Minimalist Marathon Training – What Workout’s Do You Really Need?

By Rick Morris

If you’re trying to set a new marathon PR or if you are a highly competitive runner that is challenging for top finishing positions, your training program almost certainly involves running 6 to 7 days per week using some sort of periodized schedule that includes many specific types of training runs. In that case a minimalist marathon training plan is probably not for you, but what if you are a recreational runner? Do you simply want to successfully finish your marathon? Is fitting 6 to 7 days per week of training into your schedule challenging proposition? Are you a multi sport athlete that dedicates several days per week to cycling, swimming, climbing, paddling or other sports? If that sounds familiar you might be a candidate for a minimalist marathon training plan.

While a minimalist marathon schedule probably won’t get you in peak marathon shape, it can successfully get you to the finish line with a minimum amount of training time per week. How many days per week do you really need? The truth is that one day per week will get you there. It’s far from ideal but you can do it. The trick is to pick the most important workouts and do them first. If you have time for additional weekly running you can add in some others to further improve your fitness and performance. Here is our thoughts on minimalist marathon training runs in order of their importance.

Long Endurance Runs

Long endurance runs are the cornerstone of marathon training. The progressively increasing mileage of long endurance runs are critical for training your mind and body to cover the 26.2 miles you need to reach the finish line. This is by far your most important run and is the one you should do if you only have one training day per week.

Endurance – Goal Pace Combination Long Runs

Just because you following a minimalist training plan doesn’t mean you can’t have a goal pace or finishing time. If you do have a goal pace, it’s important to include some goal pace running. Even if you have only one marathon training day per week you can include goal pace running by combining your long endurance runs and your goal pace running. Begin by doing the first 90% of your long run at easy endurance pace the final 10% at goal pace. Over the course of your training plan gradually increase the amount of goal pace running until you are doing about 50% at easy endurance pace and 50% at goal pace.

Goal Pace Runs

If you have two marathon training days per week, your next most important training run is a dedicated goal pace workout. These goal pace runs will create both muscle memory and central nervous system conditioning at your goal pace. Begin with about 20 minutes at goal pace and gradually work up to about 90 minutes at goal pace.

Tempo Training

Tempo training runs will improve your lactate threshold and improve your ability to hold a strong pace over long distances. Tempo training includes a wide range of paces between marathon pace and 10K pace. If you are already doing goal pace training you are doing some low range tempo training. So, if you have time for a dedicated tempo run, I would suggest doing them at closer to half marathon pace or slightly faster. Begin with 15 minute tempo runs and progress to around 1 hour.

Hill Running

Hill running is a great way to improve your running specific strength and power as well as your running economy. Hill training will also improve your running speed. If you can fit in a third or fourth training run, I think this is a wise choice.

Speed Training

Do you need speed training for a marathon? Yes and no. There’s no doubt that speed training will improve your marathon performance, but if performance were a high priority for you, minimalist training would not be a good choice. So, if you have the time, do some speed training. It will help, but it’s lower on your priority list for minimalist training.

Easy Endurance Runs

The least important run in a minimalist marathon training plan are the short, easy endurance runs that are sometimes called recovery runs. While these runs do a good job of keeping weight down, recovery from hard workouts and reducing stress, they offer a minimalist trainer very little in performance increases. If you have the time and feel like an enjoyable and easy run, go for it. Otherwise you can skip this one.

Suggested Minimalist Workouts

Here is a brief table with my suggestions for minimalist workouts prioritization.

Workouts Per WeekSuggested Workouts
1Long Endurance
2Long Endurance - Endurance Goal Pace Combination
3Long Endurance - Endurance Goal Pace Combination - Tempo
4Long Endurance, Endurance-Goal Pace Combination, Tempo, Hills
5Long Endurance, Endurance-Goal Pace Combination, Tempo, Hills, Speed