The Marathon: How Training Slower Can Help You Race Faster

Running a marathon is exciting. There’s a certain thrill that comes with setting a big goal or pushing further than you’ve ever gone before. Maybe you get to travel to a different state or country. Maybe you’re staying local but experiencing the city in a totally new way. The potential in 26.2 miles is so much more than just the distance—and the carb-loading is equally limitless (in my opinion, the best part).

Training for a marathon is… less exciting. If you’ve done it, you know: the early mornings, earlier nights, long miles, insatiable hunger and overall fatigue that sets in with too many weeks left to go. The human body is incredible, but it’s not invincible. As I lined up for the Reykjavik Marathon not too long ago, I wondered for the hundredth time whether my training was enough. If all of those slow, easy miles would somehow translate to a fast race. It seemed like a stretch, but at that point, there wasn’t anything I could do. The gun went off and so did I.

Spoiler alert: I hit my goal time. Didn’t hit “the wall.” Qualified for Boston. Ran a negative split (i.e., the second half was faster than the first). All at a pace that I struggled to hold for more than a few miles at a time while training through the hot, humid summer in NYC.

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around how your own marathon training will translate, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Easy runs are key. Keep them EASY. Just like the fast miles, the slow ones serve a purpose. They’re about time on your feet, active recovery and building an aerobic base. Nevertheless, many runners blow through them at close to or faster than marathon pace (MP). Yes, MP is still aerobic—but it’s on the higher end of your aerobic capacity and doesn’t actually have any more benefit than running on the lower end. It does increase physiological wear, though, and can lead to overtraining or injury.

If you find it difficult to dial back the speed, you’re not alone. It’s often tougher than running faster! Try running with slower friends or to slow music to help set the rhythm. Aim for at least 30 seconds slower than MP. You can also use heart rate data for an objective check. It shouldn’t feel breathless at any point.

2. Focus on effort. Your body doesn’t know paces or numbers; it only knows the exertion that you put into hitting them. When conditions are less than ideal (hot, at altitude, very hilly, etc.), you’ll likely find that you’re working at the same level but moving slower. That’s okay. Don’t fight the elements and push. Workouts are prescribed to target a specific energy system. If you go too hard and can’t sustain the effort the whole way, then you’ve missed out on the intended benefit.

My goal MP for Reykjavik was 7:45-7:50. It was a breeze in the spring, but as the warm summer months crept in, I found that even holding 8:00 for more than a mile at a time was a fight. I ended up walking a number of times in workouts after trying to fight through. Settling for a pace 20-30s slower for a more accurate marathon effort didn’t exactly build confidence in the moment, but it did prepare me to lock in my actual goal pace when it counted.

3. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. In a digital age, it’s easy to get caught up in the paces and splits that your friends post on Strava or Instagram. During my training, I often saw people with slower goal times clocking faster runs than I was. It messed with my head and made it tempting to disregard the first two tips above.

At the end of the day, your training is about YOU. It’s not worth keeping up with everyone else if it means you’re going to get injured and miss your race. Trust your plan and/or coach. Trust your body; after all, you know it better than anyone. There’s nothing wrong with taking an extra rest day or going slower when you’re beat up. Marathon training is about cumulative fatigue, meaning you’re rarely running on fresh legs. That’s what the taper is for. By the time you get the start line, the hay is in the barn. All you have to do is set it on fire and let it light the way.