4 Workouts to Include in Marathon Training (If Your Life Doesn’t Fit into a Schedule)

Just signed up for your next (or even first!) marathon?

How exciting! Other than the chunk of your hard earned money that is no longer with you, everything about this period feels good. It brings on an endorphin rush of its own, and you start to envision the possibilities of what future you can accomplish.

So now it’s time to put your head down and get to work.

But wait, what does that actually mean?

How do you actually do that?

It’s just running, sure, but you know there are certain things you need to get yourself in the best fitness possible. 

You could hire a coach, and maybe for a future race you will, but for now, you want to give yourself a shot, see if you can create your own training plan based around your schedule. Many training plans are out there, but maybe the timing just never seems to work with your life.

If you have a difficult schedule, it can be tough to follow a plan, and leave you feeling like you are failing before you even begin. I know this, because I receive a lot of emails about runners who want to follow the Running For Real marathon training plan, but are just not sure how it will work with their hectic lives.

If you create your own, you can make it work for you. And I respect that. Every runner is different, and we all have our own life things to contend with.

Now, just a word of warning first. If you are going to coach yourself and set up your own training plan, there are a few cardinal rules I would recommend the following:

  • Always give AT LEAST two days between your hard runs and long runs. 
  • If you have a busy few days and skipped a few runs, do NOT try to make things up, just forgive yourself and let it go. A race is not made by one workout or one week, it is the accumulation
  • If you have a gut feeling during your warmup that this is not a good idea to run hard/push yourself today, LISTEN TO THAT VOICE! Yes, even if this is your only day this week to do it, back off the intensity or cut it down. Give yourself a good 15 minutes before you make that decision (the first 5 minutes of your run should not be the judge), but even if it means you miss a critical day, that is better than ignoring that voice, plowing through, and ending up in a hole.
  • Same goes for if you are sick. Even if this is your only day to get a hard day in, but you are feeling rough, resist the urge to do it anyway. Make it an easy day, and remind yourself that everyone misses at least one workout during their build up, don’t panic. That is one of the nice things about marathon training, there is only one workout a week, so you aren’t really missing much.
  • Yes, that point above. I strongly recommend you do not do more than one workout a week. This is where a coach can come in to see if you are handling things okay to decide if to add more, but if you are doing this yourself, you are not going to be a good judge of what enough is. That is the biggest mistake we tend to make when we coach ourselves; feel like we aren’t doing enough …even though we are doing just fine. Stick to one workout and one long run a week (replace a race with one of those if you like), THAT’s IT!

Okay so enough rules.

I thought I was escaping rules, isn’t that why I am doing it myself!

Yes, so let’s get to it. Today I will give you four workouts, and next week I will follow up with four types of long runs to include.

One more rule I want to reiterate again. I would recommend only ONE OF THESE a week. It is far better to get to the start line slightly less fit, than not at all. If you have a bit of a strange situation that does not allow you to train like most plans would recommend, you especially need to be following this. Your fitness will build season after season, so don’t place too much pressure on this one buildup. 

Besides, you will get more bang for your buck this way. Better to feel good on one a week (and one long run), than struggle your way through two. These workouts are longer and more intense, so they need more recovery time.

Before I begin, another thing you need to know about these workouts, is that you should make these workouts almost a second long run in themselves. Especially if you are someone who has limited time on your other days, this is a way to get yourself fit, without adding a second hard day.

I would recommend building yourself up to 5-7 mile warm up and cool down. Which yes, will mean that sometimes your workout for the day may be 15+ miles, but this is a little secret way of building fitness. It makes that day exhausting, yes, but then you get lots of days in between to recover and take it easy. I personally liked to front load those, doing up to a 5 mile warm up, if it meant I could only have 2 miles cool down. You may spread them out how you like, and be sure to build this up! Don’t start off this season with a 7 mile warm up, one of these workouts, and a 15 mile day while your long run is still at 12. This day should not exceed your long run mileage (except for down weeks on your long run).

So let’s begin:

There is a lot of variety in the mileage here, and yes, that is intentional, because it will depend where you are at in your training buildup and what you have done in the past. Chose the lower end of these in the first 4 weeks of your training, build up to the higher end in the middle weeks, and then start coming back down in the weeks before.

4-7 x 1.25-1.5 miles (1.5-1.8km)

I hated this one, but I knew how effective it was. A strange distance, but very effective. You will take a 2-3 minute walk/run break in between. It should be difficult, but tolerable.

Intervals, like these reps are specific repeats of various distances that help your body to practice running faster than race day (so it feels slower on the day) without sacrificing the amount of miles you can cover at a fast pace. 

The rests allow you enough time to recover and get ready for the next repeat. The goal of this workout is to run each repeat progressively harder. Don’t stand around the whole recovery/rest periods, keep moving. 

Walk and slow jog around the area. Find a quiet, uninterrupted area that is at least 2-3 miles (3-5k). The less turnarounds, road crossings, and hills, the better!

