How to Train for a Flat Marathon Course

BY Hal Higdon

How do you modify your training for a flat marathon? You may want to skip the hill repeats and tempo runs in favor of interval training.

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My goal marathon this fall will be Berlin, a flat and fast course similar in many respects to Chicago, which I have run several times. But I have found “flat and fast” poses a training challenge. If preparing for a hilly marathon, you can use hill repeats to help develop the muscles (particularly the quadriceps) that would propel yourself up hills like Heartbreak in Boston. I’ve never heard of anyone specifically running flat repeats, although I suppose interval training on a track might so qualify. But my question: How do you modify your training for a flat marathon? Are there any specific training programs that would work better for a Berlin or a Chicago than it would for a Boston or a Big Sur?


Interesting question, and I am not certain I can come up with an answer that would satisfy both of us. My training plans do not discriminate between flat and hilly. One size fits all. While hill training, where you run repeats on a hilly length of road or trail, does work for flat courses, how about the opposite?

Some years ago, I had a discussion with a runner who at the time was a top hill runner, having won all the major mountain climbs. He was giving some serious thought to securing a qualifying time for entry in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. His (flat) marathon P.R. was above 2:30, meaning he would need to improve by more than 10 minutes, to get under the then-existing 2:30 standard. He asked if I might be interested in training him, and while I normally don’t coach runners one-on-one, I admit the challenge did appeal to me. But nothing ever came of it, and to the best of my knowledge, he never did get that Trials qualifying time.

Perhaps the elite mountain runner realized that his switching to the flat would be like Roger Federer switching to racquetball. Remember Michael Jordan’s not quite successful attempt to play baseball? Specialists prevail in the sports world.

But that dodges your question which, is: How do you prepare for a flat marathon? The simplest answer is to shift more of your training to flat surfaces. Skip the hill repeats and tempo runs in favor of interval training on the track, workouts that lend themselves to steady running on a flat surface. Yasso Repeats would be particularly useful: 10 x 800 with a 400 jog between each repeat. Pick flat courses for your long runs and particularly your pace runs, where you concentrate on running a very steady pace. The Berlin Wall fell long ago. Achieving success in that marathon should not be too difficult a task.

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About Hal Higdon

Hal Higdon is a Contributing Editor for ‘Runner’s World‘ and author of 34 books, including the best-selling ‘Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide’. He ran eight times in the Olympic Trials and won four world masters championships. Higdon estimates that over a quarter of a million runners have finished marathons using his training programs, and he also offers additional interactive programs at all distances through TrainingPeaks. Hal uses TrainingPeaks to power his interactive marathon and half marathon training plans — check out more of Hal Higdon’s training plans on his website.