11 lessons learned to help you run a marathon PB

Andy out running, checks his watch

Photo: Morgane Bigault

On Sunday 21 October I ran 2:42.37 at the Abingdon Marathon for 12th place. It was the end of an 18-month excursion into the world of marathon running. Here are 11 lessons I learned along the way.

1: Lose weight

Left to its own devices, my 1m77 frame chooses to weigh in around 76kg. It’s been the same for years and it does a pretty effective job of balancing calories in with calories out even during intense training. Sometimes I’ll get down around 73 or 74kg, but that takes effort. Either way, that’s pretty heavy for anyone who wants to run fast, so in July I started using MyFitnessPal to track calories and hopefully, lose a little ballast during the early stages of marathon training.

What I found was that the daily calorie goal was less important than the fact that I was eating mindfully. So I’d go for a long run, consume 600cals along the way, then think twice about eating everything in the fridge when I got home. The daily discipline of tracking what I ate quickly became a routine and buoyed by early success (the first two weeks of any diet are always amazing) I kept going and by race week I was down to 71kg. The reduction in weight undoubtedly helped, but I’m also convinced that training with a slight calorie deficit made me more efficient too. Tip1: take photos. Even when the scale hasn’t budged, you can often see progress as you get leaner; Tip 2: portion control is easier than removing food groups. We eat healthy home-cooked food most days of the week with tons of veg, some fish, and a rarely meat. My biggest problem is cooking too much. This time round I would weigh out 100g of dry pasta for myself, knowing that with a homemade ragu and some parmesan, that would work out around 750cals total. I’d still drink beer, still eat chocolate, I’d just make sure it fit within my daily calorie goals.

2: First get fast, then add distance

I’ve been running seriously for about five years now and training seriously for over two decades. My aerobic base is pretty good, but something I’ve never been is fast. This summer I set about changing that and scoring some new PBs over 3000m and 5k. Running with a club — Victoria Park — helped with this: I ran a bunch of low key track league meetings over the summer which gave me the opportunity to race 3000m and 5000m. I also ran a handful of the Sri Chimnoy summer series races in Battersea Park, which is where I dipped under 17mins for the first time. My target for the marathon has always been sub 2:45, which equates to 3:54/km. Getting comfortable racing at 3:17/km for 3000m has been a huge bonus — marathon pace felt comfortable for the entirety of this build-up. There’s a reason we start kids out by racing over short distances and then gradually let them go longer.

Andy racing at Battersea 5K

Racing to 16:59 in a Sri Chimnoy 5k race in London’s Battersea Park
 

3: Back to back long runs

It was my 38th birthday on August 23rd. I had a few days booked off work, and with my son at nursery, I put my time to use by doing a pair of birthday runs — 37km to mark my last day aged 37, then 38km to mark my entry to 38.

Two months out from race day, neither run was fast and I tried to include loads of trails in both, but the fatigue was immense. I’ve not experienced DOMS like it outside of a marathon. Next time round, a slow 50 mile weekend seems like it would be a good way to kickstart proceedings.

4: Make your long runs count

I started my marathon journey in 2017. In the build up to Valencia I trained under the assumption that overall training volume was the key to marathon success — that 120km/week was good, and that a set number of 32km+ long runs was outmoded. When I detonated after 30km I began to rethink that idea. So this time round, I kicked things off at the beginning of August with a 33km long run that included an 8km trail race at something around marathon intensity. Then it was the back to back long runs above, followed by 32km inc 5x3km at marathon pace the following weekend. A hilly 32km trail run followed (it’s important to keep it fresh and fun, right?), and then a race weekend (Half Marathon — 75:36), then 40km at 80% of marathon pace. My last long workout was three weeks from race day and totalled 36km, made up as: 10km warm up, 10km race (35:38), 2km slow, 8km around marathon pace, 6km cool down. Overall the pace ended up at 4:13/km, or just over 90% of marathon pace. In total I did seven runs between 20 and 25 miles between August and October.

This time round I did all my long runs with fuel — liquid and/or gels. The aim was to boost quality, and given I was also calorie-restricted, I didn’t want to risk illness that comes from going long while fasted. That stuff is better suited to recovery days.

5: Consistency is key

My wife and I became parents at the beginning of 2017. Looking at the fitness graph below (created with the Elevate App for Strava) my fitness gradually dropped for three months, as expected. Once we started to get our heads around it all and the weather improved, I began to train for the London 10000m in May 2017. Then I trained for the Valencia Marathon in November, the Manchester Marathon in April 2018, and now, Abingdon in October 2018. The results I got this summer and autumn are largely the result of consistency over the last 18months — with every training cycle I have gained fitness, and although I’ve taken down time after each of those cycles, the clock isn’t reset. Lesson: consistency is key and the key to consistency is moderation. Take your easy days easy, make your rest days restful, and always leave a little in the tank. The ambition is always to gets stronger and faster, breaking yourself is rarely the best way to do that.

