With the spring marathons not far away, a lot of people have been asking me if I have any tips on training. I've always responded with an ad hoc list to date but thought I would write down what I think is really important.
I'm not a natural runner. At school I came pretty much last in every cross country race I ever ran. I didn't run as a kid (I played squash mostly). I ran my first marathon, on a whim, at the age of 29 (it was brutal, I didn't know anything about training and I finished in about 4h 15m - and had to walk downstairs backwards for at least two days afterwards). And I ran my second at the age of 35. Since then I've run quite a few in several cities around the world, sometimes running two a year. I've run enough to know what works for me and what doesn't.
So here are 26.1 tips for getting to the finish line. Hope they're useful.
1. It's (nearly) all in the head
Sometime around mile 20, your body will want to give up. It will think it has nothing left. Your head, if you're not ready for it, will let it. Marathons are made in those last few miles. and so are marathon runners. When it's dark, cold, wet (or all of them at the same time) is when you most need to commit to your training. If you don't do the distance, it will do for you. Most of your training is about teaching your brain to overcome your body's tiredness. You won't run a full marathon distance during your training, you may only run 30km (with a marathon another 12km beyond that - but any runner can run 12km can't they?), so getting your brain and body aligned so that neither quits when it gets tough is the most vital lesson.
2. Running is just running.
You have everything else to fit in too - family, kids, work, evenings out, friends and whatever else occupies your life. Make time for those. The race is important. But it isn't life.
3. When it's not in your head, it's in the training
You need a plan but probably not the one you think. Pick up any running magazine or book and they will give you plans for all abilities. you might be able to work with one of those plans but my guess is that the rest of your life, your head, an injury or some other problem will screw up your plan, so be ready to improvise.
I ignore all the plans that require me to run 4, 5 or even 6 times a week - I don't have the time, I don't recover fast enough and there are other things that I need to do. Instead, I average two runs a week and peak at three. My plan, roughly, is to gradually run further and closer together with the aim of, eventually, running a near-marathon distance in three days. But first I build up to running a marathon in a 7 day period (perhaps 3 times 10k runs in a week) and then narrow how many days it takes me to run the distance. And somewhere about a month away I run a 30km and two 6km runs across 3 days - perhaps 6-30-6. Let me tell you, recovering from 30km even at training pace will take some time; if you can even walk 6km the next day you'll be doing well.
Here are the distances that I ran each week in the run up to the 2006 London Marathon (which I finished in 3h 51m). One week I managed 4 runs in a week, the rest it was a maximum of 3 and often just 2. You'll see that I tried to run pretty much marathon distance each week, once I was ready for it. The blank week is when I was away skiing. The week before the race - the second to last column - is me tapering (reducing how much training I do).
4. Have a goal.
Be clear why you are doing this. It might be for charity, in memory of a loved one, to lose weight, for the t-shirt, for the medal or even on a dare. When times are tough, remember why you're doing it. And keep doing it. But also set some shorter-term goals - that you will run 3 times this week, that you will do a 10km race in 50 minutes within the next month, that you will eat healthily for a week.
5. You have a certain pace built in.
Marathon running is about tricking your body to be happy running at a quicker pace for longer. The longer your run, the slower you will get so you need to keep working on tricking your body into being comfortable at a faster pace. Here's how much you will slow down over a marathon distance, based on my typical figures:
5km - 22 mins
10km - 47 mins (+3 mins versus two times 5km)
Half - 1h 42m (+3 mins versus two times 10km + a 5 min 1km)
Full - 3h 50m (+26 mins)
The second half of a marathon is when you need everything you've got. You'll see that my second half is quite a lot slower than my first half (it's slightly disguised here, I run the first half in about 1h 50m and the second in about 2h); I have tried several times to adjust for that but I seem most comfortable running a slower second half. I only dream of negative splits.
6. Sometimes, just run, no music.
Out running, my eyes are often drawn to the way other runners carry themselves. But more often, I listen to the sound their feet make as they hit the ground. Too many runners seem to slap their feet to the ground, as if they were clapping with their feet. That's a waste of energy. Of course, they're all listening to loud music and are oblivious to it. So, every so often, especially early on, listen to how you run - especially when you're tired and so more likely to lose form. If you can hear your feet slapping on the ground, you're wasting precious energy.
7. Get geeky.
Record everything. Record the distance, the splits, how you felt, what the weather was like. Get a sports watch with GPS (I use a Forerunner 310XT from Garmin - I've tried pretty much every other watch and rejected them) or use your smartphone with Nike+ GPS, Adidas miCoach, Runkeeper or similar (trouble with the 'phone is that it's not always easy to look at how you're doing and the audio interruptions drive me mad, especially when I'm listening to an audiobook!). Get some software to display all of your data - I use Rubitracks on the Mac; if I had a PC I would use Zone 5 software's SportTracks (again, I've tried all of the others and these are the best for me).
