For anyone yet to receive the memo – brace yourself, here it comes – running a marathon is, as it turns out, actually quite difficult.
With the culmination of meticulous prep, abstinence from takeaways and endless jogging in sub-zero temperatures, who knew it does not suddenly translate to a carnival of idyllic exercise when stretched across 26.2 miles?
And though trading your village green for a sprawling cityscape – with its cheering crowds, tourist landmarks and moving sea of 40,000 entrants – can’t help but inspire, make no mistake: each runner’s race is an intimate, lonely road. High-fiving your family members at mile five is swell and all, but can they un-sprain your ankle at mile 22, because you blew off all your weekend runs in favour of cat naps and full English breakfasts, and now sport ligaments like linguine? (No.)
Defined by the finest of margins and a million individual decisions, your noble quest for a record time could be in the bag – or, alternatively, in tatters – before you’ve even tied your trainers. We’ve all heard about Vaseline between the toes and Elastoplast across the nipples, but what of the elite level secrets to securing that most alluring of rare beasts: a personal best?
To find out, AM assembled a crack team of running industry pros – an exhaustive blend of coaches, PTs, physios, scientists and Olympic medallists – to divulge their own tried-and-tested tips and tricks that will, come mile 26, stand you in great shape to secure victory*.
(*Personal victory, that is. Sir Mo Farah, or someone equally superhuman, will win the actual race.)
The Olympian: Seek professional help & don’t train through the pain
"Don't use a training programme out of a book, where you can't communicate with a coach. You'll be left changing the plan around yourself when work or personal obligations come along, which they always do. The structure of the training plan plays an important role in staying away from injuries and improving.
"If you ever experience pain in the muscles or around joints, stop straight away, or it will lead to an injury. You're better off cross training on the elliptical, swimming, biking and stretching until the problem is resolved. Maybe even a day or two off exercise. You could also get a deep tissue massage. Don't run through it."
– John Henwood, Olympian for New Zealand in the Men’s 10,000 metres (Athens 2004). For beginners or sub-elite athletes alike, Henwood creates training programmes with personal contact for runners all over the world. More info here.
The Physiotherapist: Rebalance with pilates & fix your posture
“None of us are perfectly symmetrical. Our job, activities we do, and whether we sit all day or have a manual job will all determine which parts of our bodies are stronger than others. Ultimately, your running style might suffer because of this. If I could give one piece of advice to runners it would be to do clinical Pilates to rebalance the muscle imbalances and restrictions that will limit their running technique. By improving strength and control in the right areas, your muscles will become much more efficient at controlling your body movement and improve your running style to make the job easier.
“If you are someone with a flexed running posture, you will never run to your full potential. A flexed upper body will not allow for good rib cage expansion, therefore reducing lung capacity and thoracic movement. Flexing forward will also limit your arm swing, which in turn will reduce your spinal rotation and less efficiency in the oblique muscles.”
– Lyndsay Hirst is the founder of Your Pilates Physio
The Parkrunner: Compress yourself, chill your legs, & eat beets
“My calves always seemed to take the brunt of the punishment from blocks of hard training, particularly when I was putting the miles in on the road or track. The support provided by the graduated compression from a good pair of knee-length compression socks can reduce post-session soreness by reducing muscle vibration, and also keep you warmer during the winter. Also, worn after training, the socks can help recovery by increasing blood circulation.
“The jury's out on the benefits of ice baths for recovery from training, and there have been conflicting studies on whether regular use blunts adaptation to exercise – which you need to get stronger and fitter. However, most professional athletes swear by them. A wheelie bin is the easiest to stand up in, or you can just sit down in the bath. My preference was to immerse my legs for 10 minutes, then warm up gradually before having a warm shower.
“The nitrate content of beetroot juice has been found to reduce the oxygen cost of exercise – i.e. you are more economical and efficient running at the same speed – as well as potentially increasing muscle power output. All of this means that having a concentrated beetroot juice shot is worth trying ahead of a big race.”
The Endurance Coach: Don't taper too much, snack beforehand, & stick to plan
“Resting too much on race week will leave you feeling sluggish. Try to run as frequently as possible, but reduce the distance, intensity and duration as race day gets near. Resting for days – unless you have to through injury or illness – can leave the body confused and your metabolism will drop, leaving you tired. I’d even recommend a 20 to 30 minute easy run the day before the marathon, with a stretch afterwards.
“Take a carbohydrate-based snack – banana or an energy bar – and sports drink to snack on between breakfast and race start. You want to be prepared with fuel, in case of a delayed start.
“Run at the pace you have practiced. Definitely don't try to bank faster miles and get ahead of the schedule – it’s a sure way to hit the wall in the final third of the race, as you are using up your carbohydrate stores too quickly. Focus on your target, remember your pace, split times and don't rely on your GPS – they often fail with so many signals in the same area. Have your splits per mile written on your arm in permanent ink, or on a wristband.”
The Exercise Scientist: Draft & relax your arms
“To draft and conserve energy, if you can find someone going at your pace, sit behind them. Don't be the leader of a pack of runners, especially if going into a head wind. If you do have some time facing a head wind, and can’t sit on other runners, you have to face the fact that your pace will be slower. Trying to maintain the same pace into a wind will cost too much energy, which can hurt you later on.
“During the race, occasionally go from your head to your feet, asking yourself, ‘Am I relaxed in the face? Am I relaxed in the jaw? Am I relaxed in the shoulders? Am I relaxed in the stomach and hips? Am I relaxed in the legs and feet?’ It is not uncommon for runners to get tense and elevate their shoulders, clench their fists or carry their arms too tight. Don’t work the arms, let them balance the body movement."
