To many runners the marathon is considered to be the ultimate goal, running 26.2 miles is something special. The following information may prove to be helpful to anyone planning to run a marathon.
What level of experience should a runner have before considering their first marathon?
As with most things in life, starting out with something achievable then building up to bigger and greater things is advisable and often more rewarding. This is no different in running; building up and gaining race experience with distances of 5K, 10K, 10 mile and half marathons is recommended before considering the a marathon.
Which is the best marathon to run?
Most marathons are run in either the spring or autumn seasons. An important consideration is when one prefers training. If a spring marathon is considered then all the training will be carried out during the winter months. For an autumn marathon the training will be throughout the summer. So the first decision to be taken is a preference to training in the cold or the heat. Then finding a race is not difficult, there are many main city and even trail marathons to choose from. However, it may prove onerous in trying to secure a place in an iconic event such as the London Marathon where general entry is allocated using a ballot system. The advantages of the big city marathons include having lots people to run with, good on-course support and excellent provision of both water and energy drinks at regular intervals.
How much training is necessary?
Running a marathon should not be taken lightly and depending upon running experience a 16 to 20 week training program is typical and 26 weeks may be necessary for more novice runners. Following a training plan is advisable and this should be personalised taking into consideration: experience, level of fitness, available time for training, lifestyle and your marathon goal. A good training programme will be progressive, varied and able to provide a status check your progress. Typically the training programme will include long runs, hill runs, speed work, focussed body strength work and planned days for rest and recovery. Included in the general body strength work, building strong core muscles should be considered as this may help prevent injury and will help to maintain good posture when tiredness sets in during the event or training runs. As part of rest and recovery sleeping well is important, this is the time when muscle and tissue repair takes place. A gentle dynamic warm up before training commences and warm down with some static stretching after each session is recommended again, this will help prevent injury. A key element of the training programme is to learn and practise your marathon pace (MP). This must become an optimum pace that is “just” comfortable and can be maintained for 26.2 miles. A good training programme will ensure there is a taper period during the last few weeks. This basically means gradually reducing the mileage to minimise the accumulated fatigue and to enable time to repair any muscle damage that may have been sustained during the long period of training.
The marathon checklist
A question often asked by a first time marathon runner is: “what are the most important things to take into account when preparing for a marathon?” The simple answer is everything needs to be considered; in fact it almost calls for a project plan as nothing should really be left to chance. Rather than going overboard with the preparation of a project plan, running has to remain easy and fun so a simple check list as follows might help.
Shoes: are the single most important investment for every runner. There are no specific marathon shoes. It is recommended to go to a specialist running shop that provides gait analysis and a fitting service to ensure appropriate and comfortable shoes are chosen. Having selected the right shoes for you it is worthwhile buying 2 pairs such that they can be worn on alternate days during the training period. This should ensure that on marathon day either pair can be worn without hesitation. When buying the shoes a few pairs of good running socks should be purchased at the same time. Points to look for in a running sock is that they are anatomical cut (i.e. a right and left sock) and have wicking which supports moisture being drawn away from the skin which in turn helps to reduce the possibility of blisters.
Clothing: most runners already have and use suitable apparel for running. As a reminder synthetic wicking material tops are essential to wear when running to ensure moisture (sweat) is wicked away from the body, cotton should be avoided as it retains moisture. Some runners buy new clothing for the marathon to look good on the day, which is fine and understandable. If this is the case be sure to try it out in advance on a long training run – never run the event in new, unworn clothing. It is advisable to dress as if the temperature is 10°C warmer than forecast, be sure it will not take long for the body to warm up soon after the marathon starts. Many runners wear an old top and leggings or a plastic bin liner to keep warm before the race and dispose of them as the race starts. In some of the bigger events discarded clothing items are collected, cleaned and donated to a charity. The marathon is a long race and at some point many runners like to and need to receive some encouragement. Getting your name printed on the running top is a good tip. It is a real morale booster when someone in the crowd calls out your name, even if only to say “keep going”!
Nutrition: is vital in any training programme. Ensuring a good and healthy balanced diet that includes carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals is essential. All are important, with carbohydrates being the main fuel to sustain the vigorous exercise regime and proteins to help repair the muscle and tissue damage that will occur during the long periods of training.