8. Two kinds of run.
For all the talk in magazines and books, there are only two types of training runs. Fast runs. Or long runs. That's it. If you want to get scientific, you can run sections of fast run during your long run. But it's still a long run. If you get bored easily you will want to mix these up. Go ahead. Run sprints between lamp posts, run hills, run track, run relays. It's all running and it all helps - just be sure to be geeky about it so that you know if you're getting better; if you're not, you need to do something different.
9. Trace out your routes.
I like to run the same few routes. I'm lucky - I run along the River Thames so what I see changes every day, with the weather, with the time of day, with the traffic, with the buildings. I can run a 25km loop starting eastbound and cross only 4 roads; i can run the westbound loop and go 30km or more crossing only 3 roads. Starting off on any given run, I can make it 6.25km (the shortest loop), 10km, 12.25km, 15.5km, 16.6km, 21km just by extending the run a little and without covering the same ground twice - so if I'm feeling good, I can go longer. If I'm not feeling so good, I can cut it short. Inevitably what happens is that at the furthest point from home, it starts to rain of course. Not everyone will be able to set out their routes like this and perhaps you will have to run multiple shorter loops (in which case, have as many different loops as you can so that you get variety).
10. Know your limits.
If your head is right, you're training hard and you're healthy, the next challenge is how to push enough but not so much that you get in trouble. if you get injured, you can't run. You will find that limit through trial and error. If you're like me, it won't be the way they say it in the running books - there they say you should increase your running volume only a couple of miles each week. I increase it much faster than that, but I offset that by only running 2 times a week in the early stages and maybe 3 times a week in the middle if I have the time. But you need to find what you can do, test how far you can run and how much rest you need. It will, inevitably, be a very individual thing.
11. Your shoes count for a lot.
For all the talk of bare foot running and ultra-light shoes, unless you're Kenyan or less than 8 stone, you're probably not running in those. I have tried every kind of shoe - newtons (that try and make you run on the front of your foot), lunarglides (I just get a sore knee), shoes that auto-adjust with a little motor, lightweight shoes, mizuno, new balance and all that you can think of. And i go back to Nike triax every time because I can run further, more consistently and with far fewer injuries. Get the shoe wrong and you will probably injure yourself and set about fixing the wrong problem. Check the shoes first.
The biggest dent in your training will more likely come from illness, especially if you're training in the winter. Now this might sound bizarre but, trust me, there's a lot of evidence to back it - floss regularly, daily if you can. The state of your immune system can be improved by giving it one less problem (I.e. gum infections and bacteria) to fight against. The few points of improvement this results in can be enough to fight off your next cold before it stops you running.
13. Halfway there.
It really is all in your head from this point on. Pretty soon, everything will hurt. This is where those long runs, on cold, dark, wet days pay off. Stay with it. If you are behind your expected pace here, you probably can't make it up. So knuckle down, keep going and let the crowd lift you along.
14. Adjust but only a little.
You can and should adjust your running style. But not much and not often. get it wrong and you're likely to consign yourself to the injury dump for a long time. Be careful with gait analysis, orthotics and anything that suddenly adjusts your style. I am a sample of one (and therefore this is anecdotal at best) but I ran for years with little trouble, then had some analysis done that resulted in orthotics. Two torn meniscus cartilages later (after about 9 months of wearing them) and I went back to my usual shoes. Your body has got used to working in a certain way - tendons follow certain grooves, muscles operate in a certain way ... Change that quickly and you will almost certainly get hurt.
As you continue your training, as you get fitter and start to cover longer distances, your running style will automatically adjust at least a little. You probably won't notice, but your form will improve and you will learn to run in a more efficient way. You may also lose a little weight which will likely help too.
15. You do not run marathons with food alone
Supplements are essential. It might be that you need energy drinks during a long run (or on a hot day) but it is also that you need vitamin pills, joint pills (I use Cissus as well as glucosamine), protein shakes after a run and so on. You may also want to take a look at beta-alanine particularly. Take it 30 mins before a fast run (one that you have done many times and know your pace) and see how you get on. Some people, me included, get a funny pins and needles sensation from it but it helps me run a minute or so faster over 5km, all part of tricking the body to run faster routinely. As far as I know, beta-alanine is not on the list of banned substances for any sporting body.
16. Run To The Beat. Sometimes.
Listen to audibooks, listen to classical music. I learned conversational Italian when running two marathons one year. For races and really fast runs, switch to upbeat music. And get anal about it - set up the playlist so that you have your favourite pieces at points of the race that you know will be difficult. If you're very confident of your finish time, set a sequence of two or three tracks to play as your countdown to the finish. Corny, maybe, but I use "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky to cover the last kilometre of any race I run; it's a huge buzz when i nail the pace that I've planned and that tune kicks in with 1km to go.
