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Spring Marathon & Tempo vs. Threshold Training

Posted by: on January, 10 2012

Coach Jay,

Thanks for sharing your time, knowledge and resources. I have 2 questions:

I am about to embark on a build up for a spring marathon.I understand that 80-90% of my mileage should be easy miles focusing on “time on feet,” and aerobic capacity. However, should I be throwing in a faster paced run once a week/every other week? Should I incorporate strides once or twice a week? I’m planning for a 12 week base, do you recommend workouts focused on different things near the end of the base period to get you ready for faster running?

Second, what is your understanding of tempo vs. threshold. In my opinion the word “threshold” is used as a ventilatory marker, and tempo is a pace, i.e. marathon pace, half marathon pace, 10k, 5k etc. I know the words are interchanged all the time, and different coaches use each for different things a lot of, but I’m curious what your opinion is.

Thanks again!

Danny Fisher, Personal Trainer, Tipton Lakes Athletic Club


Thanks for the questions Danny – they’re all important if you want to reach your potential for the marathon. We don’t have the space to cover all of them, but let me highlight the two that are the most important to consider.

My first recommendation would be to go back to the 2011 Chicago Marathon Training page and read through Matt and Kate’s training. I guided them through a sound 16-week program and they did a great job communicating when they felt well and when they felt fatigued, allowing us to alter the original plan.

While you didn’t give your PRs or your current level of training, I’m going to assume that since you’re a personal trainer, you’re fit enough to run under four hours. In that case your numbers of, “80-90% of my mileage should be easy miles,” is a bit off. You’ll do lots of easy miles during your 12-week program, but I wouldn’t consider your weekly long run easy miles – and that’s going to be at least 20% of your weekly volume. Add one threshold run into the week and now you’re running more like 65% of your miles easy, with the other 35% at a higher aerobic level. Then, you may be asked to do a third high level aerobic run each week, and if so the amount of easy running you’ll be doing will be well below 60%. Now, the good news is that few people quantify their mileage this way, but rather make sure their weekly micro-cycle is sound. I like the following: long run on Saturday, easy run Sunday, easy run with strides on Monday, workout Tuesday, then Wednesday run a bit longer than an easy day, but keep it easy, then short and sweet on Thursday, then easy Friday but with some faster strides. If the rhythm to your week is sound then the percentages of easy running vs. high level aerobic running are going to take care of themselves.

In regards to threshold vs. tempo question, I use the term threshold as a reminder that there’s a ventilatory threshold past which our breathing becomes more labored. You should feel like you’re racing a 5k or 10k – challenging but controlled. Threshold running is not easy or slow, but not as fast as 5k race pace repeats either. The key is learning the middle pace where you’re running hard but in control. To me, the term tempo quickly brings to mind the concept of rhythm, and while I love using the rhythm when talking about various race paces, I think tempo is used too broadly. Also, if you aim to run just under, (i.e. just slower than,) your ventilatory threshold, most people can only do this for 4 or 5 miles, and that’s their threshold run when training for a marathon. That doesn’t mean they can’t do a hard 10 miler or race a half marathon in their marathon preparation, but they’ll be doing it slower than their threshold run pace. While some programs may have 5 mile tempos and 10 mile tempos, I would say you have one threshold pace and hope to do it for four miles on the track (as is described in our 5k training video on this topic). My final thought on your question is that you can simply take out the term tempo and insert “race pace” when describing the pace you should train at for 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon. Sound training uses all of these paces when preparing for a marathon, but those paces are different than threshold pace.

Hope this is helpful and I wish you the best with your running (and your work with your clients).

*Coach Jay’s advice is provided as general training information. Use at your own risk. Always consult with your own heath care provider for questions relating to your specific training and nutrition.

And don’t forget, if you have a training question for Coach Jay, email him here: coachjay@nike.com.

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