Ten Tips For Your Best Marathon
AUDIO VERSION: I also recorded an audio version of this article. Let me know if this is something you find useful!
For many of us, marathon training is in full-swing right now, with both weekly mileage and the distance of your long runs steadily increasing. Unfortunately though, some runners will suffer from one of the many common running injuries that plague marathon runners, both new and experienced.
Although it might not feel like it right now, training for a marathon should be an enjoyable and positive experience! With a good marathon training plan, there should be clear progression week-by-week (recovery weeks excluded), giving you a satisfying end result as you cross the finish line, either setting a new personal best time, or simply with the accomplishment of completing a new challenge.
There are a number of common pitfalls that marathon runners encounter, impairing their ability to perform to their potential come the big day. Below I’ve listed a number of the key pieces of advice I give runners who are looking to embark on a new marathon training block, be it their first or fiftieth race over the 26.2 mile distance.
1: Prepare Your Body To Run
Some of the biggest improvements I’ve seen my athletes make in their marathon times have come not from dramatically increasing weekly mileage, or adding more speed sessions (although these are important factors), but from becoming stronger as runners.
The simple fact is that when many runners approach marathon training, the mind might be willing, but the body is often less than able.
Often, I’ll opt not to give a runner an 18 or 16 week marathon programme, instead I give them a 12 week programme preceded by 4 to 6 weeks of preparation work.
This preparation phase focuses heavily on run-specific strength workouts in the gym and on the track, with medicine balls, resistance bands and kettle bells. The running sessions in these weeks are minimal in terms of volume – just enough to maintain fitness, and very much technique focused.
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I strongly believe that runners of all levels benefit hugely from the resilience and fortitude that this preparation phase develops. This strength enables them to take maximum benefit from the heavy weeks of running that lie ahead, with reduced risk of injury.
2: Embrace Cross-Training and Circuits
Following on from the point above – it’s important that once you get into your marathon training block, and your mileage starts increasing in earnest, you maintain at least a maintenance level of strength and core conditioning. The motion of running is obviously very repetitive and cyclical in nature. Even a small biomechanical flaw can create imbalances in the body of a runner once mileage is increased significantly.
A great way to break the cycle of imbalances built up by running is to maintain a combined weekly core, strength and flexibility workout in your schedule. If you make this a high intensity circuit session in it’s own right, you can easily justify dropping a short midweek run for this important type of workout.
Usually I’d rather see a runner complete five runs and one of these high-tempo cross-training sessions in a week, rather than six runs and no conditioning work!
3: Avoid Running Junk Miles
You’ve probably heard this before, but junk miles really do hold little value!
What do I mean by running junk miles? Look at it this way: Every run session you complete should have a distinct purpose. Be it a long aerobic run, a tempo session, an interval session etc… you should know why you’re setting out on each run workout. If however, you’re just clocking the miles up with no specific structure, chances are that you’re not training as smartly as you should.
The temptation for many sub-elite runners is to panic about the impending marathon and add extra running mileage, when what their bodies really need is rest and recovery between quality sessions. It’s usually far better to fill your running week with a number of key, well executed sessions, each with a purpose, balanced out with good rest, than to try and squeeze as many mediocre runs in as your time allows.
4: Maintain Good Running Form
Most of us have first hand experience of what happens to our running form once fatigue kicks in. Rarely in the last few miles of a race will you feel as spritely as the first mile. Pictures and video taken on the course often tell the full shocking story! There’s no hiding from it, once we hit a certain state of fatigue, even the best athletes start to lose good running form to some extent. The key is to practice running with good form (learn how) so that this deterioration in technique is lessened when fatigue kicks in during longer runs.
A good habit to get in to is to maintain your running cadence (stride frequency) when you feel tired, this will have a positive effect on your stride length and posture, amongst other factors.
It’s absolutely no coincidence in my mind that many marathon runners tend to get injured when their weekly long runs hit the 14-18 mile mark. This seems to be the range at which many runners, who could for example normally complete a comfortable 10km training run (pre marathon training) begin to lose form through fatigue. This is purely my observation, if anybody has any research either backing up this claim, or otherwise, I’d love to see it!
Pushing the mileage onwards into this fatigued state with poor form only serves to increase impact loads and reinforce imbalances built up through fatigued, flawed biomechanics.
Of course, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is marathon training, and your weekly long runs are essential – arguably the most important element!
So, to avoid this breakdown in technique build up the mileage of your long runs gradually, your legs need to build the strength endurance that only weekly long runs can build. As you fatigue however, keep a close eye on form. Perhaps try running with a metronome.
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5: Learn The Value Of Recovery
One of the biggest differences between the training regimes of serious amateurs and professional runners is the quality of recovery. Where we have to fit our runs in between working hours, and eating on the go, professional athletes get to go home after a hard workout, eat and sleep… Then do it all again. This quality of recovery enables them to complete a greater volume of quality workouts in their schedule.
It’s only when the body rests that we get the opportunity to make the physical and physiological adaptations to the training load that result in improved fitness.
So the right balance must be found between training and recovery for you individually. The load bearing nature of running makes it far harder on your body than swimming or cycling for example. Thus going from 3 runs per week pre marathon training block, to 5 or 6 runs per week in a marathon training block is a big step-up in training frequency. Try to give your body a chance to adapt to this increased load – listen to your body.
