If you are training for a spring marathon (or are reading this with around 8 weeks until your marathon), then we are getting into crunch time in your training. This article is will look at some key elements of marathon training and provide a guide of not where you should be, but where you want to be going over the coming few weeks.
We'll cover training, nutrition (with a focus on on-the-run nutrition), injury prevention, mental toughness and kit.
The article isn’t designed to scare you, but hopefully shine light onto areas where you can be improving. Whether this is your first marathon or 50th, we think there is something here for you.
The most important thing to remember about your running, is that you are an individual. Just because something works for a friend or an elite athlete, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Go and seek advice from others, but be your own person and experiment.
Training. The real danger with marathon training is that you do too much. As a coach, I would rather you slightly undercooked the training (so there was a bit more you could have done), but are able to stand on the marathon start line healthy, excited and ready to run. That is a much more powerful place to be, than having smashed your training and carrying a niggle into race day. “If you are bragging a little about a workout during marathon training, you may have worked too hard”. Training should feel consistent and good but not out of this world amazing all the time.
The Long Run. How long should your long run be? How long is long enough? Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic distance you need to run in training to be able to run the marathon. We have coached people whose longest long run was 16 miles, others cover 20 miles plus. There is NO magic number. The danger with the long run is that you work too hard in it and get into a state of negative returns; the fitness gains you are making from running these extra miles are offset by the damage you are doing to your body at a muscular and cellular level. Add to that the amount of recovery required to get back to training well, then it becomes counter productive to do so much. The length of long run will sit between 2.30 hrs for very fast marathon runners, to around 3hrs then to 3hrs 20 minutes if you are including walk breaks. Runners will often get this wrong because they evaluate their training on one run a week, and believe that the long run alone will prepare them for the marathon. Endurance doesn’t work like that. You need consistent training over a number of weeks to build endurance, and you can’t do that if you are obsessed with your long run.
Many new runners might be following a run / walk strategy for their marathon training, and racing this way is great too. We have an article on that here.
The long run should develop into a session in it's own right, and if you are running a marathon, you need to practice running at your race pace before the big day. Adding Marathon pace blocks into your long run is the perfect place to do this. You can do a good block of marathon pace work, and do it on tired legs. This mimics what you'll be doing in the marathon itself. Make sure you are planning up to 90 minutes of marathon pace in your running over the next few weeks.
Many runners, especially if they are following one of our marathon plans, will have had a period of undulating running or hills in their plan. At this stage of training we like to phase these out and focus on running over the flat. If you are running a hilly marathon then you need to keep the hills in there, but most will be doing a city, road marathon and we need to prepare the body for that terrain. You can still run off-road but ideally should focus on the speed side of the speed endurance. This is difficult to do when you are running uphill.
That brings us nicely onto the speed endurance element of training. It is vital you have good speed endurance for the marathon. Speed endurance is the ability to run fast for a long period of time. The primary way we want to develop this is running at your Lactate threhsold, the “holy grail” of endurance running. These sessions should be developing over the next few weeks so that are getting into some really meaty runs at this effort level. Don’t be surprised to cover 8+ miles in these sessions, especially when you are getting to 3 x 15 minutes and more! If you haven't done any of this yet, now is the time to start.
Don’t do too much training, consistency is key
The long run only needs to be 3hrs from most runners, don’t become obsessed with it
Start to add some marathon pace into your long runs
Phase out hills (unless you are running a hillier marathon - Boston anyone?!)
Build your speed endurance
During this training phase, it's vital to stay injury free. You don't want to let a niggle get any more serious than that so remember to stretch and foam roll regularly. You can compliment stretching and foam rolling with a sports massage too. If you keep up with this important 'body admin', you'll minimise your risk of injury to stay injury free.
Alongside these activities, it's vital that you do some conditioning work, to help strengthen your body for the rigours of the marathon. It just takes 10 - 15 minutes after a run a few times a week. You don't need a gym membership and expensive equipment to do this. Check out our YouTube page for efficient body conditioning work outs.
