Monday, 30 December 2013

How to run the perfect marathon

Heathside Massive

Most runners are full of wisdom and advice, a lot of it good, but a huge amount is circumstantial. We assume the fastest person knows best, the oldest is the wisest, but most runners I know still have some very bad habits and overlook aspects of their training that could improve their times considerably.

I'm fairly confident in saying that I am one of the slowest runners ever to run sub 2.45. I'm a maths geek at heart and have spent years analysing every aspect of marathon training to trim off a few seconds repeatedly with every discovery. The below advice does assume you have run for a while, trained for races before and have read the bog standard 'how to train for a marathon' articles, so it's missing a lot of the basics, but it's long enough without them. This is meant, as the title suggests to enable runners to run their perfect marathon.

My main assumptions are:
  • You have a training plan already - runners world plans are great. You can play with them, just ensure you have at least one tempo run, one interval session and one long run each week and that there is always a rest day or easier run in between each of them.
  • You are near to your optimal weight - if you are overweight, the quickest way to get quicker is to lose the weight. I've been lucky enough to never need to diet or lose weight, so am not going to advise on the best way to do this, as it's not my area of expertise.
  • You have shoes that work for you - barefoot debate or not, if you've not checked your running style and found the appropriate shoe, marathon training will accelerate you towards an injury so go to runnersneed for a gait analysis.
  • You have a realistic target - this requires you to have run a few halfs and maybe some marathons before and you can then set your target based on the times you've achieved so far. If you can't run a sub 20min 5k, you're not going to run a sub-3 marathon after one training block. Having said that be ambitious, my fastest 5k and half marathon times are all mid-marathon training and I didn't really know I could break 2.45 until I'd run a half in 1.18 during my training.
So taking on board those assumptions:

Recover after every run


The frequency, intensity and mileage is such that training is as much about recovery as it is about the sessions. If you're tired going into a run, you won't train as effectively, you'll lose running form and increase your risk of injury. Marathon training is therefore about recovering as effectively as possible after every run:
  1. Recovery drink after every hard run - you have a 20 minute window post exercise when your muscles are taking on fuel at an increased rate, drinks such as For Goodness Shakes or something as simple as low fat chocolate milk have the balance of 3:1 carbs to protein ratio - carbs for energy, protein for repair. I drink half a pint-a pint after every run (hot chocolate when cold).
  2. Icebaths after a long run - icebaths reduce the inflammation of the muscles and also withdraw the blood from them, removing lactic acid and replenishing with new chocolate milk fueled blood once you get warm again. 10 mins in a bath of 10'C water or less is enough, I throw some freezable iceblocks in, stick on a DVD and drink a cuppa.
  3. Compression tights - similar to an icebath, compression tights increase circulation and reduce inflammation, I wear them all day and night when not training under my work clothes etc - the ladies love!  If you don't want to buy expensive tights, wear a size of women's tights that are too small.
  4. Sleep like a bear - obvious and will probably happen anyway, but expect to be tired and don't neglect the power of sleep
  5. Vanquish the Vino - alcohol can slow your metabolism down for up to 3 days, impacts on the quality of your sleep and strips the body of nutrients, none of which are good for recovery. I restrict myself to a 2 pint max, accept for Thursday and Sunday nights, as I know the next day is my day off running or a 5 mile jog.
  6. Eat well - obvious, but lots of people eat junk, as they're burning through calories, is important to ensure you're getting all the minerals, nutrients and carbs the body needs though - green veg,  nuts ...

Train to race

  1. No gels or energy drinks in training - it's important to try gels, so you're confident with them for race day, but on training runs you shouldn't need them and it's far better to train your body to use its fat stores, so that you don't hit the wall. Take a gel with you for if you bonk, but don't train yourself to depend on them.
  2. Get a gps watch or heart rate monitor - I've been told heart rate monitors are best to train with, as it only monitors how hard you're working, therefore taking into account hills, wind, tiredness, a cold etc. but gps watched are also great to make sure you're running at the right pace.
  3. Join a club - interval sessions are hard to pace and ever harder to push yourself to your limit by yourself. Join a club, find a nemesis and push yourself every session chasing them down, it adds variety and it's extremely useful to be able to talk to other runners.
  4. Run every run - schedule each day when you are running, book it in the diary (having a club time helps with this) if pushed for time run to work ... Every week training builds on the last and missing runs will only increase the intensity of the next. I've done 22 * 1 mile laps of my local park at 10pm following  a stag do before, not fun, but felt great afterwards. If you run with others, you are more likely to attend and it varies your training, reducing repetition and means you get unload your boring running chat to people who actually care and can empathise. Obviously the only exception is if you are injured.
  5. Don't race every run - it may be tempting to speed up on your long runs, but you're just building in tiredness for the week ahead and reducing your ability to train well. Go as hard as you can on your intervals, while keeping them consistent and increase your tempo session pace, but keep your long run slow until you're used to the mileage.
  6. Don't catch up on your schedule - if you miss a run through injury or lack of planning it's gone. Training is hard enough without piling on extra miles and it will only increase your chance of injury and decrease the quality of your training through tiredness. If you have a long period without training it will impact on your time, suck it up and learn from it - it took me 3 attempts to get to the start line ready for my 2.44.

