AW‘s coaching editor explains what’s required to reach the lofty heights of 2:15:31 – a world-class time he achieved during the golden period of the mid-1980s

In many respects the marathon is like no other event. For a start it’s over four times longer than the next bona fide track distance and apart from the walking events it is held on tarmac, although the start and finishes are usually on a synthetic surface.

The attributes for a marathoner are obvious – loads of endurance, after all, it’s almost exclusively aerobic in nature. There are no short-cuts in terms of training – logging up large mileages are necessary, although the diversity in those distances will vary from athlete to athlete. Some world-class performers are known to record some weeks as high as 200 miles for a seven-day period while others only just eclipse 100 miles as part of their regimes.

It is unusual for anyone to begin their careers at the classic distance of 26 miles 385 yards and most will have started their fledgling athletic careers in the middle distances before progressing on to the 5000m and 10,000m events. Almost all will have participated in cross-country events on a regular basis before training specifically for the marathon and that will also include competing frequently in 10km road races as well as 10 mile and half-marathon events to develop their feel for the longer event.

The need for at least a 10 year ‘training age’ is vital (and much longer in most cases) to build great endurance resources. Of course, to be able to run a good marathon also requires great mental strength and the ability to focus for two hours and more with no wavering of concentration. The best runners in the world are naturally gifted with an essential mix of slow twitch muscle fibres that allow for excellent economy and efficiency with little energy wasted.

While most runners will ‘run’ a marathon (aiming to run at a pre-set pace with the end goal a specific time), the very best will ‘race’ the distance, almost with track tactics, covering any surges or seemingly suicidal paces. With the possibility of a two hour marathon for a male athlete drawing ever nearer, the ability of such an athlete will have to be immense with not only the resources to sustain a fast pace, but also world-class times over much shorter distances.

A two hour marathon makes frightening reading: 26x1mile in around 4:34 per segment; 2xhalf-marathon in 60min; 4×10,000m in 28min 32sec; 8x5000m in 14min 16sec. If we equate that to ‘sessions’ the stats are extraordinary – 104x400m in 68.5sec or 208x200m in 34sec – unbelievable sessions in their own right and all with no recoveries! It therefore doesn’t take anyone with a great knowledge of athletics to realise that such a super-human performance would require someone who could run the half-distance in at least 57min – a time that is quicker than the current world-best.

So what is the difference between a reasonable 2hr 15min performance and a world-best of 2hr 03min? The answer is 12 minutes! Is there a difference in the training philosophies between the two though? Realistically you would think there would be and for some there will be much more volume and faster efforts. However, many who are hovering around the 2hr 15min zone may be concentrating on too many miles and neglecting the quality of their sessions and races especially at the shorter distances.

Now no disrespect to anyone in the UK, but 2hr 15min should be a ‘walk in the park’ to any athlete who considers themselves to be an elite athlete. After all, I did it almost 30 years ago and I limped and hopped the last 12 miles with a painful calf injury. Why are more Britons not doing this or indeed running two to three minutes faster? The answer surely can’t be due to lack of talent – it must be down to poor or incorrect training strategies and perhaps even lifestyles that are just too easy?

Another possible reason is that those who are marathoners tend to class themselves solely as marathon runners. Although the marathon may be their specialist distance, the fact that most only run a maximum of two per year means that their ‘bread-and-butter’ event will almost certainly be 10km and this is what needs to be run frequently to develop faster-than-marathon pace attributes. This ultimately makes running at marathon pace easy, as long as the endurance-base is given utmost attention.

The major reason why the African runners are churning out super-fast times at will is that they have a massive natural background in endurance running and that they are able to do ‘tempo’ sessions at a much faster pace over a much longer distance. Simply, for them, running at marathon pace is easy! There are many athletes in the UK who are in effect addicted to big mileages and are leaving their best performances on the training ground. Although a variety of sessions are essential in a specific build-up period (usually around 12 weeks), it is the accumulation of at least a year’s work that brings success on race day. The specific training block is the ‘fine tuning’ period where extra mileage, pacing and general preparation is done and where the mind is finally focused towards the goal race.

Although running ‘middle distance’ type sessions will have little benefit for the marathoner, short-end speed is vital to be able to run economically. A look at the sharp-end at this year’s London Marathon will see athletes coming down The Mall looking like track runners, with high hips and knee-lift and with very quick feet and that will have been the recipe for almost the entirety of the distance. Long gone are the days when the best were more akin to ‘plodders’ and relying on strength and sheer guts, although those attributes are more than useful.

Today’s champions are literally running like clockwork and eventually when all the best in the world get together in the same race in near perfect weather conditions on a pancake flat and smooth course the possibility of the dream sub-2hr will definitely gain momentum. Is it possible? Only maybe presently … in the real world it equates to running well over a kilometre faster than anyone has before, but then again, that’s exactly what Paula Radcliffe did in 2003!

Good luck to everyone a week on Sunday. Be positive, run evenly and focus from start to finish and anything is possible, as long as you believe it!

» David’s blog post is the fourth in our London Marathon blog series by AW writers. You can find the other blog posts here.

» Note: A version of this blog was first published on athleticsweekly.com on April 18, 2013