During an endurance event such as the marathon the fuel sources for the muscles include glycogen, lactate and fat. Typically people start a marathon with a full load of glycogen which has been built up from the previous evening’s meal and breakfast. When running, lactate is generated which is a good fuel that is used by the muscles. (The by product, lactic acid is not good). The muscles will also take fuel from fat which is available in the body when there is insufficient glycogen and lactate available. During the training programme, on the long runs the body is being trained to use fat as a source of fuel when required. Some runners teach their bodies to use fat as a fuel by doing the occasional run on empty i.e. go out for a long run without eating anything at all for many hours before the run. This should only be considered for more seasoned runners and tried very infrequently. During some of the speed work sessions in a training programme, they can be focussed on increasing “lactate threshold” i.e. the point in the exercise intensity at which lactate and specifically lactic acid accumulates in the blood stream; this is at the point when lactate cannot be consumed as quickly as it is being produced.
In summary, during the marathon itself we can do little to control the use of lactate and fat as a fuel. However, something that can be and must be done is to replenish the glycogen levels. Glycogen is stored in the cells of the liver and the muscles. Typically, most runners will start a race with sufficient glycogen to take them to about 18 miles. This must be replenished well before this point to avoid “hitting the wall” (this is defined with the depletion of the glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy). Glycogen is replaced by consuming carbohydrates. The easy way for a marathon runner to maintain their glycogen levels is to use carbohydrate rich sports drinks or gels at regular intervals. Learning to eat and drink whilst running is something that marathon runners must learn and practise.
Some runners are affected with stomach problems when taking gels and sports drinks during a long run. This may happen, especially if the gels or sports drinks are consumed too late. When running for a long period of time the leg muscles require a lot of blood. To provide this other parts of the body get less blood as it will be diverted to the parts of the body that need it most i.e. the hard working leg muscles. The stomach will receive very little blood whilst running. So when a carbohydrate rich gel or sports drink is taken, there is often insufficient blood available in the stomach to help digest it and hence stomach cramps etc. occur. The lesson here is to take the gels/sports drinks from early on (probably when you don’t feel you need them) and then at regular intervals. It is important to have a nutrition plan for the marathon that has been practised during the training programme. Never, try anything new on race day. Most big races provide sports drinks and advertise in advance which brand is provided. It is a good discipline to train with the sports drink that will be provided at the event and get into the habit of drinking “on the run”.
Hydration: staying hydrated is critical to running performance as dehydration may lead to fatigue, decreased coordination and muscle cramping. Going back to basics, muscles only use approximately 25% of the energy for the work being performed; the remaining energy is released as heat. This heat is transferred to the blood, the blood flow to the skin is increased and heat is lost by evaporation, i.e. sweating. Sweat is generated from the water in the blood. These lost fluids must be replaced to prevent dehydration. It is normal to lose between 0.5 – 1 litre of fluid per hour whilst running, even when the weather is cool. Dehydration has a big impact on performance with some experts’ suggesting a 1% drop in body weight causes a 5% drop in performance. To put this into perspective a 70Kg person losing 1 litre of moisture through sweating reduces their weight by 1.4%, this could cause a 7% drop in performance! Drinking water at regular intervals whilst running will help prevent dehydration. In most races water stations are provided every 5km (as stipulated by UKA). This is a good indicator of approximately when to take on water whilst running. In many big city marathons water stations are located every mile due to the fact there are so many runners. It is not necessary to take drinks from each of these. It is advisable to start any training session or race well hydrated. Drinking 300-500ml of fluid about 15 minutes before a race or workout is considered good practice. During each training session drinking 150-250ml every 5km/20 minutes to offset fluid loss is recommended. Drinking “little and often” can minimise stomach discomfort. When the session/race is over, it is necessary to drink sufficiently; experts suggest drinking about up to 1.5 litres of fluid for each kg of weight loss. The evidence that dehydration doesn’t exist is when light-coloured urine is passed. If carrying a drink during training using a waist belt rather than carrying a bottle in the hand is recommended. Carrying a bottle in the hand for long periods may lead to unnecessary arm and shoulder tension due to the grip on the bottle.
Pre-race Day: the most important thing to do the day before the marathon is to take things easy and rest. It is recommended not to do anything strenuous and spending as little time as possible on your feet (this may feel difficult especially if the marathon is abroad and you want to explore the location). Check the weather forecast for marathon day. If hot and sunny ensure you have sun cream available. If rain is forecast pack a plastic bin liner to wear prior to the race in order to keep warm and dry. To keep you occupied during the day lay out your running kit, pin the number to the top and pack a bag for after the event. Typical items to pack may include: drink, treat snack (you will deserve this), towel, change of clothes including fresh socks and a warm top.
