Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Lessons Learnt from Running over 100 marathons

When it comes to training for and racing a marathon we are all different in terms of pace/
susceptibility to injury/time available/ability to cross train and many other things. I do not claim to have all the answers - I am still learning but I would like to share some of the lessons I have learnt as people are often asking me for tips/advice.

Just a little bit of background - my first marathon was London in 2007 where I ran 4.48 on around 5 runs a week. After a few years of 3 marathons a year I started doing a lot more and have now done 130 marathons/ultras. My current PB is 3.12 at London 2013 on 10-12 runs a week.

1. Long runs (the basics) I think this is the most important run of the week and should not be missed. As well as improving endurance it is a time to practice race day hydration/nutrition
(see point 3). The general rule is to increase your long run by no more than 10% each week. I think it's OK to increase a little more than this when you get over half marathon distance if you are used to that distance but would probably limit it to 2 miles and if you do accidentally
increase too much compensate the next week. After 2-4 weeks (depending on your
experience/fatigue levels and other things going on in your life) cut your long run right back.
The pace should feel quite easy where you can talk in full sentences, for me this tends to be
around a minute or more slower than race pace although when I was slower my long run pace was more like 30s slower than race pace.

2. Long run (progressions) - After I had done a few marathons I found that two things helped
improve my times 1. A progressive long run - this is where you try to run the last section of your long run at race pace e.g. 16 miles steady then 4 miles at marathon pace or harder. This sounds easy but is quite hard and initially got me worried about my ability to hold marathon
pace for the whole marathon if 4 miles felt hard but remember in training you have a lot of miles in your legs whereas on race day you will be tapered. 2. Back to back long runs eg 10 miles Saturday 20 miles Sunday - the idea is that you start your long run a bit tired which is good practice at running on tired legs.

3. Long run (nutrition/hydration) - Find out 
 in advance what drinks/gels are provided at your marathon and test them on your long run. If water is in cups and like me you can't drink from cups then work out how you are going to carry your drink (I use a raidlight bottle belt which has pocket gels/phone). If you don't like the gels provided find something that works for you. During marathons I use gels as they are easy to get down but for longer runs when I am going slow enough to chew I use other things - marzipan, coconut mushrooms, 9bars, fun size crunchy, Jaffa cakes, bananas.. Practice carrying these (unless you have someone on the course who will be handing them to you) and eating them on your long run.  You don't need to use gels for all your long runs if that is what you are using on race day but try
them on a few runs to make sure they work for you. I use food suggested above in training as it is nicer and also cheap!

4. Speedwork - I didn't do any for my first few marathons as my body had enough to deal with getting used to running 5 days a week instead of 3. If you are running more miles miles than usual and adding speed be careful, you don't want to be too tired to do your long run. Any running which gets you out of your comfort zone is going to help you get faster but too much will leave you burnt out/injured. A good starting point and a session I do quite a lot is 1 minute hard 1 minute easy ten times. If that is too much do fewer reps or have more recovery then each week try to add one or two more reps. If possible try to get out of your comfort zone 1-2 times a week and mix up the sessions you do - any marathon schedule will have examples of speed sessions. I am now trying to do one tempo run - 4-5 miles hard and 1 intervals session such as 5x4 min hard each week.

5. Listen to your body - this has been my biggest lesson. I no longer follow schedules because I feel bad about missing a session so in the past have done the session when I am feeling too tired/ill/ have a bit of a niggle then end up more tired or injured. Schedules are good if you are new to marathon running as they give you an idea what you should be doing and how to progress but don't be a slave to them. It's OK to miss a session or downgrade it e.g. if you are due to do 6x800m at 5km pace but are feeling tired/unwell then change that to 3 reps/ give yourself more recovery/ run at 10km pace. If you are really ill or injured then you are best missing the session altogether. Sometimes I find it hard to decide if I am suffering from CBA or if I really am tired - it's a fine line!

6. Ignore what others are doing - we are all different, not everyone can manage the same mileage or the same amount of speed work. I used to get really tired on 50 miles a week. After many years of gradually building up I can do the occasional 100 mile week without feeling too tired. If you have other stresses in your life/a family to consider then you might not be able to do as many miles as someone without those stresses. Don't compare yourself to others in terms of miles in training or times, work within your own capabilities and gradually build on that.

7. Tune up races - these are good to get feedback on where you are at but be careful. Too many times in my early years of marathons I have run Ashby 20 (5 weeks before London) hard, then been exhausted for the next few weeks and probably as a result not had a very good marathon.