Stay injury free


One of the hardest aspects to master - how to push your body to near breaking point without actually breaking. The recovery tips will help, but in addition:

  1. Warm up before every intense session - a one mile jog is advisable, include some strides (quicker 50 meter runs where you concentrate on your running form) and some dynamic stretches if you have time. It reduces your risk of injury and you'll start each session primed to run quickly.
  2. Don't do static stretches before a run - they drain elasticity and power from the muscles for up to 3 hours, reducing performance and can cause injury, as your muscles are not warm enough to be stretched, instead do dynamic stretches.
  3. Warm down after every hard session -  a one mile jog is often enough after intervals, tempo run and races. It gives your muscles a chance to stretch out again and remove unwanted lactic acid.
  4. Stretch after every run - the only exception to this is after a very hard race or a very long run, as your muscles with have micro-tears and stretching can actually exasperate the damage and lead to slower recovery. Instead wait a few hours before stretching. Additional good times to stretch - in or after a shower or straight after getting out of bed  as your muscles will be warm or even on the tube platform if you've just walked there. Make sure you're holding a stretch 30-50 seconds for each of your glutes, hamstrings, upper and lower calves, groin, quads and hip flexors
  5. Stretch for balance - very few of us are anatomically perfect and as a result we often have one side stronger or more flexible than the other, which can create imbalance that leads to injury. If you are stiffer or less flexible on one side, hold your stretches for longer on these muscles, so that in time you will readdress the balance.  
  6. Dull pain probably ok, sharp pain no - your body will feel lethargic and sore during training. Your one mile warm up will help you sense whether pain is tiredness or injury, sharp pain is never good though and you should seek advice rather than run. Two days off resting is better than 2 weeks injured.
  7. In the head fine, below the neck check - head cold is fine to train with, but anything in the lungs and you're risking a chest infection, as I found out for 6 weeks this year.
  8. Get a sports massage check up - the miles of training will magnify any imbalances in your muscle groups, which lead to injury, so once a month schedule a sports massage - it aids recovery and a good masseur will be able to identify any weaknesses or imbalances, so that you can stretch or strengthen accordingly. If you're London based I'd greatly recommend Sam

Prepare yourself mentally


The training plans are hard and can be quite demoralising if you're not prepared for the highs and the lows. A few things to bear in mind:

  1. You might not be quick enough for your plan to start with - I struggle with the speed of my tempo sessions at the start of each training plan - I'm too tired from the increased mileage and while quick enough to run them as a one off, am only quick enough to run them at the end of a training week once I'm half way through the plan. This is quite usual, so persist through.
  2. You will hit a low - while training you will speed up and feel great, but as the training continues ramping up, runners often slump in week 6-8. You might start to slow down or struggle with your runs - I once hit the wall 7 miles into a 12 mile run and had to walk home. These things happen, once again expect it, don't let it affect you and persist through.
  3. Be realistic about who you are and make some rules - we're all lazy, weak ... sometimes. So it's important to think of ways of motivating yourself before you need to. I have a rule that I can walk in any race, I'm just not allowed to walk up hills (unless it's faster to). It's a stupid rule, but in marathon training the only part of a run where I want to walk is up a hill, once I'm at the top I no longer want to walk, so the rule works for me. Training will be hard and you will be tired, so whenever I'm tired I remind myself it's because I'm training like a hero, when it's hard it's because I'm running like a powerhouse, every negative thought is recognised, but put in context with a greater positive.
  4. Have a mantra - you need a reason for running; training is too hard to without one. Mine was 2.44 - every time I didn't want to run I reminded myself and on the runs repeated 'this is 2.44 running.'
  5. Break it down - You're going to be running tired repeatedly and runs will seem beyond you, break them down and just commit to running part of it, then when you get there, readdress. If you don't think you can do ten intervals do 6, then another ... same for running 10 miles. It's much easier to think you might have a break coming and push for a short time than to think about the overall total. In races stick to people's shoulders, chase down the runner ahead, concentrate on the short term.