– Dr. Jack Daniels, two-time Olympic medallist (Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960), exercise scientist and “The World’s Best Running Coach” (Runner’s World). Dr. Daniels is Head Coach of the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project
Marathon Winner: Time your fluids, refuel with Coke & dextrose
“If you always feel the need to pee before a race, drink a cup of black coffee an hour before you run, then stop all fluid intake. Literally on the start line, drink 6-8 ounces of the drink you plan to take during the run, then drink every five kilometres.
“De-fizzed coke – not Diet – at around 19 or 20 mile mark will give you a big energy buzz for the last few miles of the race. Coke has both the caffeine and sugar content needed to refuel and boost energy. you will need to drink around six fluid ounces.
"Wrap two dextrose tablets in tinfoil and place them under your watch strap. Take at mile 16 and 21 – this will keep your energy up better than expensive gels. Dextrose is absorbed very quickly into the system and is speedily transformed to energy.”
– Liz McColgan-Nuttall, Olympic silver medallist (Seoul 1988), 10,000m world and Commonwealth champion, and winner of the New York, Tokyo and London Marathon
The Personal Trainer: Incorporate strength training, carb load, & practice in your race kit
“Any runner, whether experienced or new, needs to try and incorporate at least 30 minutes of strength training as part of their weekly training routine. You can do everything at home, without the need to set foot in a gym. This is my routine: one minute leg raises, one minute clams, two minute plank, two minute squats, two minute bridges, two minute lunges.
“We’ve all heard about runners stuffing their face with big bowls of pasta the night before a race, but in reality this is terrible advice. you will end up feeling bloated, probably won’t sleep very well and start the race still digesting the meal from the night before. If the race is on Sunday, try to up your carbohydrate levels on the Thursday and Friday. Pasta, rice, bagels, cereals, bread et cetera. Don’t eat extra quantities, just lower your percentage of proteins and fats, then up the amount of carbohydrate. On Saturday, it’s best to eat a balanced diet, normal quantities and get yourself an early night. The extra carbs in your system from Thursday and Friday will be perfect to fuel your race.
“So many new runners stand on the start line wearing brand new gear that they’ve never actually worn, let alone raced in. It’s critical that you practice your long runs while wearing the exact kit you will wear on race day, as it’s far easier to sort problems in the build-up. Don’t go to the marathon expo and buy new socks, vest and shoes, then take them to the start line – these stories always end badly. Wear your trusty gear that you’re practiced in, that you know works for you.”
The Sports Medicine Consultant: Sleep, run far
“You train and perform much better when you have slept properly. You are also four times more likely to get ill if you have slept an average of five hours a night for a week, compared to eight hours. All Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners prioritise it – many sleeping for more than 10 hours per night.
“During training, it is the weekly long run getting progressively longer that will help you avoid hitting the wall at the end of a race. To run a quick time, doing one or two sessions per week running quickly – for example intervals, fartlek or hill repeats – will help you build your engine.”
– Dr. Andrew Murray, international distance runner and Sports Medicine Consultant at University of Edinburgh. Dr. Murray is a brand ambassador for Merrell
The Gym MD: Train your core, be realistic
“So many runners think the key to success – in terms of setting a PB – is to load their training with nothing but long distance runs and the occasional sprint. However, if you want to get the edge over your fellow runners, you should integrate some core muscle exercises into your training. Abdominal crunches, planks, bridges and squats help build core stamina, which in turn allows you to maintain a good posture throughout your race. This expends less energy, and allows you to maximise how much effort you put into your pace.
“You might be in the best shape of your life, but that won’t protect you from dehydration and heat stroke. Be ambitious when setting your targets, but be prepared to change plans depending on the conditions.”
– Luke Hughes, personal trainer, running coach and Managing Director of OriGym
The Bodyweight Specialist: Walk like a runner
“Treat every step you take as an opportunity to improve your running technique. When you walk, try to get an awareness of how your foot hits the ground. Avoid striking the pavement heel-first, as this can cause back and knee pain. Instead, focus on landing on your forefoot, allowing your muscles to catch the weight of your body and reducing the impact on joints and bones when you land. Ideally, your foot should make contact with the ground directly underneath your body, rather than far out in front of it. When there’s a straight line from your hips to where your foot lands, it reduces the impact on your legs and cuts your risk of injury.”
– Ben Bulach, bodyweight training specialist for Freeletics
The Team USA Olympian: Schedule a dress rehearsal and hold yourself accountable
“It’s very important to use at least one long run to spend as much time on your feet as you plan to spend racing the marathon. For example, if you’re goal is a 3:30 marathon, you will want to do a 3:30 long run – just at a slower pace than marathon race day.
“Schedule a race rehearsal day during your training build-up. To help allow race morning to flow smoothly, pick a workout or long run day where you practice as much of your race day plan as possible. Include everything from what you plan to eat, what you plan to wear and what you plan to fuel with during the race. Race day nerves are a guarantee, but if you have practiced your routine you can find some comfort in the familiarity of your plan.
“Have a goal, and run with a purpose. The final stages of a marathon are a test of will, so it helps to remember why you’re out there. Tell friends and family your target, to help make you feel accountable to it, or run for a charity so that you have a reason beyond yourself to dig deep when you’re getting tired. Finishing a marathon can represent the culmination of one of the most challenging and satisfying undertakings in sport, so building belief and focus throughout the training process can provide some important confidence.”
– Kim Conley, two-time Olympian for Team USA (London 2012, Rio 2016), and 2015 US Half Marathon Champion and runner for New Balance
The author of this piece, Sam Rowe, is running the London Marathon to raise vital funds for Help Refugees. You can sponsor him here.
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