If you're running a marathon this spring, you're about to enter the most critical – and difficult – four weeks of training, when 1) your weekly mileage is at its peak; 2) your motivation may be flagging; and 3) you're most likely to get sidelined by an injury. So when the going gets tough, it's time to train intelligently.
Walking the tightrope. That's how elite runners describe their 120-mile weeks, when they put their bodies on the line day after day. Of course, you're probably not up on a tightrope yet, but any time you train for a race, your mileage goes up. At first, the increases seem small. Then they become larger and larger. Then you hit the Monster Month – the four weeks of heaviest training that come after the build-up phase that boosts your fitness, and before the pre-race taper that lets you recharge for the big event.
Let's assume you're in decent shape after increasing your training through the early winter. To thrive during your Monster Month, it's more important than ever to pay attention to the details of staying fit, focused, and balanced. You have the most to lose, but also the most to gain. So make sure you gain every advantage you can.
Boost your fitnessDon't overtrain
Your body will tell you when you're training too much – a common pitfall during this critical high-mileage, high-intensity period – but you have to listen. Some signs are obvious, such as fatigue, catching a cold, or muscle soreness that lingers for several days. Others are subtle: you're irritable, you're feeling unmotivated, or you aren't sleeping that well. The cure-all is rest. Don't run for a day or two, and when you start up again, stick to easy runs until the bothersome signs disappear.
Treat your feet
Those beefy, well-cushioned shoes you wear on longer runs do absorb road shock and reduce injury risk, but at this point in your training you're looking to maximise fitness gains. So consider wearing a lighter pair of trainers for speed sessions and on shorter runs when you're going faster. Lighter shoes will help you run even faster than you expected in your speed sessions, and that will boost your confidence for the big race ahead. You can wear these shoes in the race, too, after breaking them in.
Don't play catch-up
If something unexpected interrupts your training programme, don't try to catch up by lengthening your long runs and cramming hard sessions closer together. Especially not when you're in the Monster Month. Trying to make up for lost time is never a good idea. Most enforced training breaks are caused by something that leaves you in a weakened condition – often an illness or an injury – so the worst thing you can do is train harder than usual the minute you resume training. Do that, and you're asking for a relapse.
Train by time, not distance
When you train by time, you don't have to measure a route, and you aren't "penalised" for wind, hills, or trails. (Whether you run six miles on hilly trails or eight miles on flat roads, if they each take you an hour and your effort is the same, they have equal value.) This is especially important on your longest runs, which you'll be doing during this big training month. Some slower marathon runners think they need to do a 20-miler, which could take them four hours or more, but you shouldn't do long runs that exceed three and a half hours, because they are too debilitating physically. The only time when it's better to train by distance is when you're doing speedwork on the track.
Do a dress rehearsal
Treat one of your longest runs – preferably the last long one you do before tapering for your big race – as a race simulation. The same would apply whether it's an eight-miler in preparation for a 10K race or a 20-miler in the run up to London. Keep the pace comfortably slow, but do everything else as if it's race day. Run at the same time of day and on similar terrain – even on the course itself if that's practical. Wear the running shoes and kit you plan to race in and mimic the eating and drinking plan that you aim to follow before and during the race. This physical and mental rehearsal can reveal a problem that you can correct, and will make the race itself seem less daunting. If you're aiming for the Flora London Marathon try to run one of the big spring half-marathons as preparation for the race: they are the closest approximation to the kind of runner congestion you can expect on April 26.
Cross out cross-training
Or at least cut back on it during this month of higher-mileage running. Lighten up on the weight-training, too. Cycling, swimming, and weight lifting are great most of the year, as part of low-key training months when your main goals are general fitness and injury prevention, but the heavy training month before a big race needs to be a month of living a little dangerously. This means running more and cross-training less, because as you approach your goal race, it's all about the running.
Stay healthyFreeze the pain
When you're training hardest, soreness, aches, and pains are unavoidable – and if you ignore them, they can lead to an injury. When they occur, back off a little on your training, and ice the afflicted area several times a day for at least 48 hours to increase blood flow. This promotes healing by reducing swelling, inflammation, and destructive enzyme activity. Icing can also control pain and decrease muscle tightening, cramping, and spasms. Apply a frozen gel pack for 10 to 20 minutes. Two other choices: massage the area with ice that's frozen in a paper cup or apply a bag of crushed ice for 20 to 30 minutes.
It's all you knead
Regular massages are most valuable during your heaviest training months because they can hasten your recovery from training and help keep you injury-free. The best time for a massage is the day after your long run or after a speed session, when those kinks need to be kneaded the most. A good massage therapist will zero in on your tightest muscles.
Eat rightBoost your immunity
You'll be especially susceptible to colds and flu during the Monster Month, so reinforce your immune defences with foods rich in antioxidants and glutamine. "Beans and raw spinach are good sources for both," says RW Nutrition Editor Anita Bean. "Most brightly coloured fruits and vegetables – especially blueberries – are also rich in antioxidants. Glutamine-rich sources include beef, chicken, fish, dairy, and cabbage. On days when your diet isn't optimal, pop a multivitamin as insurance. Also, it's important for your immune system to take in carbohydrates before, during, and after runs of an hour or more."
Liquid or solid?
Energy bars, gels, and drinks all supply much-needed carbohydrates before, during, and after those long runs you'll be doing this month, but which is best? "The harder you're running, the more blood is diverted from the stomach to the working muscles," says Bean, "so you don't want to fill it with anything solid. Energy bars and gels need to be broken down in the stomach, but drinks don't." Therefore, stick to sports drinks unless it's after running or on easy-paced runs or run/walks.
