Nathan Pennington Alphen 20K
photo: courtesy Nathan Pennington

Roadmap to a Marathon Breakthrough

A runner and coach tells how he took his marathon from 2:40 to 2:19—and provides specific training changes that can maximize your next marathon.

Nathan Pennington Alphen 20K

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

My goal in 2007 was to qualify for the 2008 USA Olympic Trials. At the time, I had made some slight improvements from my debut 2:43:36 at the 2002 New York City marathon and had a personal best time of 2:40:02. That said, it was still far from the sub-2:22:00 I needed to qualify.

How does an athlete go from being able to sustain 6:14 mile pace to a 5:25 mile pace for 26.2 miles? I made some significant changes in my training and put in the time and work to make it happen. I’d like to share what I’ve learned— both in attitudes and specific training elements—so you can take key fundamentals, start making changes in your own training, and help you surpass what you currently feel you are capable of.

Nathan Pennington CIM 2007
photo: courtesy Nathan Pennington

Add Faster Long Runs

Whether your goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, break the 3 or 4 hour marathon or training for your first marathon, one key principles is to never get locked in on one slow pace all of the time.

The number one reason I was able to break the 2:20:00 marathon barrier was due to changing how I did my long run. In 2007, when I was assigned to the US Army World Class Athlete Program, I was coached by Lisa Rainsberger, the 1985 Boston Marathon champion.

I had run 51:53 for 10 miles and 1:07:06 for the half-marathon but my marathon time wasn’t measuring up. We decided to start conducting my long runs at a heart rate of 160 beats per minute. This was a drastic change for me, as it meant maintaining a pace between 5:30 and 5:50 per mile. Prior to working with Rainsberger, I would do 16 to 22-mile long runs at 6:30 to 6:45 mile pace.

The goal, however, was to run 26.2 miles at 5:25 per mile pace. To accomplish this, Rainsberger explained that it was better to do a 16-mile long run at or close to goal marathon race pace than to do a 22–24 mile long run at a pace 2 minutes slower than I wished to race.

The ability to sustain 5:30 mile pace at 6,000ft elevation in Colorado Springs didn’t occur overnight. I started off doing long runs with a smaller segment of the run done at a faster clip. As my fitness grew, we focused on extending the amount of time spent running at 160 beats per minute, which was about 85 percent of my maximum heart rate.

Gradually, over time, I extended the amount of time I spent at that heart rate. Eventually splits became faster at the same effort.

Easy Running Still Vital

Running faster long runs is important but easy running is still important too. Rainsberger would have me do one harder long run followed the next week by a relaxed and easy long run.

This ensures you don’t overtrain and get burned out. More importantly, the key is to ensure you are adapting to the workouts you are doing. Remember, the benefits of your hard work come in the rest, not the workout itself. You want to stress the body, then allow sufficient time for adaptation and rest to occur.

I alternated hard long runs anywhere from 5:30 to 5:50 per mile with easier long runs from 6:30 to 7:30 mile pace. Long runs would range from 18 to 25 miles in length.

Nathan Pennington
photo: courtesy Nathan Pennington

Heart-rate Based Speed Work

A heart rate monitor is a great aid to your marathon training. I never used heart rate monitors until I started being coached by Jack Hazen from 1995 to 2000 during my undergraduate studies at Malone University. Jack is one of the top distance running coaches in the world and served as the USA men’s distance coach for the 2012 Olympic Games.

A HR monitor keeps you from running too fast on days you need to be running easy. Additionally, it keeps you focused on the effort and not on mile or kilometer splits. As you get fitter, the mile and kilometer splits will take care of themselves.

The two areas I focused on the most when training for the 2:19 marathon were my anaerobic threshold and aerobic capacity.

Faster running, at or just below our anaerobic threshold—often called tempo runs—helps us improve our lactate tolerance, thus run faster for longer. Your anaerobic threshold is the point where lactic acid begins to build up in your bloodstream. Gradually extending the amount of time you spent at this heart rate—88 to 92 percent of your max—will produce big results.

During my 2007 training I ran 6 to 15 miles at threshold pace once every week.

