When I ran my first marathon, in my very first year of running, I decided to ally with a coach from the very beginning. I felt that there was no point committing all my efforts to such a lengthy race and then risk having a bad performance on the day. In the end it turned out fabulously being 12 minutes faster than first expected. I learnt the first lessons about the distance in that race and since then I would say ‘there are hundreds of interesting facts to know about the marathon’ but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to share four insights to consider as you go into the final weeks for this year’s Dublin Marathon.
Don’t obsess about hydration and gels
Sports drinks and energy products such as gels became big business in the 80ies and this skewed a lot of research (if some of it could indeed be called that) in the years after and marketing did the rest. World records came and went with runners sustained on nothing or, in some case, only on small amounts of their, then, home-made concoctions.
Today, we are wiser and the dangers of ‘over-hydration’ were pointed out by professor Timothy Noakes in his book ‘Waterlogged‘. He had earlier pointed out that the most dehydrated runners are the leaders – our bodies are remarkably adept at managing themselves. We can imagine that we would never have made it off the Savannah if we really depended on water-stations every few miles or a constant supply of easily digestible sugar. Marketing has made us this creature – and if that is how you have trained, you will need to use some gels or other carbs during the race (listen to our podcast with performance nutritionist Barry Murray for more on this topic).
Over-drinking is the real danger of modern marathons, not under-hydration and drinking to thirst is sufficient. In cool Autumn marathons this is easy to manage whereas in the hot summer marathons conditions such as imminent heat stroke can sometimes play havoc with your desire to drink, so on such days it pays to prepare rough routine for how much fluid you need but err on the side of conservatism (often it is better to pour large parts of it over your head in those conditions as keeping cool here is the main purpose and external ‘coolant’ unlike drinking the water will not force your body to further adjust its salt levels).
Today many runners arrive at the finish line heavier than when they left! You can test this on your training runs – drink the water you need before your next long run and then weigh yourself before the run and again after. Ideally, you should be lighter when you come back. This has performance implications too: carrying around too much excess body-water makes you heavier and thus slower. A marathon runner should not sound like a water cooler on legs!
Run the second half faster (when the course permits)
Dr Timothy Noakes showed in his seminal book ‘The Lore of Running‘ that most of the world records across a wide array of distances are run as what is called a ‘negative split’ – a fancy term for running the second half of a race faster. The explanation seems simple: as the finish line nears, the brain feels it is more ‘secure’ to release more resources because the chance that you (yes you!) will do yourself serious harm is now reduced. There are many other reasons why a negative split can work in our favour too: it keeps us slower early on meaning we keep more resources intact and avoid burning off our limited glycogen (sugar) stores in the initial rush leaving us jaded later. Think of it as a poker game – once you have shown your hand, you’ve shown it – now all you can do is hope no one has a better one.
The standard negative split was 51/49 meaning that you’d cover the first half of the race in 51% of the time and the second half in 49% of the time – so for a sub-three hour marathon running the first half in roughly 1:32 and the last in ~1:28. In my first marathon I hit this rule entirely through self-regulation (listening to my body) to a precision of 2 decimals. It’s a powerful way to finish providing a positive mental boost rather than the anxiety that can sometimes follow being ‘reeled in’ by runner after runner.
Some courses do not allow for an effective negative splits (if most of the downhills are early or most of the uphills late) in which case you need to distribute your effort evenly instead. The revised Dublin marathon course looks well designed for a negative split with the toughest climbs now coming early on. Contest those climbs too hard, however, and you may find yourself lacking the energy to ‘push-on’ in the second half.
The faster you get the more even your pace will need to become over the entire course of the race – at elite levels today a new ruleset is beginning to be set with many marathons starting very aggressively and the leaders just ‘hanging on’. That does not need to concern you unless you plan to contest the very top-end of elite fields against the cream of Africa. Yet even for the world class athletes it has been proven that ‘banking time almost never works’ - so assume that if it doesn’t work for the world’s best, it probably won’t work for you either!
Don’t worry if you didn’t get in that 20 miler
It is more than possible to complete a marathon in a reasonable time without doing the standard 20 or 22 mile long run that has been the mainstay of many training plans since Arthur Lydiard’s famous ’22 mile Waiatarua’ circuit set a new standard for long runs. When I completed my first marathon my longest run was a mere 22 km (a full 20 km short of the full distance).