17. Run everywhere.
It isn't just about pavements. Run on all sorts of surfaces, even though your marathon will most likely be on roads. Run hills, run grass, run tracks and trails. Just don't run on ice - that's a slippery slope.
You don't actually need to "run everywhere" - I admire the people that run to work but I have no idea how they do it, where they keep their gear, how they handle arriving at work a crumpled ball of sweat. But, golly, I admire them.
18. The marathon is a race.
So racing is part of your training. Go to your local parkrun and run 5km as hard as you can. and then run home from there. My park run is about 18km away. That run home is the hardest i ever do but it feels great when it's done. Run a 10km race as part of your training and at least one half marathon, two if you can. Getting ready for those races will teach you how you need to approach the big event - and will allow you to tune how you do it, what pace you can run at consistently, what gear you need to wear and how you're doing against your plan.
Get used to them. Don't get upset about it. You will get chased by a dog sometime, perhaps several, perhaps regularly. Get over it. If you are chased, just stop dead and wait for the owner to get the dog under control. Smile, laugh it off and carry on. You weren't about to break the world record. Speaking as a dog owner with a wayward puppy who occasionally likes to run alongside a jogger, I'm amazed at the anger that some folks display (at me, at the dog, at the world around). I'm probably bias though.
20. Train as you plan to run.
I like to train on an empty stomach - to teach my body to run on low reserves. Most of my runs are in the morning, because that's when most races are. On race day, i will have some protein (from a shake) and some carbs about 30-45 minutes before the race start - and I practice that for a few runs before the big day to make sure that my stomach can handle the food. Whatever you do, don't do anything new in the days before the big race and certainly don't do anything or eat anything new on the day itself. Only disaster results when you do that.
21. Injuries come.
It's quite likely that you are susceptible to one particular kind of injury. The sooner you have it and take steps to fix the root cause, the faster you can get on with your training. It might be shin splints, or ITB problems, or it might be plantar fasciitis. Or it might be that you just get a sore knee. When it happens, you will try and run through it and, usually, it gets worse. So find it, fix it and move on.
22. Energy gels
Personally they don't do it for me. I see people with special belts with 6, 8 or even 10 gels attached on loops. It's not me. I've run my fastest marathons, 3:45 to 3:50, mostly on water and a little lucozade (if it's a hot day, watch out for what happens near the lucozade tables on race day - the ground gets as sticky as Velcro!). But figure out your own needs as you progress. Energy gels generally taste poor and need water to wash them down with. So practice ripping the top off, squeezing the gel in and then drinking water long before race day.
23. Bottles versus backpacks
During your training, don't carry bottles to drink. If you're going on a long run and especially if it's hot, invest in a camelbak or something similar. Bottles adjust the way you run - they make you swing your arms differently or twist your hips and that might lead to injury.
Before a half marathon I quit drinking for 2 weeks, before a marathon I quit for 4 weeks. There's no science in that, it's just something I do. The first drink after the run is always a very nice bottle of wine, or even an absolutely stunning wine. And wow, is it all the sweeter for the pause.
25. Don't just run
Sure, you've got to run, and run a lot, whilst training for a marathon. But don't just run. There will be days when you just haven't recovered enough to run, but you could get a half hour on an exercise bike, or 45 minutes on a cross-trainer or 20 mins on a stairmaster. Other times, you might run for 60 mins and then do another 60 mins on a cross-trainer. The muscles you use aren't the same and it isn't the same as running, but it will boost your fitness, lesses the strain on your joints and, more than likely, round out some imbalances in your muscles. Don't overdo it though. Likewise, don't think that you can lift weights and gain muscle whilst you're running long distances - though do lift weights, again, to even out muscular imbalances and improve overall fitness.
26. Finish fast. It's a race.
On every training run, pick up the pace as you approach home. Even if you only do that for the last 50 yards at first, do it. Gradually pick up the pace earlier and earlier. Remember, you will be racing. There will be spectators at the end. They want to see you finish fast, like it matters to you. Because, you know what, it really does. Crossing the line with a bit of speed will be a great feeling.
Unless the event is a flight away from where you live, run the last mile or two (more if you can) of the race route during your training. run it when you're tired. you want to know that you can dance through those last couple of miles. being familiar with that last bit will be a big help. and when you run it for real, the hundreds or even thousands of people lining that bit of the route will lift your spirits in a way that you can't imagine until you experience it
Raise your arms in the air, cry, look for your family, celebrate with another runner, get your photo taken wearing your medal. Look at your finish time - be pleased whatever it is, be ecstatic if it is equal or better than your goal. All of those. Do whatever you need to do but keep moving forward.
Within a couple of days you will already be wondering about the next one so make the most of this one.