Try (fat-free) milk
Consuming more dairy products than usual during heavy training is an excellent idea because dairy contains carbohydrates (12 grams in a 225ml glass of milk), protein (eight grams), and bone-fortifying calcium (300mg). You can limit the fat by favouring low-fat or fat-free yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk rather than higher-fat cheeses, cream cheese, and whole milk.
MotivationLive in the present
How do you stay motivated through a hard training month when that big race is still a way off? "Focus a portion of your mental energy on the present," says Dr Alan Smith, a marathon runner and sports psychologist. "Short-term and even daily goals are beneficial because they keep you focused on the here-and-now and build confidence as you achieve them. That way, the big race is simply the next step on the ladder."
Build on success
Some runners become so tired during their Monster Month that they begin to doubt their chances of finishing the full 26.2. They fear that they're becoming more tired instead of stronger. What if the programme backfires? "There's no guarantee of success," says Smith, "but it's certain that you won't have a pay-off without the hard work. Training is essential not only for the obvious physiological reasons, but also to build confidence – and your hardest training will give you the most confidence." So, even when you're tired, remember that you're still on target, and you will feel better when you reach your marathon taper.
Let's face it: long runs aren't always as exciting as an Arsenal v Tottenham derby. To maintain your long-run motivation, you need to try different tricks. For example, don't run solo, run with others. If you can't find a running friend to join you for even half the distance, jump into a weekend group run organised by a running club (some of these are listed in the race diary at the back of this magazine). If you must run your long runs alone, wear a music headset to keep you humming down the road (just be safe and aware of your surroundings). Programme your MP3 player to play laid-back music for most of the way to restrain your pace, then up-tempo hits in the last hour to propel you home when you need the lift.
This is just a test
Let's say you run a race as a test of fitness in the midst of your heavy training month, such as a half-marathon as a marathon tune-up. Let's say it's a disaster, well off your goal time. Don't panic. First, it might have just been a bad day. Second, during high-mileage training, you shouldn't expect a good performance anyway. What matters most is the bigger race coming up, when you'll be better rested after tapering.
Just do it
It's more important than ever during a high-mileage month that you don't skip scheduled runs. Here's how to nail them all: first, lay out your kit at your bedside the night before a morning run so that you've invested some time in heading out. Second, do afternoon runs from some point between work and home – dress at the office or gym and run from there – rather than going home first (where there are too many temptations to distract you). Third, schedule as many runs as possible with friends, so that you'll feel guilty if you stand them up.
Be balancedDon't lose your job
If you're struggling at work because of the heavy training load, especially on Monday mornings after long Sunday runs, there are several options. First, schedule long runs on Saturdays so that you have all of Sunday to recover. Second, go to bed earlier every night – or sleep later – because heavy training requires more sleep. If you're still sluggish, back off on the mileage because you may be overtraining. Or maybe it's just that wacky office prankster slipping decaf into the coffee maker again.
Justify it to others
Feeling guilty that your marathon training is cutting into time with family and friends? Explain to them the reasons for doing it. Tell them why your fitness and athletic goals are worthwhile. Invite them to join you on your easy runs, too – they can bike alongside you – to bring them into your world and help them understand it and always give them advance notice of your running plans if it affects their plans. Younger children, however, will have a harder time understanding your running, so try hardest not to miss their functions.
Justify it to yourself
Of course, you will have to make sacrifices, but all this training – setting goals, conquering fear and overcoming obstacles – is also excellent training for life challenges that lie ahead. Successfully making it through a 20-mile run or a high-mileage week will make it easier to handle the tough stuff in the real world, whether it's managing employees, raising children, taking care of elderly parents, or dealing with illness.
- During heavy training there should be a big difference between your easy and hard training paces. Be sure you run truly easy on easy days so you'll have a spring in your step on the hard days.
- On long runs, try a few light accelerations over the last 20 per cent of the distance. By picking up the pace slightly for one to three minutes at a time, you'll keep your legs fresher.
- Share your big-race goals with training partners. This will let you feed off their encouragement as you train hard for the big day. Better yet, get them to come to the race and cheer you on.
- Don't always run when it's cool out. Mix in some afternoon runs when it's warmer. If you've trained when it's in the 70s, the 60s on race day will seem cool.
If you're fairly new to running or higher-mileage training – maybe you're attempting your longest race ever this spring – here are some essentials to keep in mind.
- Shorten your stride When it comes to form, the most common mistake distance runners make, especially beginners, is they overstride. This tires you out faster and increases injury risk, because you're jarring your body more. A good rule of thumb is to aim for about 180 footfalls per minute while running.
- Spice it up It's easy to get into a training rut when a big race is coming up because you're afraid to upset a routine that seems to work for you, but a good routine can easily become too rigid, leading to burn-out and loss of motivation. So vary the route, terrain, scenery, distance, pace, and training partners whenever you can.
- Don't worry Long runs – whether they're 10-milers while training for a half-marathon or 20-milers before a marathon – can be so exhausting, you may wonder how you'll ever make it through the even longer race distance. Relax. The excitement of race day will help carry you home. Veteran runners call this "race-day magic". Before too long, you'll be explaining it to all your non-running friends.
- Make the time How do you find time for high-mileage training and still have a life? First, accept that sacrifices are necessary. Second, smooth the path in advance of your Monster Month by postponing family trips, intensive work, home projects, and so on.