The road to marathon success is never smooth and problem-free. Every runner, from first-timer to marathon veteran, hits a hurdle or two while preparing for the marathon: an injury, a cold, an unexpected extra project at work. If things came more easily than this, completing the marathon wouldn’t be the major achievement that it is.
Although these problems may seem unique and uniquely troubling when they happen to you, they rarely represent anything new. The history of marathon training is a history of millions of runners encountering more or less the same sorts of hurdles. So don’t panic. You can overcome and get to where you want to be: the marathon finish line.
In this article, Hal Higdon asks a number of marathon experts how to cope with specific problems. The questions (and answers) may not seem important to you until you encounter one of the very same hurdles. And, since the road to marathon success is littered with such obstacles, you probably will.
When that happens, the advice offered here will help you continue down the road to the finish line.
We have rediscovered the marathon. Oprah Winfrey has run one, more than half a million people have completed the London Marathon, and still the interest continues.
Why this renewed interest in racing 26 miles? No one knows, but some experts suspect that during the euphoria of the early running boom in the 1970s, many runners over-raced, then sensibly sought moderation, including alternative activities. But now those runners miss the achievement of completing the classic distance, and they have returned to the marathon.
Welcome back. Whether you’re new to the marathon or merely reintroducing yourself to an old friend, you can always benefit from some advice from running experts. Here is advice from the members of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the world’s largest sports science organization. Based on the latest ACSM research, these 10 answers to your training questions will help you run a safe and successful marathon.
Q: I’m currently injured, but I’d like to start training again. How can I build up safely for the marathon?
A: ‘If you got injured once and don’t modify your training, you will probably get injured again,’ says Dr Russell Pate, director of the Human Performance Laboratory. Recording the daily training of 600 runners during a one-year period, Dr Pate identified two major predictors for injuries: previous injury and heavy training. Those who prepared for marathons with frequent, high-mileage workouts became injured.
Start training for your marathon early and stay at your starting mileage level for two to four weeks. Then increase mileage gradually – no more than 10 per cent per week. Don’t try to resume the high levels of training you may have worked up to in the past. Know your own limitations.
Q: As I’ve got older, I’ve put on weight. Will that be a problem when I run the marathon?
A: In a study of 350 women, aged 17 to 93, Dr Rachel J. Stillman, an assistant professor of kinesiology, found that as the body ages, body fat increased by as much as 5 per cent per decade. But Dr Stillman also found that the more active the subject, the lower the gains in body fat. ‘Even a moderate amount of activity helps,’ says Dr Stillman, ‘but the difference between moderately and very active is significant.’
Based on an ongoing study of 30 masters competitors,
Dr Michael L. Pollack, who runs a university sports science department, reports that subjects who have been able to maintain the lowest body-fat percentages included weight training in their running programmes.
Since extra body fat equals dead weight in a race, you must trim extra pounds to maximize performance. You don’t need to cut down to the levels of élite runners (8 per cent for men, 12 per cent for women). Instead, settle on an ideal weight at which you feel lean and strong.
Q: I’ve been training hard for a while, but I can’t seem to improve my race times. What should I do?
A: Many runners stagnate in their training. They run the same workout over the same course, month after month and, as a result, never get any faster. To explore this syndrome, Dr Peter Snell and Dr James Stray-Gundersen collaborated on a study of 13 subjects who had been running for an average of 10 years and who ran hard every day.
The researchers began by putting the subjects through a six-week programme of base training, involving long runs at relatively slow speeds. For the next 10 weeks, the runners added two hard days a week: interval training, fast-paced running, or a combination. At the end of the 16-week period, the subjects showed marked improvements.
In another experiment, Dr David L. Costill, director of the Human Performance Laboratory, found runners’ performances plummeted after training hard on consecutive days.
Dr Stray-Gundersen recommends mixing slow basetraining with speedwork for best results. Avoid identical hard training runs day after day. Dr Costill advocates rest. ‘In order for the muscle to get stronger, it has to rest,’ says Dr Costill. He advises alternating hard and easy days.
Q: After months of training, I caught a cold just before the marathon. How can I avoid this next time?
A: According to Dr Gregory W. Heath, an epidemiologist, runners have only half as many upper-respiratory infections as the general population. But in the middle of heavy training, that protection dwindles, making pre-race colds common among marathon runners.
In a survey of 2,311 participants in the Los Angeles Marathon, Dr David C. Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science, found that 40 per cent of them caught colds during the two-month pre-race period. (These months, January and February, are the peak cold/flu season in the USA.) Training more than 60 miles a week doubled the risk of infection. Also, in the week following the race, 13 per cent of marathon finishers caught colds, compared to 2 per cent of those who didn’t race.
Save your high-mileage training for the spring, summer and autumn months when the risk of infection is lower. Get fit enough so that a week lost to flu won’t be that much of a setback. Taper early to prevent last-week problems. And make certain that you take post-race precautions against catching a bug since your resistance will be at its lowest then.