Eating a carbohydrate rich meal (containing complex carbohydrates) e.g. wholegrain rice, whole-wheat pasta, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, yams, whole-wheat bread, beans, apple, melon, oranges, strawberries is desirable to ensure the glycogen stores are at highest possible levels. Keeping the body well hydrated by drinking water is also necessary. Last but by no means least, is to go to bed early and get as much sleep as possible. Set the alarm for the morning to ensure there is sufficient time to eat breakfast before heading off to the race.
Race Day: this is the day you have been looking forward to and working towards for a long time. It will be enjoyable so make the most of it. Start the day with a good breakfast that you are used to, many runners eat porridge, whole-wheat toast or bananas as they provide high amounts of complex carbohydrates. Keep the body well hydrated, drink little and often, taking small sips is best before the start.
Gather all the items to take to the marathon which were sorted out the day before. Ensure the timing chip is safely secured to the shoes or around the ankle. Leave in plenty of time to get to the start and try and remain calm and relaxed throughout. If during training you had any blisters then take the precaution to put a blister patch on the parts of your feet that suffered in the past. For men it is worthwhile to put a plaster or Vaseline over your nipples if any chafing occurred previously. This is also a good precaution in the event it rains or if the running top will get water spilt on it (this can easily happen when drinking on the run). At the start area, find the baggage drop, use the loo as required and find your way to the start pen. It is important to stay calm and warm. If you are wearing a bin liner or old clothing keep it on for as long as possible and discard it a few minutes before the start gun goes off. Most people will be feeling anxious or nervous but now is time to remember the months of hard work you have invested which is why you are on the start line, in good health and ready for one of the most exciting and enjoyable days of your life. You have earned your place on the start line.
For the majority of runners there is no need to warm up before the start of a marathon, this is only necessary for elite and top club athletes only. The first few miles of a marathon should be considered as the warm up. As you start, remember your goal (possibly a target time); you will know your pace, stick to it and don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. The start may be congested and slow, even if your body wants to speed off, don’t and go with the flow. Exercising restraint in the first few miles will pay dividends later in the race. Ease into your running rhythm staying relaxed with good posture. If aiming for a specific target time and you consider you are behind schedule wait until the second half of the race to gradually pull this back.
Take on a little water at the first opportunity. This will enable you to get a feel for the containers provided and practise drinking on the run for real. After this it is critical to stay hydrated so drink little and often to avoid dehydration as this will seriously impair performance. Use the nutrition strategy you have planned and practised. If this is taking a gel every 6 miles for example then do it even if you think you do not need it. If you get to about 18 miles and have not replenished the glycogen stores by taking carbohydrates then the likelihood of “hitting the wall” is extremely high.
During the marathon most runners will experience the emotional “roller coaster”. Some very high points followed by some really low points. Be strong and think back how you managed to complete those long runs, it is no different now. If you have a mantra (as many runners do) now could be the time to motivate yourself and start repeating it. Some mantras heard include: “running this for charity, train hard race easy, I can do this, strong and steady, no pain no gain, another step closer…..
Hopefully, this is also the time when the crowd will be providing you with the support you need to bring you back to a high. You will be pleased your name is printed on the front of your top. As the last few miles approach most runners will be feeling very fatigued but this is when the adrenaline starts to take over. Now is the time to keep strong and dig into the reserves. Keeping hydrated is still important for the final few miles. As the finish line approaches there is usually something left in the tank to take you across the line in style. Smile for the camera, congratulate yourself for the achievement and receive your finishers’ medal with pride.
Keep moving to avoid stiffening up or cramping. Try to stretch a little; you might not feel like it however, it will help. Aim to collect the baggage as soon as possible and put on fresh and warm clothing. Drink as much water as you can and enjoy the treat snack you packed away the night before. If possible try to start refuelling with some easily digestible carbohydrates within the first hour after finishing. When you feel you can eat some more try to take on some protein as well if possible, this will help repair the muscle tissue damage that occurred during the marathon. Research suggests that the optimal recovery food is approximately 70% carbohydrate and 30% protein. The remainder of the day is for relaxing and putting your feet up should be taken literally. Elevating the legs will help the body to start flushing the damage from the muscles and tissues.
It often takes a while to realise the extent of your achievement but you should be on “cloud 9” for a very long time. In the event this marathon was London then you should be registering for next year’s race tomorrow!
“We are different, in essence, from other men. If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.” – Emil Zatopek