Kipchoge and Kosgei, winners of the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Marathon

Most top-level long-distance runners must endure a period of training of 8–10 years prior to reaching a competitive international standard.

A recent review has explored the literature and publicly available training logs of some of the most successful marathons runners in history. Among them figures such as Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele, Stefano Baldini, Gelindo Bordin or Robert de Castella in men, and Joan Benoit, Ingrid Kristiansen, Constantina Diță, Tegla Loroupe or Brigid Kosgei in women.

In this first post we will show how they organized their seasons and which training methods were mostly used.


Training Periodization

Arthur Lydiard introduced the periodization system in the late 1950s. He divided the training year (macrocycle) into smaller ordered phases (meso- or micro-cycles) with the explicit aim of reaching peak performance in major competitions.

Marathon elite runners usually compete annually in 2-3 marathons (separated by at least 3 months), 1 half marathon and around 3 shorter races.

They generally use a double periodization period, with cycles of 5-6 months, based in spring and autumn marathons, with resting periods of 7-14 days following marathon competitions.


Training Methods

Continuous running

  • Warm-up/cooldown, easy run. Low-intensive running (typically 3–5 km/h slower than marathon pace).
  • Long run. Low-intensive steady-state running (1–2 km/h slower than marathon pace). Typical duration 75–165 min for marathon runners, with pace varying during the season.
  • Uphill run. Low-intensive steady-state running uphill (3–6%). Typical duration 20–45 min.
  • Threshold run (or tempo run). A sustained run at moderate intensity. Typical duration 20–50 min. The session should not be extremely fatiguing.
  • Unstructured run over varying terrain lasting 30–60 min, where periods of fast running are intermixed with periods of slower running. According to athlete’s rhythms and terrain.
  • Progressive long runs. Commonly used training used by African runners. The first part of the session resembles an easy run, with pace gradually quickening. Typical duration is 45–90 min.

Interval training

  • Threshold intervals (or tempo intervals). Intervals of 3–15 min of duration at half-marathon pace. Typical sessions are 10–12×1000, 6–8×1500–2000 or 4×5000 with 1–2 min recovery or easy jog between them. Recommended total time for elite runners is 30–75 min.
  • VO2max intervals. Intervals of 2–4 min of duration at 10k pace, and 2–3 min. recovery periods between intervals. Recommended total time for elite runners is 15–20 min, although is a method more specific for track runners.
  • Lactate tolerance training. Usually 1–2 weekly training sessions for 5000-m runners in the pre-competition and competition periods. Intervals of 150 to 600 m at 800–1500 m race pace with 1–3 min. recoveries.
  • Hill repeats. Typical incline 5–10%, with repetitions from 30 s to 4 min depending on goal and time of season.

Speed work

  • 5–15 s runs with near-maximal to maximal effort and full recoveries. The main aim is developing or maintain maximal sprinting speed without producing high levels of lactate.


Bill Bowerman, one of the co-founders of Nike and US coach at the 1972 Olympics Munich where Frank Shorter won the marathon, summarized his training philosophy as:

2–3 weekly interval sessions, a weekly long run, and as many training sessions of Low Intensity Training (LIT) as possible

This training description has been basically the training organization of most successful long-distance runners during the last 5 decades.


In the next post we will focus on training volumes, intensity zones and the important tapering phase.

Photo by Rob Wilson (Unsplash)

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