Mastering the Marathon

With exactly 16 weeks before the Milton Keynes Marathon, which I have recently signed up to as my first challenge for 2013, I attended a workshop last weekend at Crystal Palace in London called “Master the Marathon”.  The whole day event was hosted by Sam Murphy who is a renowned running coach, fitness author and journalist.

I have already acquired some knowledge about Marathon running through reading books and articles in magazines, in fact, I have even run one last year! However, I felt that I needed a better understanding of the key principles behind successful preparation and execution, in order to build onto my existing knowledge, which hopefully in turn will help me have a more efficient training plan and run Milton Keynes in a faster time.

Running a Marathon is not a piece of cake. We (I mean, those of us who are not Olympic medal winning human machines from Kenya…) are not built for running Marathons every weekend or at our leisure like 5k’s and 10k’s. Preparing for one and running one should never be taken lightly and you do not have to have experience of running a Marathon to understand the toll it takes on the body. Each step you take when you run has a force equivalent to two or three times your body weight, so no wonder at the end of a marathon you could be 2cm shorter than when you started. And there’s the damage all that pounding does to your muscles, plus the fluid you lose through so much sweating and hard breathing. All of this is very clearly explained in a BBC article called The Body’s Marathon Effort and is illustrated in the below picture:

Find out what running a marathon does to the body

I can guarantee you from experience that no matter how well you do at a Marathon, something will hurt for a while afterwards. You will then need a certain amount of time to recover properly, and it is not going to happen overnight.

The human body is not built for Marathon running, but the good news is that we can train our boldies to do it. Therefore are a number of extra considerations you need to take into account when training for a marathon. An obvious example is having a nutrition strategy – the body’s main problem is that it’s limited by fuel. Once you get to the 18-mile mark (or thereabouts) your glycogen stores are depleted and you’re having to draw on ‘survival’ energy – eating away at your body’s protein and fat. You can replenish these by taking on water and energy drinks, but that may only have a limited effect. Your body doesn’t like to digest foods or absorb fluids at the same time as doing exercise, and when running a Marathon, you are asking your body to do just that!

It is easy to see that if you do not put in a decent amount of training, you are likely to hit the dreaded wall, get injured or God forbid, become one of those less fortunate people who end up in A & E or the emergency tent due to getting stress fractures, becoming severely dehydrated or severely overhydrated during the race event.

In a nutshell, a Marathon can be an extremely rewarding and uplifting experience but can equally turn out to be a negative one if you do not treat it with the respect it deserves. No wonder that people say that the half marker of a Marathon does not come at mile 13 but at mile 20!

I really enjoyed the workshop on the whole, it was nice to spend time with a group of like minded (and equally obsessed) people. I even met someone who was also from Hungary! What made the workshop really worthwhile was the practical approach, the personal attention we got from Sam and her two helpers (her husband Jeff and a lady called Suzy Fitt) and the opportunity to ask questions. You can’t get all this from just reading a book! I found Sam to be very knowledgeable and down to earth, sharing advice that has been backed up by sound research and fool proofed through many years of coaching all types of runners.

In true runners’ spirit, we did not only discuss theory, we were also ready to put our learning into practice! For example, when we discussed the importance and practicalities of pacing for long runs, we ventured out for a run in the park to practice and get a feel for our target race pace. Probably I was the only one not wearing an expensive Garmin sports watch around her wrist, but according to Sam, I can happily do without one as I seem to have a very good sense for finding my right pace.

Later on, when we talked about different types of training components, we did a few laps on the athletics track outside to get the hang of lactate threshold training at the right pace for every individual, which we had calculated in advance. Sam pointed out that I should be picking my heels up behind me a bit more to give myself a bit more momentum and drive. Tempo running does feel a lot easier that way, but I need to get used to this!

In addition to the above, our group discussed a wide range of topics such as how to put a training plan together, what elements it should contain, nutrition strategies, stretching and strengthening exercises, injury prevention, tips for race day etc. I just wish we had more time to discuss each area in more detail, but I think in the end we managed to cover remarkably a lot within just one day. Looking back, I feel it was a very lucky (albeit freezing cold) day as we had huge amounts of snow just the day after the workshop!

The top 4 things I have learnt from this workshop are:

  • Pacing is paramount – getting it right from the start can determine the success of your training. Even though there may be a temptation to divert from the planned pace during the race, it always pays off to stay disciplined and make a judgement call about speeding up in the final few miles.
  • Getting the right elements into your training plan is your secret weapon – it should never be about quantity but about quality. You need to be flexible (perhaps even think outside the box – e.g. our body does not know a week consists of 7 calendar days, so doing a plan for two weekly training units may work better for some people). The plan then needs to be adapted and evolve as you progress through training, as you improve or face setbacks.
  • I have come accross lots of confusing information about Marathon nutrition, but the key principles for pre, post and during race nutrition were finally explained to me in plain English so I have a much better idea of what nutrients and how much of these my body needs, as a runner.
  • Cross training – always establish the purpose, don’t just do it for the sake of doing it, tailor it in a way that supports your Marathon preparation. E.g. a spinning class may be a good substitute to VO2 max training session if for any reason you are not able to run the session.

Finally, here are some pictures taken by Suzy, one of the helpers at the workshop:







I think I am ready to face Milton Keynes now!

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