8. Marathon pacing - don't believe the calculators where you put in your half time and it tells you what you can do for the marathon, mostly these are over optimistic and can lead to people starting too fast then hitting the wall. Most people say you should aim for even splits or a negative split (second half faster than the first), I have done a few of those but not many - my better marathons have had a small positive split of up to 3 minutes. On race day marathon pace will feel quite different to how it feels in training. I have often done a 4-5 mile marathon pace run in training and thought there is no way I can do that for a marathon but on race day I have - remember you will be well rested and have crowd support to help! On race day you should start at a pace which feels comfortable, possibly even holding back a bit depending on your experience, it's hard to know what is right but you should get an idea from your long runs as to what is realistic. The more you do the better able you are to judge what feels right and the more likely you will be able to maintain a higher intensity. Eg one of my earlier marathons which was a PB at the time was with a friend, we were chatting constantly up to about 20 miles.  Now I can maintain a higher intensity so whilst I can chat I it would just be the odd sentence here and there after about an hour.

9. Hard/Easy - always follow a hard day with an easy day/rest day or even two easy days to allow your body to recover. I confess that I do occasionally break this rule if for example I have a race at the weekend I might do hard on Monday and Tuesday then easy for the rest of the week.

10. Doubles - when I started doing two runs a day I improved my marathon time despite not doing much speedwork. Start by adding a short run of 20-30 mins once or twice a week at an easy pace for a few weeks before either adding more days or increasing the length of the run. I now run twice most week days. Initially my legs would feel a bit tired for my second run but they don't any more unless my lunchtime run has been a hard session.

11. Shoes/blisters - putting Vaseline on your feet on areas where you might get blisters can help. If you always get blisters in the same place then compeed before the run might help or changing your socks. I get more blisters in hot weather when my feet are sweating more so you need breathable socks- I like hilly twin skin. It might be a change of shoes helps, I always got blisters with mizuno and asics but stopped getting them when I switched to Kswiss (apart from on really long or wet runs). I now wear Skechers and rarely get blisters - just on some ultras - as these have a bigger toe box than most shoes. A lot of people get half a size bigger for marathons. I have half a size up for marathons and a whole size bigger for ultras as my feet tend to swell a lot. My current favourites are Gorun2 (yellow) for speedwork, races up to marathon distance and some general runs as these are very light and Gorun ride2 (pink)for long runs, ultras and recovery runs as they offer a bit more cushioning but are still very light.

12. Diet - this really depends on how dedicated you are. Generally losing weight will help you run faster. When I started marathon training I ate more (rewards) so put on weight; when I lost this I got faster. What I have eaten the day before will often affect my run; if I have eaten rubbish my run will often be rubbish - put good quality fuel in your body you will run better but that is easier said than done. There is a lot of information out there about fasted training/ low carb high fat diets being good. I don't do either of those but they might be worth looking at. I am vegetarian with a high proportion of my calories being from fruit/veg.

13. Cross training - This depends on the time you have and how injury prone you are. If you get injured easily then doing a bit more cross training is worthwhile e.g. elliptical trainer/bike/aqua jogging. If you are finding the higher mileage hard then you might be better off doing your intervals on the elliptical or bike - this will not be as good as doing a hard running session but the hard running is more likely to leave you injured. Core training is good for running form especially when you are tired like at the end of a marathon. The elites all seem to do weight training so it must be good but I don't think essential. I find that running to the gym to do spin or body pump then running home is a useful session as you are practicing running on tired legs without doing that many miles (4miles total).

14.Multi tasking - often time is limited and fitting in sessions can be tricky so get a running rucksack so you can do jobs on your run - I often run to town to do buy a few bits/go 

the bank/ train station etc. It also saves petrol!

15.Race day prep - as well as testing gels and shoes make sure you test your kit as sometimes it can cause chaffing. The problem with spring marathons is that you are likely to
be wearing shorts and vest but in training it is too cold. At least try to do one long run in shorts if you don't normally wear them even if it means wearing a jacket to keep warm -
thigh chaffing is quite common! Vaseline/body glide before the run can prevent this. I like to use shoes with around 100-150 miles on them for key races so will wear them for a few weeks and a long run to make sure they are OK then put them away. A few months out is a good time to be planning your shoes - too many people get to a few weeks before the marathon and realise they have 400 miles on their shoes, it is then too late to get new ones and test them on a long run. Make sure you have tested your race day breakfast before a long run and know what time you need to have it. I can have breakfast 90 mins before the marathon but some people need longer for it to settle. If you are staying in a hotel check in advance what they have and what time they are serving breakfast so you know if you need to take your own.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing Helen. A lot of useful information there from someone with a truly impressive running history!