Sometimes, for reasons difficult to explain, an athlete or weekend warrior will perform at a level far superior to their previous bests – and well beyond their most optimistic expectations. How does this happen? Craft and hard work are essential, of course. Planning, testing and monitoring also have their place. But what is the mysterious “X factor” that elevates an athlete’s performance above and beyond all expectation?
A Logical Necessity
A marathoners worst nightmare – hitting the wall – might be easily avoidable for runners who adhere to pace and mileage levels that conserve carbohydrates, the body’s main source of quick-burn energy and follow a progressive training plan with a wide sweeping impact on V02 max and lactate threshold, key physiological variables that effect endurance running success.
To begin with, it’s vital that you establish a training pattern of no less than 20-30 miles during the the build-up weeks, and 40-50 miles in the peak weeks of your marathon training. Otherwise you will not have prepared your body for the hard work of the marathon. You may have to drop out of the race or you will have a very bad day. You will also risk injuring yourself either during the race or afterwards, and you cannot afford to be injured. So at the most basic level, you must run enough miles to prepare your body for this kind of stress. 60-90 miles for the peak weeks leading up to a marathon is a good goal after 3-5 years of consistent training.
Walk Your Talk
Of course you can always decide to run the marathon just to finish. Just run it slowly and don’t try to a performance time. If your work, or health or family prevents you from training as much as you would like, don’t give up, just think differently about the marathon and treat it as a super-effort of endurance to prepare you for another event later in your life. In this case running lower mileage in training might be alright. Go to the race for fun, start very slow, take a lot of time at every aid station and try to reach the finish line even if you have to walk some miles. The talk on the race course is that the recent Marathon Mega-Study proved, once and for all that there’s no statistically significant impact on the national performance average by those who walk to the finish line.
The Word Recover
The word recover means both “to regain health” and “to regain balance.” People often make the mistake of racing too frequently without adequate recovery from hard efforts, and consequently fail to regain the good form and fitness they had built up through training. They invariably suffer for it either by injury, disillusionment, or worst of all, giving up on running altogether. The inherent risk of these pitfalls increases markedly when you are running races at a pace and/or distance beyond your comfort zone.
One common marathon mistake is carrying out too many high mileage runs in the 4-week period before race day. For the average runner, to have healthy, rested leg muscles capable of achieving the marathon distance, it’s better to ‘go long’ every 2-3 weeks (rather than weekly) and to complete the last long run at least 4 weeks before the race. By promoting better recovery while still enhancing the ability to run marathon type distances, you can gradually increase the duration of this effort to 22 miles, 10-12 of which are covered at your marathon race pace.
On alternate weeks you can relax more by doing moderate duration, ‘best-easy’ paced runs of 10-16 miles. 8 weeks before the marathon you can try something special – that is finishing the last 40% of these ‘mini-long runs’ at your 1/2 marathon race pace (or a comparable effort). These are called ‘speed-endurance runs’ (not to be confused with the generic tempo runs). Be very careful with these runs! Make sure your form and breathing are totally under control. It’s fine to slow down while you figure things out.
Common Marathon Problems
In order to separate and clarify the elements of breakthrough marathon performance we need to acknowledge some of the most widespread problems:
1. Following monotonous training plans devoid of variety, meaning too few runs faster than goal marathon pace in the weekly schedule. 90% – max running speed is both a good predictor of marathon potential and almost always leads to upgrades in your marathon performance.
2. Emphasizing non-specific strength training that has no impact on pelvic rhythm, stride length and ground reaction rather than neural training and form work that simulates key aspects of the gait cycle, eliminates energy leaks and relaxes tense over-used muscles.
3. Errant fueling/hydrating patterns. Using gels or sports drinks during the race is a tricky business because the body can store only so much fuel. Electrolytes, lost in sweat, particularly in the form of sodium and potassium must also be replaced to help the kidneys keep concentrations in the blood constant. In-run replenishment can certainly help you sustain a strong pace more comfortably but it’s all too easy to inadvertently dilute the mixture of fluids and gels which lessens their strength and purity. Low concentration of carbohydrates and/or electrolytes delivered to the working muscles makes for a hard race.
4. Too much dependency on ‘quantitative’ long runs and generic tempo tuns rather than ‘qualitative’ hill workouts, 5K & 10K paced sessions & speed-strength circuits designed to complement those essential longer efforts. By supervising these higher intensity exertions carefully, I see them have a much broader impact on V02 max and lactate threshold, key physiological variables that effect endurance running success.
5. Unrealistic pace judgement, especially starting out (miles 1-4). A race is often won by those who slow down the least. We’ve all seen how many people start out by pushing too hard only to run totally out of steam by the last few miles (or much sooner). A 10 second difference in pace per mile can be the difference between a solid finish of 26.2 and a traumatic wall splat.
Results Oriented Reading:
80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald is a thorough examination of the science and research behind the most positive lasting changes most people can make to improve their marathoning – making the majority of their workouts easier – and some harder!
Waterlogged by Tim Noakes explains how an over-hydrated athlete is actually at a performance disadvantage and may be at risk of exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH)–a potentially fatal condition. Noakes sets the record straight, exposing the myths surrounding dehydration and presenting up-to-date hydration guidelines for endurance sport and prolonged training activities.