Q: How can I motivate myself for a peak performance?
A: In order to succeed in the marathon, you not only need to train properly before the race, but you must also push yourself during the closing miles. Exercise physiologist Linda Chitwood found that highly motivated, self-driven type-A runners needed no encouragement to achieve high oxygen-uptake scores during a treadmill test. Type-B runners, however, performed an average of 15 per cent better when cheered on.
If you consider yourself a more laid-back type-B runner, choose big-city marathons where you’ll thrive on support from the crowd and other runners. A training partner also provides motivation. Even talking to yourself helps. ‘The year I ran best at Boston,’ says Dr Thompson, ‘I was placed 16th by telling myself, “Keep going” and “I’m tough”.’
Q: How can I minimize the wear and tear that my body undergoes both in training and in the marathon itself?
A: Damage displays itself in many ways. Dr Randy Eichner, professor of medicine, analysed the blood of 25 endurance athletes and found that 90 per cent showed red blood cell destruction. The force of the foot striking the ground during fast training or racing is to blame. ‘Blood destruction occurs more in high-mileage runners who have slapping or stomping gaits,’ says Dr Eichner. Other studies showed gastrointestinal bleeding in one out of five runners and cyclists following races. That’s only part of the problem – add muscle glycogen depletion that lasts several weeks, microscopic muscle tears that contribute to extended soreness and the effects of dehydration that occur during a marathon performance.To minimize damage both in training and in racing, keep your weight low, wear shoes with plenty of support, and run with a shuffling style to lessen the pounding on your legs and feet. When possible, run on soft terrain. Says Dr Eichner, ‘Man was born to run on woodland trails, not to go pounding down the pavements.’
Q: How much should I taper before an event?
A: Dr Costill believes that runners often train too hard in the weeks immediately preceding a marathon. ‘They do one last gut-busting workout and wear themselves down,’ he says.
To test the less-is-more theory, Dr Costill tapered the training programmes of a group of runners beginning three weeks before a track race. During this period they ran only 2 miles daily, ‘just a warm-up’. When it came to time for a time trial, the runners were so rested that they went out too fast and faded. But in a second trial, the group relaxed and ran their fastest.
Start your marathon training early enough so that you can afford to taper two or three weeks before the event.
Realize that your most important workouts are the ones that you do months before, rather than weeks before, the race. Since you will be burning fewer calories during the tapering period, modify calorie intake to avoid adding weight.
Q: Most marathons start early. What should I eat the night before?
A: In controlled studies, Dr W. Michael Sherman, assistant professor at a university department of exercise physiology, fed very large amounts of carbohydrates to a group of trained cyclists 3 hours before exercise testing. His results showed that the cyclists increased both power and endurance after these late feedings. The cyclists were able to maintain a higher output for a longer period. The results of another study on pre-race eating showed that athletes performed better if they ate 4 hours before exercise. ‘We can safely say that if you have a carbohydrate feeding 3 to 4 hours before a marathon, you can enhance performance,’ summarizes Dr Sherman.
Q: How much should I drink during a marathon? Which fluid is best?
A: Dr Leonard A. Kaminski, assistant professor of exercise physiology and cardiac rehabilitation, monitored the fluid intake of five runners during the course of an ultramarathon. One of the participants running a 62-mile race consumed 14,000 millilitres of liquid; another who ran only 26 miles, drank only 280 millilitres. The latter runner, not surprisingly, showed the most loss of vascular fluid, resulting in thickened blood plasma and impaired performance.
Experts agree that you need to drink enough to restore lost fluids. The weather, the distance and the intensity of your effort will all determine how much you should consume.
In shorter races on hot days, water works fine as a replacement drink. When the distance exceeds 10-K, you should probably switch to a sports drink that will replace burned carbohydrates as well as fluids. Again, don’t drink anything that you haven’t tried before in practice.
Q: As fatigue sets in at the end of a marathon, my stride deteriorates. How should I compensate?
A: When studying the mechanical efficiency of male and female 5000-metre runners, Dr Keith Williams, assistant professor of physical education, found that fatigue towards the end of a run caused the runners to change their stride mechanics. Most frequently, they lengthened their stride.
Other scientists have noticed that late-race stride changes as well. While counting strides-per-lap for competitors at the 1984 Olympics, Dr Jack Daniels, assistant professor of physical education and an exercise physiologist, noticed that as runners dropped off the pace, their stride lengths shortened.
Dr Daniels believes that you can use high-mileage training to improve efficiency. Marathon training should include runs at varying paces and at varying levels of fatigue. If you know that you’ll need to break into a survival stride to complete those tough last miles, try that stride in practice.
Dr Williams adds that the practice is worth it. If you concentrate on form during the final miles of a marathon, you should be able to run faster.
This extract is from The Runner's World Complete Book of Running by RW USA Editor Amby Burfoot.