Nutrition is a vast subject that deserves it's own articles (s), so we're only going to cover the nutrition around your running here.
Getting your 'the last supper' right and your race day breakfast is key for your marathon. Your evening meal the night before marathon race day, doesn't need to be an all you can eat pasta party that leaves you bloated and uncomfortable. Add some more carbohydrates on your plate, and take out heavy protein, fats and fibre. We want foods that are kind on your stomach. See the whole day as your chance to top up your fuel stores, not just that last meal.
Marathon morning, whether it is your first or 50th race, race morning is often a nervous affair. Make sure you have something you know you can stomach. Everyone is different in how much food and what time they can eat it, use the next few weeks to test this process out. There's no perfect meal here, and more importantly there are no magic foods you can eat to help you run your PB! I like pancakes on race morning, with a banana and some honey whilst Rich likes porridge, a peanut butter toasted bagel and double espresso!
Getting your 'on the run' nutrition right can often be the difference between a personal best and an OK run. If you are at the sharp end of a marathon, you are looking at taking a gel every 30 - 45 minutes.
If you are running closer to 5 hours, you don't need to take as many gels, as you aren't burning energy fast enough to need them so often.
There are an incredible number of gels and blocks out there on the market. Broadly speaking you have ones that are more liquid, and those that are more viscous (thick) that need to be taken with water. Train your gut to be able to take gels aboard by practicing with them over the coming weeks of long runs. There are alternatives out there to gels, just ask if you are struggling .
If you are running a bit slower you might be able to take on real foods during the marathon, an energy bar, flapjack or even some pieces of a Bounty Bar. Experiment these next few weeks and find what works for you.
Caffeine is an incredibly powerful stimulant and one that has proven to be effective for endurance runners. Do you react well to it? If you do, look to get a gel or two with caffeine in towards the later part of your race.
Sweat much? If you are a salty sweater, (you often end a run with a lot of white salt over your face), then you are losing a lot of electrolytes. Look into replenishing electrolytes during your long runs. It might be a tablet you pop into your water, it might be a gel with some electrolytes in. Whatever it is, plan this in now.
The kit you are going to wear on race day is such a important aspect. Many runners now race for a charity and will be proudly wearing the charity's vest on race day. Find your perfect racing kit before race day by wearing it for your longest runs. If it's a little cold where you are, then I would not suggest doing your long run in shorts and a singlet until the weather warms up!
Make sure you are wearing the right trainers for race day. If you are buying new running shoes, make sure you buy them with enough time to wear them for a few short runs to break them in, then wear them for your last 2 or 3 big long runs, and then use them for a few shorter runs before race day. Do NOT buy brand new shoes for race day! Lighter shoes are great, if you are efficient enough to make the most of them. Often more cushioning is more suitable.
A good marathon runner is mentally tough. Mental toughness is something you'll have to develop over time, and training is the perfect environment to do this. See each session as an opportunity to build some mental toughness.
Break your run down into smaller chunks to make it more manageable. Don't think of the run as a whole, but a lot of smaller pieces.
Stay positive, and talk to yourself to do this. If you are negative, this will slow you down.
Have a goal, and have a back up goal. Studies have shown we are able to push ourselves harder than we think if we are looking to hit a certain goal. Use that as motivation to keep you going.
Focus on other things, not yourself. If you focus on you and how much discomfort you are in, it becomes a lot harder to run. Start to think about other things. Count to 100..even better try counting back from 100!
Believe. If you don't believe what you are doing is possible, then you'll never do it. You always need to believe..
Try out some of these mental coping strategies (any others) and start to write them down after each session. Find other runners to bounce ideas off, talk to a coach (if you have one) and see your mental development as just as important as your running training.
What does not matter over the next few weeks
The distance of your week long run. Everyone is different and don't get wrapped up in someone else's training
The pace of your long run. The only day your long run pace matters is race day
Being tired - the marathon is hard and actually there will be times when you are tired in training, this is ok!
The best of luck with the rest of your training and always remember;
Believe Run Achieve!