How Mo Farah Mastered The Marathon

What you can learn from Mo’s marathon mastery
◷ 3 minute read. In a hurry? Scroll down for our 60-second summary


Twenty Mo Miles

2018 saw Mo Farah make a huge breakthrough in his quest to conquer the marathon. After running 2:08:21 to finish eighth on his marathon debut in 2014; Farah finished in an unexpected third place in London in April, breaking the British record in 2:06:21, and then clocked 2:05:11 to take the Chicago Marathon title and the European record in October. So how has Mo become genuine Olympic gold medal contender in a race over twenty miles longer than his previous speciality? And what can you learn from this?

1. He Gained Experience

It’s very rare that a runner ‘cracks it’ in their first marathon: Haile Gebreselassie’s marathon debut was highly anticipated. However, he finished third at his first marathon, in a time of 2:06:35; before breaking the word record at his seventh attempt over the distance. Even Eluid Kipchoge, the new world record holder, widely regarded as the best of all time, took until his eleventh attempt to break the world record. Until you have actually run 26.2 miles under race conditions, you have no idea how your body is going to react and how you might need to alter your training to reach your maximum potential. Experience is a huge advantage in marathon running; you may recall Mo running half of the London Marathon in 2013. This was because he wanted to get some experience of a major marathon and practice things like taking his drink from a crowded table.

What You Can Learn From This

Whatever the pressures from outside – and inside – don’t expect too much from your first marathon. Remember that any time you run is a PB and anything you learn (and there will be A LOT,) will be invaluable as you approach your second marathon.

2. He Fully Committed To The Marathon

Mo knew he had to retire from the track to fully commit to the marathon. He knew that unless he put in some fast, intense speed sessions he wouldn’t be able to compete with the best in the world on the track. The problem is that these sessions take a long time to recover from, and doing them would restrict the amount of weekly mileage he was able to do. So he had to ditch them so he could do more longer runs which would benefit his marathon.

What You Can Learn From This

At some point during marathon training you will have to accept that your heavier legs mean your 5k time is going to get slower. It’s impossible to peak for both distances at once. Tell yourself that increasing your weekly mileage is key to marathon success and those 5k PB attempts will now become 5k tempos, a valuable part of marathon training.

3. When He Did Speedwork He Shortened His Recoveries

Rather than doing track sessions with faster reps and long recoveries, Farah has reduced the speed of the reps slightly in order to reduce the recovery time. This makes sense as marathon runners will go through good and bad patches during a race and they need to be able to recover ‘on their feet’.

What You Can Learn From This

Reduce the time of the recoveries between reps on your track sessions, so instead of doing 4x1k in 4 minutes with a 3 minute recovery, do 4x1k in 4:15 with a 1 minute recovery. Or do 4x1k in 4:20 with a 1 minute jog recovery.

4. He Didn’t Forget What He Was Good At

In my opinion, Farah’s biggest strengths are his mental resilience (ie his ability to push his legs through the pain barrier in his refusal to be beaten,) and his ability to run really quickly on tired legs. Mo hasn’t forgotten these during marathons – this showed in his desire to hold on to a top three position in London and his gear change to pull ahead of Mosinet Geremew (his closest competitor and a 2:04 marathoner) in the final few hundred metres in Chicago.

What You Can Learn From This

Mo’s training sessions will have replicated what his legs would need to do in a race so he would have run some fast reps or strides at the end of a long training session. Gary Louch, Farah’s coach, knew that if he was there or thereabouts towards the end of a race he could hold on or kick ahead to win. You should also consider some fast reps or strides at the end of longer runs or training sessions, this way your legs will be more capable of running relatively quickly, or at least holding their form, when they are fatigued.

what you need to do
  • Lower your expectations for your first marathon, even if training has gone well

  • Be prepared to put miles in to run a really good marathon time. You may need to sacrifice some fast sessions to be able to do this

  • Reduce your recoveries during speed sessions, even if this means increasing your rep times a little

  • Include some strides at the end of longer runs or training sessions, so you get used to finishing quickly and with good form

Share With Your Running Buddies!