Fitness progress graph of runner

6: Injuries can be your friend

My last big run was planned for the Wednesday 11 days before Abingdon. I’m self-coached and I’d set myself a workout of 28km including 3x5km at marathon pace. However, within 200m of leaving the house, my knee was telling me to stop, go home and rest. It was a case of runner’s knee, so I got back, took some ibuprofen and got to work trying to wake up my Vastus Medialis — the big tear drop shaped muscle above your knee — with extended wall sits, single leg squats and a range of band exercises. I was able to run again that week, but my mileage was way down on what I hoped for and the workouts I had planned were altered. Right up to the morning of the race I had worries that my knee wouldn’t hold. It turns out it was fine, and in many ways, I think the injury played in my favour — it meant I tapered properly. If you do discover an injury in the weeks leading up to your race, my advice is not to panic. If you’ve done the work in the months leading up, a couple of weeks of reduced volume will do you good, as will some exercises that force you to work on your form.

7: Choose the right race

Back in 2017, we travelled to Valencia as a family. We arrived in town on Thursday, settled into our AirBnB, and got exploring. On Friday afternoon, our son (who was 10months old) came down with a scary rash and we rushed from doctor to hospital trying to get a diagnosis. It turned out he just needed some anti-histamines but it was scary and stressful. So this time round I wanted to stay closer to home. Abingdon is a competitive race on a fast course. It’s also about 90mins drive from London, and it’s low key — no need to be standing around on the start line for 45mins before the race starts. That’s all to my advantage. I booked myself a Travelodge 20mins away from the start, and after spending Saturday morning with the family, I left home at about 3pm and spent the evening relaxing in front of crap TV alone. I slept ok from 10pm to 6am and got to the race around 7:45am. The drive home wasn’t exactly comfortable, but I was home by 3pm. No stress, minimal expense, and not a massive impact to family life. That’s my kind of race.

Morning before Abingdon Marathon

8: Use the data at your disposal

A lot of people will tell you that heart rate is a useless measure for runners. These people have no imagination! Heart rate is excellent so long as you take the time to get to know what it means to you, and that will take a very long time. I’ve been using it for long enough to know what it means to me and in the run up to Abingdon I worked on the principle that I needed to keep my heart rate below 155 (and definitely below 160 — my max is around 182bpm) right up to 30km. This is the point at which I blew up in Valencia, so I felt that if I got that far feeling good, I’d have capacity to drive it home. Racing through the summer got me used to running fast and with a high heart rate, to the point that 3:50/km feels quite relaxed now. In fact, for the first half at Abingdon I averaged 149bpm and only saw 160 once, on a slight rise. Once we got to 30km I upped the pace and from 32km home I averaged over 155bpm. This was exactly to plan. If you have a heart rate monitor, get used to using it — certainly, working out at marathon intensity early in your training cycle is much more pleasant than trying to chase marathon pace too early, and it allows you to take into account hills and trails as well. If you’ve got the data, use it.

9: Pack in the calories

Before Valencia I rarely trained with anything more calorific than water, and in the race I used four gels. For Abingdon, I was consuming as much as 600cals on a 40km training run, and feeling strong at the end. That led me to carrying eight gels in the race, ready to take one every 20mins. It worked — I felt strong right up to the 26mile marker having taken seven 90cal High5 gels, each of which contained 30mg of caffeine. How did I carry so many gels? I wore Ron Hill Infinity Cargo Stretch shorts that come complete with pockets and loops for as many gels and bars as you could consume.

10: If you don’t feel slow off the start, you’re going too fast

It’s amazing how slow a marathon feels off the start. Especially given that the day before, a 1km effort at marathon pace had felt decidedly quick. But no, pin on a race number and race pace all of a sudden feels eminently easy. The trick is to make sure it feels easy right the way through to 30km. There was a young guy in our group at 6km who promptly shot off the second we hit the first incline. He hovered 300m ahead of us for 23km, running entirely solo, and then went pop and suffered for the final 12km. Meanwhile, thanks to the fuelling and conservative start, I managed to run a 40sec negative split in the second half, passing half a dozen runners to claim 12th place. Having experienced the wall first hand, I can vouch for the idea that negative splits are far more enjoyable

11: Take the next day off work

I slept really badly after the race — the first beers of a fortnight, over-stimulated legs and a funny stomach after all the energy food combining to wake me up at 5am. So I was glad to have booked the day off. Once I dropped my son at nursery I went back to bed till 11am, then I went for a nice gentle bike ride to go for coffee and catch up with friends. On the way home I stopped for pizza and ordered everything on the menu. Bingeing the day after a marathon, especially when you’ve been anally retentive about so much for so long in the run up, is well deserved. My advice is don’t hold back!

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