In my effort based training plan, we have you approach the workout as follows:

Reps #1-2 at 4-5 effort

Reps #3-4 at 5-6 effort

Reps #5-6 at 6-7 effort (if you are doing 5-6 total, make the 5th or 6th one 7-8 effort)

Rep #7 at 7-8 effort

To put it in context, your easy/recovery runs should be a 3-4. The final mile-half mile of a race should be a 9-10. I would recommend downloading my effort scale PDF.

6-10 mile Tempo

A lot of variety in the distance here, and that is because this is one you can use from the start of training (at the lower end), all the way up to your most important weeks in the middle, where you will want to build up to 10 miles of this.

A tempo is a long sustained effort that gets your body used to running at a faster speed for longer. You want to slowly in- crease the intensity of these runs with each mile, but you may not necessarily find you get much faster (although this is ideal), as the accumulated miles previously will start to catch up with you. Try to start off slower than you think, and work into these.

Don’t start out too fast! 

It might seem like the effort level is too easy, but this workout is all about the accumulated effort of holding a pace for a while. You MUST listen to your body the first few minutes, just run it at a 4-5 effort level NOT a pace. Increase your intensity gradually from that 5 to a 7 effort over the rest of the run.

While you are getting your workouts down, be sure you are also honing in on your nutrition, it is VERY important to practice your pre race and during race foods and hydration.


These are counterintuitive to most marathoners, because why would you want to do such short reps, but they work. The goal of this type of workout is to teach your body to run hard on tired legs. The purpose of the long rep to start is just to tire your legs out a little, and then the shorter repeats are where you learn to keep pushing when your legs are heavy.

Here are a few options:

Workout 1

Run 3 miles (5k) at 4-5 effort, 2-3 mins rest

Run 1 mile (1.5k) at 5-6 effort, 2-3 mins rest

Run 1 mile (1.5k) at 6-7 effort, 2-3 mins rest

Run 1 mile (1.5k) at 7-8 effort, 2-3 mins rest

Run 0.5 mile at 7-8 effort, 2-3 mins rest

Run 0.5 mile at 7-8 effort, 2-3 mins rest

Workout 2

Run 3 miles (5k) at 4-5 effort, 2-2.5 mins rest

Run 1.25 miles (2k) at 5-6 effort, 2 mins rest

Run 0.75 miles (1.2k) at 5-6 effort, 2 mins rest

Run 0.75 miles (1.2k) at 5-6 effort, 2 mins rest

Run 0.5 (800m) at 6-7 effort, 2.5 mins rest

Run 0.5 (800m) at 6-7 effort

With both of these, you may be wondering why you need to do such short reps. Shouldn’t 800m reps be saved for speed training? Nope. The most important part of this workout is the second half. This will keep your workout volume up, but without the intensity to tire you out too much. The efforts are slightly less for this reason. The second option is a great choice for the week of a tuneup race.

If the mileage seems too low for you, add more to the first longer repeat, and more reps of the 1.25miles or 1.5 mile. Always keep the final short reps limited.

2-3 mile repeats

This workout is mentally intimidating, but will prepare you for the marathon as you learn you can hold a harder pace for up to 9 miles (14k) total. For the second and third miles, keep in mind you will be feeling tired from the first one(s), so do not jump straight in to pushing too hard too early, especially with the break in between where your legs will have a few minutes to start getting sore.

Do not panic if you feel pretty tired by the end of the first repeat, and feel terrible at the start of the second (wondering if you are going to make it). I always felt that way in this workout. Just keep asking yourself, “Am I doing my best?” If the answer is yes, that is all you can do. In the same way that our bodies regain composure a few minutes after a hill, your legs will come back to you and get rolling again in the second and third one. Don’t let your mind tell you otherwise!

For this, you could do:

  • 2×3 miles
  • 3×2 miles
  • 3×3 miles

I would not recommend going above 9 miles total, and unless you are going to use this as your first workout of the season, I would do at least 6 miles total (so not 2×2 miles). Give yourself 2-4 minutes rest in between, and remember, you will feel really weird once you start up again. Like hills, it will take your body a few minutes to “get your legs back”.

Now, this is extremely vague for the most part, and honestly, part of the structuring it is the magic here. That is what really helps to get someone peaked on time, BUT I understand that life sometimes just does not allow a training plan to work, so this will give you a basic idea of things to include as you go through your own version of training.

If this seems like too much work to figure out how to set them out, our effort based plans are here , and part of the magic of them is that there are NO paces, so it doesn’t matter what terrain, course, weather, or anything else is happening where you are (and on race day), it will get you race ready to deal with whatever.

Well, friends, if you enjoyed my writing style, I would love to send you my weekly newsletter. Just once a week with some thoughts for the week (often on topics similar to this), as well as some things I have been enjoying and recommend for you to read or listen to. CLICK HERE to find out more.

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