4 Marathon Training Phases You Need to Schedule for Better Times

marathon training phases

In this post I want to introduce you to 4 marathon training phases that have helped runners I work with get fitter faster without suffering from the monotony found in so many schedules. 

What running workouts motivate you the most, during your marathon training schedule?

For many, it's the simplicity of those marathon workouts where you just put on your kit, lace up your trainers, forget about the watch and just do it!

For others, endurance training workouts quickly trigger boredom, and they thrive instead from rising to the challenges of sprint workouts or hill training.

Marathon Motivation Needs Variety!

Maintaining marathon motivation usually comes down to having a running workout plan that accelerate your fitness and gives you some physical and mental respite along the way.

Variety is vital, not only to keep you committed to your marathon training schedule, but also by ensuring that the exercise stimulus subtly changes each time to maintain workout progression.

Resistance can, however, run deep due to the limiting beliefs of some highly driven marathon runners.

Attitudes that quickly lead to the tell-tale symptoms of injury or burnout.​

Indeed, I often shudder when I review the punishing yet dull training logs of some of the mileage-fixated clients I start working with!

symptoms of overtraining

Ok, so there may be less adrenaline involved in marathon running than bungee jumping. Nevertheless, you probably need some help if your biggest thrill is adding an extra mile to that same old running route so you can boast a new weekly mileage peak!

The impact of this training tedium on performance isn't any more exciting. Yes, fitness increases initially, before quickly hitting a plateau, leaving your body desperate for a new challenge.

Marathon Success Also Needs Structure

You can, however, have so much variety in your marathon training schedule that it's no longer progressive or even suitable for full marathon training!

What you shouldn't do is browse through the running magazines, and have a scatter gun blast through all the weird and wonderful training workouts 'on offer'...

The blunt truth is that most of them will be totally inappropriate for your current level of fitness and where you are in your marathon training plan.​

So what's the answer?​

It's to...

Maximise your training variety within 3-4 progressive phases that move you towards peak fitness on marathon day!

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The posh term for this is periodization training. While originally devised for strength training, the principle of periodization is just as effective for your marathon training schedule.

Before we get into specifics let's demystify some of the jargon...

The macrocycle is ​the equivalent of your 16 week marathon training plan, or whatever time period you set to prepare for a marathon.

A mesocycle is a distinct phase in your marathon preparation designed to achieve a broad fitness objective, and...

A microcycle is a short block of workouts within a phase such a training week or practice race taper.​

This short video clip summarises how to incorporate training phases and blocks into your marathon training plan:

Marathon Training Phases

marathon training phases

I've developed my own marathon training phases for you...

They firstly recognise that your marathoner body is a temple...

And they're also inspired by the first ever marathon...

first ever marathon

The 26.2 miles the Ancient Greek Pheidippides ran from the plains of Marathon to the temples in Athens to announce a famous battle victory.​

Base Training: Time | Terrain | Technique

base training

​Admittedly, your quest for variety starts somewhat less heroically, as you establish the fitness base needed for the more demanding marathon-specific training...

The focus here is on time spent running rather than pace.

This provides the basic conditioning you need to withstand more demanding training later in your marathon training calendar.

This should not, however, condemn you to weeks of training monotony. It's a great opportunity to vary the terrain you train on. Get your marathon mojo back by running off-road along scenic trails, cliff paths or in parkland.​

trail running

That's why I call this part of your marathon training the Trail Phase!​

Again, this protects your body against breakdown later in your marathon campaign by bringing more muscles into play.

​Cross-training will also improve your general aerobic fitness and add more variety. You could replace 20-25% of your running mileage with activities such as cycling, swimming and aqua jogging.

It's also a great opportunity to develop proper running technique ​to help you enjoy running faster with less risk of injury before your serious marathon training starts!

Transition: Strength | Stamina | Speed

strength training phases

Then, just before getting into peak marathon training you can inject some real variety into your workouts to move up to a higher level.

I call this the Steps Phase!​

This is where you introduce more strength work, stamina training and even speed work, having established an endurance training base.

This adds the finishing touches in your mini-campaign to be ready to benefit fully from doing specific marathon workouts​.

