through the marathon is in a narrow pace range, so it’s a lot of the same movement ranges for your hips, knees and ankles. The risk for overuse injuries is definitely there! If you feel stiff and “shuffley,” that is actually a good sign as you are likely becoming more economical, which is a strength in the marathon world. However, these faster track workouts are great for putting your legs through a bigger range of motion. They force you to stretch out potentially overly-stiff hip flexors and activate glutes that may have gone on strike. Waking these up will keep you healthy, keep the tissue load on areas that can handle it better, and keep you moving smoother and feeling less flat on your regular run days.

They Make Marathon Pace Feel Easier
The faster paced track reps have a muscle-memory benefit as well. It’s similar to the reasoning behind adding a speed development day to a track training program, but the risk / reward scale is less favorable to busting out 100m reps when you’re training for a multi-hour race. I always feel like 5K-ish pace reps of less than a mile are short and fast enough for me in marathon training! Getting your legs familiar with the faster pace will make the tempo and long rep days feel smoother and easier in comparison. It also never hurts to have some power in the legs when you find yourself racing up hills or kicking in to the finish.

They Keep In Touch With An Important System
Threshold workouts and fuel efficiency gained from long runs rule in the marathon but V02 max is still somewhat important. Track sessions like mile repeats and kilometer repeats are great for keeping this oxygen-delivery system strong.

So, how do you approach these track workouts in a buildup? There are a few ways, but the way I’m familiar with is to make every third or fourth workout a track day. The focus isn’t too much on volume as the reps equal anywhere from 4-6 miles that day which is about half the volume of our threshold days. For example, my favorite marathon track workouts are simple ones like 8-10 by 1000m or 800 repeats. Fueling is less important during these workouts, in comparison to the long tempos or long runs where I’m taking in Gatorade Endurance gels every 30 mins or so en route. Just make sure you are getting a recovery snack within the 30-60 minute post-workout window that includes a generally recommended 3:1 carbohydrate / protein ratio and about 1.8 g protein / kg body weight for repairing the slight muscle tears that faster workouts tends to create (which can then be reinforced by said recovery snack into stronger muscles than you had before! Progress!)

As far as the pace of these workouts, I tend to touch on 5-10K pace, but the point is to get the legs moving so if it’s a really tiring phase of training I don’t overreach for the time, and give myself a few seconds of wiggle room to ease into the pace. It’s hard to compare these days to my pre-marathon days, because the paces feel so much harder with all the work in your legs. That’s normal, but you should notice the next workout or two will feel a little easier and you may have a little more spring in your step.

Best of luck in your marathon “slog”, it’s one of the most epic challenges in sports, in my opinion! Just don’t forget the little (rep) guys — it can give your training a refreshing boost!