In addition to threshold workouts, I added aerobic capacity workouts to my training. Twice a week I’d hit the track or head out on the road for intense workouts—intervals and fartlek. Some of the workouts I was doing—at 6,000ft elevation—included:

• 6 x 1 mile @ 4:45–46 with 2 minutes recovery between reps

• 3 x 2 mile @ 9:50–10:00 with 5 minutes recovery between reps

• 1-hour of farlek running (1 minute hard@170BPM followed by 1 minute easy@140BPM)

• 16 x 400 m @ 65–67 seconds with 90 seconds rest between reps

• 20 x 200m @ 29–34 seconds with 100m jog recovery

This quality work was key in going from 2:43 to 2:19. All of these workouts were aerobic capacity-style efforts, hitting 175 beats per minute or higher (93 or more percent of my max). While you need to scale the paces to your level (using HR as your guide), you need to train at this effort to improve your body’s ability to take in and process large amounts of oxygen, improve lactate tolerance and teach your body to clear lactic acid faster than it is building up in the bloodstream, and to make race pace feel more manageable and less taxing.

That being said, you also want to ensure you are jogging on recovery days. We cannot spend much time running at these types of intensities. These forms of workouts are extremely tough and require a lot of energy output.

Focus On Hydration

One of the biggest mistakes marathoners make is not consuming enough fluid and calories during their race. I know because I made this same mistake year after year. It took working with a professional coach to see the error in my ways. You may think you can run an entire marathon without drinking much but you’ll pay the price if you do.

The key thing to keep in mind is not to sip but drink during your race. Grab a cup or two and drink the entire content of the cup. Remember, this is 26.2 miles and your body needs that fluid and caloric intake.

Marathon water stop
Photo: Shutterstock

I would recommend sitting out your water bottles during your long run every 3 miles in training. In addition to that, take a gel and place one in your shorts. You want to practice ingesting a few hundred calories during your long run as well as drinking.

The important thing to keep in mind is to make your mistakes in training, not when it comes time to race. If you practice grabbing and holding your water bottles in training you’ll be better prepared come race day.

I made the mistake of not drinking enough several times during my early career as a marathoner. I neglected one of the key fundamentals in marathon racing and that is proper hydration.

Be Patient

The marathon is not like the 5K or 10K, it asks far more of you than a 3 to 6 mile race ever could. Results in this event will come, but it takes a belief in delayed gratification in order to see long-term results.

I have lived and trained with some of the world’s top marathoners, including Gilbert Rutto (2:10:02 PR) and Dan Browne (2:11:35, two-time Olympian). The trait that stood out to me the most was the fact they never lost enthusiasm despite a poor race.

Your success, no matter what your current capability, will be dictated by your enthusiasm. How do you deal with a bad race? Do you consider it a failure? Remember, if you run a poor race it is still a great workout and simply means your body may need more time or rest. It doesn’t mean you lack talent or your best running is behind you. It simply means you have more work to do.

Stay consistent and persistent in your training. Remember, the best marathoners in the world have off days. There are days where you will feel awful and others you will feel fantastic. Be patient. You will continue to make gains in due time.

Patience and stressing the anaerobic systems adequately, coupled with relaxed, easy running to recover is the secret to improvement. If you have faster times in other distances and it just hasn’t come together yet in the marathon, be patient. Your time is coming.

Visualize Success

The great Billy Mills once said, “The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality or imagination.” I firmly believe in that.

Spend some time each day visualizing success. See that time goal on the clock with you running across the finish line with your friends and family around you.

I would write down 2:21:59 on paper, hang that time up at my office and throughout the day think about that time. It was the 2008 USA Olympic Trials “B” standard time back in 2007. The good news is that I not only broke the 2:22:00 barrier but also broke 2:20:00. The bad news is that I did it 28 days after the 2008 USA marathon Olympic trials were held.

It was not a shock to me to run 2:19:35. I have always felt that once you write down your goals you are now officially accountable to achieve them. If you expect to achieve a goal and are putting your heart into preparation you have a great chance of it becoming reality.

It helps to see visually see what you wish to achieve on paper. You can carry the time you want to run around in your wallet or purse. Take it out every once in awhile and look at it.

Your job is to be white-hot, razor sharp focused on achieving your marathon goal, whatever that may be. It could be to complete your first marathon in a specific time or earn a Boston Marathon qualifying time.

Even with this focus, remember to keep it fun. Far too many runners get too hyped up and over zealous, often leading to poor performances, frustration and doubt. Spend time training with a group of like-minded athletes, friends and family. Surround yourself with people who realize there is more to life than running; people who will remind you that a bad workout or race doesn’t mean the end of the world.

It is now your turn to drop significant time off your marathon. Set a goal, write it down, visualize it coming true—and back up your mental training with massive action.

Nathan Pennington is the founder of

From PodiumRunner