Hill training and acceleration runs are great for building strength and stamina. Your speed will improve naturally as you get fitter but is also helped along the way by doing fartlek workouts.  

marathon runner climbing steps

There's also more emphasis on identifying and tackling your training weaknesses.​

Whether this is distance, speed, gradient, or even terrain​, you get the chance to vary your training by stepping out of your comfort zone.  

Specific: Pace | Progress | Practice 

marathon training

You're then finally ready for the marathon-specific training...

This is the most demanding part of your marathon training schedule... I call it the Pillars Phase...


Because the variety of your training is maintained by the inclusion of 4 key pillar workouts...

vector temple with long run as a marathon training pillar

Long Run

This traditional endurance builder reaches its maximum duration in this phase.

vector temple with marathon-pace runs as a marathon training pillar

Marathon-Pace Run

Essential time spent at your target goal pace as part of selected Long Runs. 

vector temple with tempo running as a marathon training pillar

Faster-Longer Run

Challenging medium-hard efforts that boost your stamina and raise your lactate threshold.

vector temple with speed work as a marathon training pillar

Faster Repeats

Hard efforts with jog recoveries that improve speed and staying power in the marathon. 

If you want to achieve a desired marathon goal time rather than just complete the 26.2 mile course, now is the time to focus on pace

​Specific workouts, such as Yasso 800s can be performed to help you predict your marathon day level of fitness.

​And let's not forget the opportunities you have to boost variety still further by including practice races in your schedule.

Some of these races will be run all-out to gauge your progress, while others will give you options to practice pacing, fuelling and hydration.

​And as 'what goes up, must come down', you MUST make sure you have plenty of recovery workouts intermingled as well as active recovery weeks in your marathon training schedule to allow your body time to adapt. 

It's particularly vital to avoid being too prescriptive during this phase... Track your progress carefully, evaluate how you respond to each workout and tweak your training schedule as required.

Taper: Preserve | Pamper | Perform


Finally, you reach the roof of the temple, the 'Pediment Phase' where all bets should be on regarding the shape you're in...

The focus here is on preserving fitness and staying sharp rather than raising the bar higher still. 

The rookie mistake is to refuse to do the necessary taper.

A less obvious error is to regress to a three week 'jogathon' and turn up on marathon day flat and sluggish.  

The right way to taper, is to maintain the varied training you were doing before, and progressively turn down the volume in each of the final weeks.  

Then as you enter the final week, it's time to be extra vigilant in maintaining your marathon nutrition and getting proper rest, recovery and sleep... In short, enjoy the rare luxury of pampering yourself without guilt!​

​So, with clever phasing, you not only reach peak fitness to perform at your best over 26.2 miles, but also have an interesting journey, with some fast times under your belt over shorter distances.

peak fitness

Keep Working on Marathon Motivation!

No matter how well you phase your workouts, there will still be times when you find marathon training is a real struggle and you feel a long way from the goal you set yourself on race day. 

That’s all fine, and it’s what makes the marathon such a unique challenge!

When my clients have these dips, I give them this simple yet powerful exercise to get them focused and ready to go again...

Simply amend your marathon training schedule that week to introduce as much variety as possible, without losing structure or compromising your training objectives too much.

Some ideas include:

  • Take an extra rest day (shock horror!), or if that’s too painful, replace your run with a cross-training session
  • Add different routes (ideally in pleasant surroundings) and reverse tired old favourites
  • On a similar theme, alternate between different surfaces 
  • Leave your watch at home and practice running by feel (this is an essential skill if you want to be a successful marathon runner)
  • Replace a formal repeats-based session with a more relaxed fartlek workout

I’ve had great feedback when my clients have tried some of these tactics! It seems to recharge them mentally as well as energise them physically.  

A note of caution…

If this doesn’t do the trick, you may be suffering burn-out from overtraining. If so, STOP and take a longer period of complete rest until you feel ready to ease back into your marathon training schedule again.

Just to prove that you don't have to restrict yourself to a handful ​of boring workouts, I've created a one-page Marathon Sessions Checklist for you! The Why, How, When, Duration, Intensity and Training Zone of each one is set out, so that all you have to do is lace up your trainers and get out there!   

Are you already using marathon training phases in your own race buildup? And what strategies have you used to make your marathon training schedule more interesting? Please leave a comment below.

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