Covert use of performance enhancing substances — aka “cheating” — is as old as organized sports. Even the Ancient Greeks are said to have taken “potions" to enhance their athletic prowess. Today, with one drug-cheating revelation after another splashed across the headlines, many people are so fed up they now regard most exceptional performances with skepticism and disbelief.
A five year old published report from the website RunRepeat.com remains relevant today. The report found that American road race results are slower than ever before. The study looked at more than 34 million U.S. road race results between 1996 and 2016, the largest analysis of its kind. The only ones not getting slower were the top elite runners.
Average times are slowing because more and more races are emphasizing their social aspects. Look at the race websites. You can find all sorts of social media links, party details and merchandise for sale, but it’s hard to find the race results.” – Ken Young (statistician)
The RunRepeat researchers ultimately wanted to see if the trend in deteriorating American health is reflected in running race finish times. The analytics successfully disproved several frequently used arguments including presumptions that increased race popularity, age/gender demographics or the invasion of more walking enthusiasts were culpable for the massive backslide in performance.
The question remains, however; with the influx of more and more scientific training, wearable technology, modern lifestyles, and dietary habits, why exactly have average marathon times declined so drastically in this millennium? It’s time to reverse the mistakes that prevent breakthrough marathon performances.
A Logical Necessity
A marathoner’s 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 affect endurance running success.
At the most basic level, you must run enough miles to prepare your body for the hard work of the marathon. It’s good to establish a training pattern of around 20-30 miles during the build-up weeks, and 40-50 miles (1) in the peak weeks of your marathon training. Otherwise, you will not have prepared your body for this kind of stress. 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 afterward, and you cannot afford to be injured.
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 goal. 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 big 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 racecourse 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.
What could go Wrong?
Carrying out too many high mileage runs in the 4-week period before the race. 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 21 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
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 formwork 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 runs 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 affect endurance running success.
5. Unrealistic pace judgment, 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.
(1) The weekly mileage numbers are estimates only. Experience matters much much more!