Race like a boss


Try these out for every race leading up to the marathon so that you know that they work

  1. Choose the right race - not all marathons are equal, if you want a pb, pick the right course. Take into account not just ascent, but wind, support on the course, logistics (for New York you have to arrive 3 hours before the start), the journey to get there - London is where I live, so it's easy to get there, but most importantly I know every step of the last 6 miles, as soon as I hit Tower Bridge I'm running home, it's a huge boost.
  2. Only run as far as you have to - you don't get anything extra for running 26.5 miles, be as aggressive on your racing lines as you can be. In Milan I came through half way in 12.8 miles. I still ran 26.4, but I was taking off a few meters with every corner that I could edge. Obviously if you're in a packed group, run with the group, it's too tiring to be constantly weaving and disrespectful to other runners.
  3. Get some magic shoes - my adizero's are my race day shoe. They're extra light and I only wear them for the big races. As a result, as soon as I put them on I feel pumped and my feet feel like they can fly. Obviously find a pair that works for you, but mentally it puts me on the front foot.
  4. Carb load like a sumo - most people think a large bowl of pasta is sufficient, but research shows that you should eat as much as 7-10 grams of carbs per kilo of body weight. That's a huge amount - over 500g of carbs for me; a bowl of pasta may only be 90g. I achieve the amount with  a 200g bag of toffee popcorn (Lidl has the lowest fat), 200g bag of pretzels, 4 Lucozade drinks, malt loaf, porridge and then some pasta. The morning of the race have up to 150 grams of carbs to top you up - porridge, toast and a banana (remember to give 2-3 hours for it clear your stomach.)
  5. Caffeine is rocket fuel - it's the only legal drug that works. Caffeine takes 5-10 minutes to take effect, reduces tiredness, pain, increases alertness and releases fat into the blood stream to increase energy. It's a wonder drug, but it only last 25-40 mins and each dosage gives diminishing returns. Therefore reduce caffeine from your every day life to increase its impact on race day. Never have caffeine before a race, you'll start too fast and crash. Cut out some proplus tabs and take them: Half-marathon take 1-2 tablets when your pace starts to drop at 7-8 miles, take another dose if you need at 10-11.Marathon take 1-2 as you start to drop at 16-19 miles, then another dose 21-23. Practice beforehand, but for best results leave 2 weeks before each use.
  6. Know your gel strategy - you can absorb 60 grams of carbs an hour while running, 90 grams if your gel is duel maltodextrin and fructose, this equates to 2-3 gels an hour, figure out your favourite, do the maths and take them when you're meant to no matter how you feel. Don't take one before you start running, it will spike your insulin levels, which reduces the absorption rate. Even if you only have 2-3 miles left, take a bit in your mouth for 20 seconds, it's called a carbo mouth rinse and has an effect even if the gel doesn't reach the muscles in time. I would recommend Nectar or Torq gels or if you don't like gels Cliff shot bloks.
  7. Get your funk on - music has a powerful effect on your emotions and rhythm ... so save it for when you need it. Start without, take in the sights, think about your breathing, enjoy the event and then when the going gets tough you'll have the lift of the music to make an impact. If you're going to play music throughout have a slow playlist and a fast playlist, for each stage of the race - fast playlist doesn't have to be fast, it can be something that makes you smile, something you love or just the best running song of all time.
  8. Stick a cap in your arse - take 2 Imodium tablets with breakfast, it won't effect you in any way other than knowing you're not going to get yourself an unwanted spray-tan mid-race.
  9. Race your pace - start in the right pen for your time, don't push ahead or you'll start too fast. Relax and no matter how good you feel, don't go quicker than your race pace until half way at the least, only then will you be able to judge what's possible.
  10. Beetroot diet - this is for the real diehards, but has been shown to work; Mo Farah swears by it and it worked for me - a pint of juice a day for six days leading up to the race and you will be needing that Imodium. I eat 200g of cooked beetroot as a cheaper more palatable alternative. Fairly complex, but the high nitrate levels in the beetroot help with the transportation of oxygen around the body and increase stamina.
  11. Have a wall beating strategy - hopefully with the above you won't hit the wall, but if you do there are a few things you can do - get angry, really angry - scream, bang the a wall, it releases adrenalin, which will help get you started again. Start sprinting - you won't have used the glycogen stores in your fast twitch muscles, so start sprinting. It won't last long, but maybe enough to get you through the wall. Ideally get angry and start sprinting.
  12. Catch up on lost time over 26 miles -  you may start in the wrong pen, get caught in a bottle neck or start late. remember you have 26 miles to catch up, so pace accordingly. When pacing Brighton a runner caught up 2 minutes in the first 3 miles to catch me, so that he could run with a pacer. Needless to say he faded at half way. it's far better to catch up a few seconds per mile.
  13. Pace only against the clock and the mile markers - Garmins are great and pacemakers are useful, but neither are 100% guaranteed - pace to your Garmin and you may find you have another .4 of a mile to run, pace to a pacemaker and he may have started five minutes behind you from a different start or might just be wrong. Get a pace band and check your splits after every mile, it's the only way to guarantee your pace.
That's a lot to take on board and some of the research and science will change, so if you have any counter-evidence, then let me know, as I will be updating this to take on board new developments and often sports science studies lack a sufficient sample size to be conclusive. If there's anything you would add, then please get in touch. I try to be a sponge to knowledge, but there could be more I could be doing or certain aspects I have overlooked or am not aware of (diet and running style are prime examples.) The main takeaway is tiny differences add up, so analyze every aspect of your training and try new ideas out. The beauty of the marathon is that you only get one shot from months of training, so it can take a few attempts for everything to fall into place. Good luck and let me know how you get on.

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