Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Kicking off the sub 3 hour marathon training with some Yasso 800s

Sihlhölzli Track in Zürich
My energy and motivation having been returned to me in the last few days (after weeks of having lost them), I decided tonight was as good a time as ever to kick off my sub 3 hour marathon training plan.  This is my next big aim, the next check box on my sports achievement wish list to be ticked off.

There is a workout that is often talked about in the world of marathon running, and love it or hate it, most experienced marathon runners have at least heard of Yasso 800s.  Yasso 800s are meant to be a fairly good predictor of marathon times, a benchmark workout if you like.

Yasso 800s are named after the Runner's World race services manager Bart Yasso.  One of his key marathon training workouts was running 800m in the same time that he was hoping to do the marathon in (but with hours replaced by minutes and minutes replaced by seconds) then jogging slowly for the same amount of time, and repeating this 10 times.  When he was able to do this, he considered that he was in shape to do the marathon within his target time.  Everything is easier with an example.  So let us say that Bart decides he wants to run a marathon in under 3 hours.  He goes out and runs 800m in 3 minutes, then jogs for 3 minutes and then he tries to repeat this 10 times.  When he manages this, he considers that he is in sub 3 hour marathon shape.  If Bart decides that he wants to run a marathon in under 2 hours 30 minutes, he goes out and runs 800m in 2 minutes and 30 seconds, then jogs for 2 minutes and 30 seconds and then he tries to repeat this 10 times.  When he manages this, he considers that he is in sub 2 hour 30 minutes marathon shape.

It seems that this workout can be used to predict marathon times fairly accurately across a wide range of runners (from a 2:09 marathoner to 4 hour plus marathoners).

Critics of the workout say that it is not the most effective marathon workout that one can do, and that with limited training time you are better off focussing on other more marathon specific workouts.  They also say that the workout tends to predict times that are 5 to 10 minutes faster than what most people actually achieve in the race.

Nevertheless it is an interesting benchmark workout to get some idea of how prepared you are for a particular marathon goal, and having never done it before I decided that tonight I would try it out and see how I performed.  I did my laps at the Sihlhölzli track in Zürich, a public 400m running track.  Luckily I had the track pretty much to myself.  After a short warm up I started doing my Yasso 800s.  Since I don't normally do track work, pacing myself was the main issue.  The first few 800m laps I was coming in somewhere around 2 minutes 50, when I was meant to be aiming for bang on 3 minutes.  As I did more and more repeats I got a little better at arriving at the finish close to 3 minutes.

In total I managed 6 repeats of 800m at sub 3 minutes pace.  I think that if I really pushed myself to failure I could have managed one more sub 3 minute lap, but I still have almost 3 months left to go before I need to reach my peak, so I decided not to push myself too much the first time doing this new workout.  Bart usually starts doing the workout a couple of months before his race.  He starts with 4 Yasso 800s and then adds one more on each subsequent week until he reaches 10.  So it seems I am well on track for my goal so to speak (excuse the pun).

Aside from the running workouts, I will also need to focus more on my diet.  I weighed myself this morning and I was 78kg.  This is around 5kg heavier than I was at my peak earlier this year.  Chocolate is getting the better of me and I will need to ration it carefully to bring my weight back down.  I have a book called Racing Weight gathering dust on my bookshelf that I think deserves another read.  It talks about the importance of nutrient timing and also has an interesting section with sample diets from some of the world's top athletes.

I have also started taking some supplements to help me with my training.  The doctor suggested that my iron count could be a little higher, so I am taking iron pills as well as a general multivitamin.  In addition I have started taking creatine.  Whilst creatine can cause some weight gain due to water retention, it is of benefit to endurance athletes in terms of improved training ability and quicker recovery between workouts.  Studies suggest that the improvements it offers in terms of training quality more than make up for the weight gain that it may cause.  Creatine occurs naturally in meat, but since I am a vegetarian I am not getting much in my diet, so supplementation may be of particular value to me.  Some studies also suggest that creatine supplementation can improve memory in vegetarians (who often have a lack of it).  I used to take creatine when I was bodybuilding, so I am already familiar with it.

I have to say that Yasso 800s are a tough workout, so I am off now to get some well deserved rest.  If you have never tried them before, and are currently training for a marathon, go out and give them a try and let me know how you get on.  I would be particularly interested in knowing if you have used Yasso 800s in the past, and whether they accurately predicted your race time or not.


  1. I had never heard of this Paul, super interesting, I will research. My 2013 goal has changed, it will no longer be going back to the MDS, but it will be Ironman Florida in Nov. 2013.

    Glad your energy is back.


  2. Hey SJ. Glad I could inform you about something new. Sounds like you have a very interesting plan. Hope your training all goes well.

  3. If you get to the fitness level you achieved in March you should have no problems knocking off 10 Yasso 800s at 3 minutes each. How do I know? Well, your lactate threshold in March was 14.72 km/hr, which is about 6 mins. 26 seconds per mile, or 3 minutes 13 seconds per 800. The lactate threshold pace is roughly equivalent to your half marathon pace (14.72 km/hr is eaquivalent to 1hr 26 min for the half). If you can run 3 mins. 14 seconds per 800 continuously for 13.1 miles, then you can certainly run 10 800s (with 3 mins rest between each) at 3 minutes each rep.

    By the way, Macmillan calculator will predict your marathon time (based on your lactate threshold pace) at 3 hours and 1 minute. Get to your March fitness level (and a bit better) and you will break 3 hours, everything else remaining equal.

  4. Yes I think that in March I was more or less ready to do a sub 3 hour attempt. I was tempted to, but with the MDS in April I thought it was better to wait. But now I am not quite as fit as I was then so I need to get there again. The sports performance lab predicted something like 3 hours 4 minutes back in March. They predicted my first ever marathon time slightly faster than I actually managed though. I have only done one marathon so far and that was in Zurich in 2011. I did just under 3 hours 30 in that, but with rather minimal training. I have progressed a long way since then and lost a lot of excess weight. I also seem to have overcome my running injuries touch wood (before the Zurich marathon I had a lot of problems with runners knee).

    I have been thinking to do a sub 3 hour attempt in the Lucern marathon at the end of October, but then I remembered from doing a half marathon there that it is a hilly course, so it will be very hard for me to achieve a sub 3 on that course. I may have to use that as a training run and do a sub 3 attempt on a faster course. Lets see. The problem is that there do not seem to be many marathons in Switzerland towards the end of November, and running a marathon in Ticino 2 weeks after the one in Lucern seems a bit close. I have already registered and paid for the Lucern marathon. Otherwise I might have gone for the faster Ticino Marathon course in the middle of November instead. I may still do that and switch courses but it seems a bit of a waste having already paid for the Lucern one.

  5. Running a full 26.2 miles in Lucerne as a training run for a sub-3 attempt in Ticino is highly risky. You will not fully recover to give yourself a proper chance at Ticino. Your choices appear to be to skip Lucerne (despite standing to lose the race fee) or to run just 20 miles at Lucerne as your last long run.