For years we’ve heard that runners should be avoiding hard surfaces. We should be running on dirt roads, gravel paths, grass fields- anything but the dreaded pavement. But here’s the thing— each of those surfaces provide different energy returns, different challenges for your feet, your ankles, your quads, your hamstrings and the other muscles used for running. It only makes sense then, that anyone training to race 13.1 or 26.2 miles on pavement needs to get their body prepared to handle that particular surface.
It’s been my experience that marathoners and half marathoners who do the majority of the their hard workouts on pavement end up the most ready to handle the rigors of the road come race day. I have our HOKA NAZ Elite athletes run most of their easy runs on soft surfaces, but when it comes to the tough sessions during a marathon or half marathon training segment we are almost always out on famous Lake Mary Rd. In our case, Lake Mary is a long, beautiful country road with a wide shoulder and I’ve marked every quarter mile for 16 miles. Even if you don’t have the scenery that Lake Mary possesses, most cities have a bike path of some kind that will provide you exactly the surface you need to train for a long road race.
Preventing the Bonk
I’ve made plenty of coaching mistakes over the years, but one thing I’m really proud of is that I have very rarely had an athlete “bonk” in a marathon. A lot of people associate bonking or late-race cramping with a lack of fuel, but I believe that in many cases it’s actually just the cumulative effect of stride after stride on the pavement getting the best of those who were unprepared to handle that sort of pounding.
But what about injury risk? I do believe that pavement is a little harder on the body overall than a soft surface. However, I do not believe that it necessarily leads directly to injury. There are plenty of other variables from shoes, to bone density, to ligament strength and more, that also come into play. I can only speak anecdotally but nothing in my experience would suggest that doing marathon and half marathon workouts on pavement lead to any sort of higher injury risk.
Road Specific Workouts
So if you’re someone who has had trouble with your lower legs cramping up or your quads feeling shot late into a marathon or half marathon, or even the run portion of an Ironman or Half Ironman, then I’d highly recommend getting out and training on pavement for some hard workouts. And again, I still like soft stuff for the majority of your easy runs, but the race specific work should be done on race specific surfaces. Here are a just a couple of workouts tailor-made for the roads:
3-5 x 2 miles with a 1/2 mile recovery “float” in between. Each 2- mile gets progressively faster. Each “float” remains at 1 minute slower than the fast end of Zone 3 pace (see Joe Friel training zones). Start the 2-mile repeats at the fast end of Zone 3 pace and go 5-10 seconds faster per 2-mile. Finding a well-marked road or bike path for this one is awesome.
This one is great because you don’t even need a long path. As long as you can find one kilometer of pavement you can just go out-and-back and you’re good to go. I love doing this one right at goal half marathon pace. Do 12-15 x 1k at that pace with 1 minute recovery. That may sound like a lot but a half marathon or marathon is a long way! Getting 7.5 – 9.3 miles worth of work in on the pavement is a great workout for toughening the legs.
So get on out there and pound the pavement a little bit. Your legs will thank you on race day!