The theory of super-compensation tells us that as your body adapts to exercise it builds in extra capacity beyond what you did in training – so if you ran 10 km it will recover and allow you to run perhaps 11 km at that speed next time. Even if it didn’t: your body never gives you 100% - not even in the toughest race and certainly not in a training run (if it did – you’d be dead).
Psychologically having done the longer run is an advantage for many runners (but not all need this reassurance – some people believe they can do the distance regardless – you need to look into yourself to see if you truly have the belief). Running coach Lee Saxby provided an interesting example of how to train for this on the VivoBarefoot Certification course we attended in the summer: when training a marathon runner one of the first thing he asks novices to do is to walk the full distance. That’s the distance taken care of from a mental perspective. The runner know they can cover it. Then you just need to work improving the average speed over the remainder of the training.
For beginners especially the use of long runs that are either too regular or too long tends to have several downsides: it increases the risk of burn-out, injury and tiredness (leading to underperformance on the day) Remember: if running was just about doing more miles, performances would not fluctuate as much and injury rates would not be so prevalent. Rather we need to take a leaf out of Arthur Newton’s writings from the 1930ies and ‘get away with doing the most, with the least’. This means if you can currently run a 3:20 marathon by doing your longest run at 22 km then it does not follow that you will run 3:15 (in the same race) by doing 25 km. In fact it may lead you to run 3:30. Always ask ‘what’s the optimal distance for me this year’. Next year it’ll be more but don’t be too greedy too soon. As long as you regularly experience runs of 90 to 2.5 hours in training (depending on your level), and you don’t sabotage your fat metabolism by constantly feeding yourself sugar during training, your body will build the adaptations it needs for long distance races such as the marathon and beyond.
Finding just the right load for each workout and then picking the right period of recovery after to absorb it in time for the next workout is the true secret to training and why standardised training plans need to be heavily modified for most people to get the best of them.
Don’t stretch before your race
Static stretches pull the collagen fibres in your muscles further apart when done too rigorously and this in turn causes inflammation in the fibres and an inhibition reflex in the nervous system. In layman’s terms: you make yourself temporarily weaker – not what you want before a marathon. Stretching, and the many fallacies surrounding it, is another topic too big for this article, but a quick search online will provide many great resources showing why it should not be done as a standard ritual by all runners before all runs but rather static stretching should be an isolated instrument used very rarely in very specific cases but preferably not at all when it can be helped.
So when you are at a race and some instructor takes you through static stretches – RUN quickly the other way! And then do some mobility work instead such as gentle plyometrics (jumping on the spot as if skipping, for instance).
If you are very tight leading into a race you two quickest and best options are to 1) sit less and keep moving about – avoid long spells of sitting in particular and 2) look for sore spots in your muscles (it is not normal that muscles are very sore when simply pressed by a thumb). Basically your tissues have become tangled from inappropriate loading in training. Jay Dicharry, author of ‘Run like an Athlete‘, uses the metaphor of straws – if you line up straws they are tough to break but if you throw them on a table in a tangled mess individual straws are easily broken. Working on the worst knots yourself for 3-5 minutes every day can create huge gains in mobility in 2-3 weeks and often instant relief. If you have the budget – find a ‘body-worker’ of whatever description you wish or trust the most.
I picked these four topics to share with you because they are topics you can think about and, if convinced, implement without a major change to your routine. If you have done longer runs than 20 or 22 miles, then, no need to worry, as long as you feel fresh and sharp going into the taper. If, on the other hand, your longest run was much shorter, rest assured that there is nothing magical about the 20 or 22 mile workout – they are just a tradition handed down from elite athletes. Similarly, avoiding over-drinking and the pre-race stretch are simple strategies to implement that can have a big effect on the day and so is having half an eye on a negative split and avoiding starting too fast.
Keep in mind: many people running big ‘positive splits’ do so because they have overestimated their own capabilities – so early on in the race its crucial that you set your pace by how you feel and with half an eye on the heart rate monitor (if you use one) for more information. It is not impossible to force the pace the whole way around – when I ran the Copenhagen Marathon in 2012 – I felt bad from the very first step and this only got worse as 25 degree temperatures scorched us. On the day the option to ‘run without the comfort zone’ was not there – but I salvaged a personal best by adjusting my target immediately for the first half leaving me with enough life to only run the last half 2 minutes slower. You can do similarly if things don’t turn out to plan: readjust the target for the half-marathon. If you suddenly feel great you have over 21 km to make up ‘lost time’. If you push it on the other hand, despite already feeling under pressure, you will crash and burn. I wish you the best of luck…