Q: How Can You Run a Marathon Fast by Running Shorter Distance & Slowly?

race_1276_photo_17943841Q: How Can You Run a Marathon Fast by Running Shorter Distance & Slowly?

A: Specificity, also called Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID). What is this? According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, where I got my certification from, it is:

“The body will adapt to the specific demands that are placed on it.”

OK. That was easy. Now you get it, right?

So let’s pretend that wasn’t quite enough, and you actually want to understand more. Well, the idea is that the body adapts to the various ways in which you work it. If you put your thang down, you flip it, and then you reverse it, your body will adapt to all three ways in which you worked it.

Seriously, though, it means that, if you train your body in a variety of ways that speak to specific capabilities you need, you will develop an arsenal of physical abilities to help cope with the demands you will place on your body in a marathon (or other event you’re training for). A key to any training is to do it in a way that builds the capabilities you need safely. That is, in a way that doesn’t lead to injury since you can’t run a marathon you have to drop out of due to injury, right?

As some of you know, I’m running my first marathon this fall, and I have a great plan developed by Jason Fitzgerald at Strength Running.  So what does my plan look like? The specifics aren’t important, but the general approach is consistent across most marathon training plans.  It has a mix of different lengths and intensities (and combinations of the two) to simulate the various stresses the body goes through during a marathon.  And how you mix these stresses needs to be done in a smart way to avoid injury risk. For example, you don’t want to do a long run where you’re working on speed the whole time (sprinting for 20 miles is surprisingly tough – both physically and on your body). You’ll not only burn out and not really be sprinting all that much (and hence not really getting the sprinting practice), but you’ll also likely get injured due to the extreme forces and extensions involved with such running when you multiply it out over such a long distance.

race_1276_photo_17943893So, you work on pacing ability on shorter distances (‘shorter’ being relative to the marathon, and may be quite long in many people’s eyes). You work on distance at a slower pace where the tool you’re building is endurance – both physical (to keep going for a couple of hours or more) and mental (to be able to run for several hours can be maddening for some, and not something you want to try for the first time in the actual race).

You also need to think of your various training runs collectively, not separately. That is, don’t think, “I’m going to work on speed today, and run a seven miler with high intensity intervals mixed in the middle for a total of 30 minutes within the 7 mile run,” if you plan to run 20 miles the next day. And you also want to think about rest as an active contributor to your training progress. This is probably the toughest component for me as I have a history of over-training and not being ok with taking a day off from exercise.  I have two non-running days in my plan, and one is a total rest day (the day after my long run). Honestly, that was the toughest thing for me to adjust to, and now I greatly appreciate it. My other non-running day is for cross-training with some other cardio exercise (biking or elliptical).

So in no run before my marathon will I have run like I’m in the marathon, meaning speed and distance combined. But I don’t need to because my body will have these capabilities due to SAID. And building the capabilities separately and safely ensures I’ll be able to combine them come marathon day instead of watching others combine them while I sit on my couch and ice my knee, hip, foot and/or ego watching the marathon on TV.

Carefully thought out, holistic approaches to your goals that balance all of the capabilities you will need to call on in a smart and safe way is how you train for a marathon. It’s also how you enlighten.your.body.

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.


  1. Keep mixing it up and taking those recovery days! Which marathon?

    • Thanks, Jennifer. I’m doing Chicago in October. I’m doing a very long training plan specifically to ease into it and better avoid injury. I have a bad habit of over-training for the Half Marathons I’ve done, and then having to take 3-6 months off running, so my plan is to not only do the Marathon, but be able to keep running afterward.

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