Nutrition, hydration and sleep are huge factors in recovery. Burning the candle at both ends, and eating poorly will impair your ability to properly recover from sessions, meaning you fail to benefit from each session. At best, you will not see much progress in your running, worse still, you may end up injured or sick.
6: Stick To The Plan – Avoid Playing Catch Up
Sounds simple enough, right? But we all know that life gets in the way from time to time.
In an ideal world, we’d all have a personally written marathon training plan, and execute it to the letter. What happens though if you have to stay late at work, or you get sick?
I find it helps to prioritise the runs in your week, knowing which are your key sessions, and which are ok to drop if the worst happens.
As a general rule, in marathon training, the weekly long run is obviously the most important. Try to avoid skipping these, as your body needs to build aerobic endurance through these steady efforts. You also need to maintain the consistency in increasing the durations of these long runs, enabling you to progressively build up to one or more 20+ miler in your training block.
While sticking to your training plan is the name of the game; as long as you keep building up your long runs, don’t fret if you have to skip the odd running workout in the week. If this happens, the worst thing you can do is start to play ‘catch up’. Let it go! Just make sure you execute the next running workout on your plan perfectly.
If injury strikes, don’t try to run through it, stubbornly trying to stick to the plan. Instead go and see a Physiotherapist immediately. Once given the go-ahead to begin running again, do so cautiously in terms of volume – resist the temptation to try long runs in the first 2 weeks, instead just rebuild training frequency. Be realistic, it’s better to get the return to running right first time, with a progressive approach, than end up back at the Physio clinic injured again!
7: Avoid Mid-Pace Mediocrity
I’m guiltily of this, like so many other runners!
The majority of us know that in simple terms, our long steady run should be completed at a relatively easy, aerobic pace. While for example, the comparatively shorter repetitions in our interval sessions should be completed at a harder, faster pace.
The problem is, that in reality so many of us spend a great deal of our time training in a ‘grey area’ between the training zones that will provide us with most benefit. My colleague Neil Scholes terms this well as Mid-Pace Mediocrity.
In short, I often see athletes who run their easy runs too hard, and can’t push themselves hard enough on their ‘harder’ sessions.
It took me a long time to realise how easy my long aerobic runs should feel to be truly Zone 2.
Before this, I’d been running these long steady efforts way too fast. After 16 miles at what I bought was an easy pace on a Sunday, I’d be in a position where I’d need until Wednesday or Thursday to recover properly… This would wreck the quality of other important run sessions I had planned for the week!
As soon as I learned what running at my aerobic Zone 2 heart rate felt like (it felt so slow!), I discovered the complete revelation of running 16 miles on a Sunday and feeling great on a Monday morning!
Personally, this is one of the biggest positive learning experiences I’ve had in my running in the last few years.
8: Thoughts About Footwear
I’m not going to make generic suggestions about which models of shoe are best for marathon training and racing. We’re all so different as runners, with wildly differing needs in terms of foot biomechanics, foot strike pattern, body weight, and running pace.
There is NO one size fits all answer. Find a running store you trust, better still a Sports Injury professional and get some specific advice in person.
However, once you find a model of running shoes you have success with, buy a couple of pairs! I find a great footwear related tip for marathon training is to alternate your footwear. Not only will this extend the functional life of the your shoes, by sharing the mileage between two pairs, it will also enable the shoes to ‘recover’ between runs.
Do shoes really need to ‘recover’? If like me you’re a larger runner, your shoes will be taking a pounding during your longer runs.
As an ex-pro rugby player, I’m 6’6″ (199cm) and 16+ stone (100+ kg). I can definitely feel that the midsole of my Asics Hyperspeeds feel noticeably compressed the day after a long run. Sometimes they need time to decompress, returning the midsole composite to it’s original state. Of course, this may be less of a factor for lighter-weight runners.
My advice is to rotate two pairs of shoes throughout your marathon training, reducing the fatigue of the shoes themselves throughout this high running volume period.
I acknowledge that there is little evidence to support my last statement, but it seems to work well…
9: Get Familiar With Race Pace
Race Pace is simply the average pace required to hit your target time over the 26.2 miles. So, if your goal is to run a 3hr 30min marathon, your Race Pace would need to be 8 minutes per mile.
While your long training runs will be completed slower than this, try to incorporate regular efforts at this pace into your weekly training plan. If you can get comfortable at reproducing this pace intuitively, running a steady pace on race day will become far easier. Pacing is a very difficult discipline to master, but with practice you can run an even paced race.
10: Practice Your Nutrition Strategy
I’m not a Sports Nutrition specialist, but I can share some simple advice I learned the hard way!
In 2011 I travelled to Helsinki in August for the City Marathon – excellent race by the way! My stomach is delicate at the best of times when it comes to taking on nutrition during races. It’s taken a lot of trial and error to come up with a successful strategy and list of tried and successfully tested products for use on the course.
However, in my own disorganised way, I managed to fly to Finland without my trusted gels for the race. I had to search around the race expo and local shops for ‘my‘ gels… with no luck. I had to take a risk and settle for an untested option.
I’ll spare you the full details, but this approach ended badly for me! Acute GI issues ended up costing me about 25mins on the course. I have ever since been painfully organised with planning race nutrition!