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Will it be alright in the long run?

In this blog Brooksie explores a common issue for everyday runners when training for a marathon, and provides some tips to help you avoid this and to have a great experience on race day. He’s coached many marathon runners over the years, from those aspiring to a finish time which starts with a 2 to those just happy to finish within the cut-off time. To date, DNFs have been non-existent and it’s often seemed like it’s a PB production line. So something right must be happening! 

 

It’s that time of year when training is starting to ramp up for those tackling a spring marathon. And the weekly long runs are getting…. well….longer. 


If this is you, are you approaching the long runs in a way that will help YOU be in the best shape for success on race day? 


Or are you following a plan that worked for a friend or that you found on the internet? Maybe a plan that says you’ve got to get your weekly long run up to 20 miles or more in training? 


If it’s the latter, it might be because you’re thinking that if you can’t run 20+ miles in training, there is no way you’re going to be able to make it to 26.2 on race day. 


Here’s the thing though, over the years I’ve seen many a runner end up having a less than satisfying experience on race day, or not making it to race day at all, because they’ve followed the crowd when it comes to how they’ve approached their long runs. And this isn’t restricted to just novices at the distance. 


It's because they either start to pick up injuries or are already fatigued when they stand on the start line. And the root of this is that they’re hammering themselves on weekly long runs and not allowing enough recovery after them. Driven by a need to follow the plan rather than listening to their body. 


And often training HARDER than the elite runners looking to win the race. Spending much more TIME than the elites out on their Sunday long run or pushing themselves at a higher intensity, or maybe even both. Things that aren’t conducive to marathon success.


Long training runs are important for marathon runners, of course they are, because marathons are themselves very long runs. 


However, from a physical fitness perspective it’s the time you’re running that’s most important, not the distance - because the body doesn’t understand miles (or kilometres) only how long it’s been working and how hard. 


And the science says that, whoever you are, if you run for more than about 2.5 hours (at a chatty pace) in one go, you’re not going to gain any more marathon fitness. You’re just going to tire yourself out more and extend the time it will take to recover. 


Herein lies a problem is though. For those elite runners, 2.5 hours is plenty because they'll have covered the distance, collected their medal and probably be having a celebratory brunch by then on race day. However, for many of us, 2.5 hours doesn’t feel enough.


Because if your goal is to finish in, let’s say, 5 hours - at race pace you’ll only have covered 13 miles. And the thought of having to do double that on race day is, as far as your head is concerned, really daunting.  


“How on earth could I be confident I can do 26 miles on race day if I’ve only done half that in training??” is what many have said to me. “I need to have covered at least 80% of the distance in training to feel confident about going all the way on race day”.


Consider this though. Are those that race 100-miles, doing 80-mile training runs? And are those tackling The Spine Race attempting 200+ miles in training?


“Of course not” they say, “they’d be exhausted, and good for nothing come race day!”  


Exactly!!  


So, if running longer distances in training is a problem, what’s the solution?


I could say “it depends”. “Because everyone has slightly different needs.” And this would be true. But it’s probably not very useful for those who’ve got this far in reading this blog. 


So here are some of strategies I often include in training plans for runners that have come to me for help over the years. 


  • Start training further out - rather than 16 weeks before the race, start 26 week or more. (Probably not very helpful for this spring though eh!?)


  • Rather than using a weekly training cycle, with long runs every Sunday, making the cycle longer. Including long runs every 2 or 3 weeks, to start with at least. 


  • Prioritising frequency of running over length of runs in the early part of the plan.  Running 6 times a week is more effective in conditioning the body for a marathon than only running 3 or 4 times a week. But to do this we still need to ensure they’re recovering between runs. So we need to reduce the length and/or intensity of the majority of those runs. 


  • Including one or two extra long outings in the plan that will have them on their feet for a similar amount of TIME that they’ll be going for on race day. 


BUT and these are big buts: they have to be tackled in a way that ensures they’re running strong at the end AND able to recover quickly enough to be able to run again without significant soreness in muscles or joints within a day or so. 


This often means reducing the intensity right down (into heart rate Zone 1 for those that use that) for the majority of the outing. 


I say ‘outing’ rather than ‘run’ because, for example, it could be walking for the first 2-3 hours and then breaking into a run in the latter part. Or starting at a walk and including bouts of easy jogging, e.g. jogging for the last 20 mins of every hour.


This approach is more effective training for the body as well as being better psychologically than running from the start and ending up HAVING to walk later on. Because they'll recover quicker and are likely to have trained their metabolism to use energy more efficiently; reducing the risk of hitting 'the wall' on race day.


  • Leaving a few weeks between these extra long outings, to allow the body to gain the most benefit from the adaptations they promote. 


  • Making the longest outing 4 or 5 weeks before race day for the same reasons. 


  • Long runs might still be included between the extra long outings, and in the final month. But these are likely to be much shorter and no more than 90 mins in the last fortnight before the race. 


In a nutshell, what we try to do is find a way to get the body and mind in peak condition ready for race day, in a way that is as kind to the body as possible for the individual. Not constantly pushing through the pain and destroying ourselves before the big day arrives.

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