With marathon season fast approaching I thought it was time to learn from other people’s mistakes. Having treated marathon runners for 15 years and with a bitter experience myself of running 26.2 I feel well placed to pass to share these errors with you so that you can avoid the most common pitfalls I have either seen, or experienced first hand. This article aims help you avoid those pitfalls which at best leads to time out from training, at worst means missing out on your big day due to injury.
Before I divulge all the learning points I’ll give you some context by giving you a brutally honest account of my marathon experience from someone who really should know better…
My Marathon Experience
I’ve always been a swimmer. I have, as you could say, a good set of lungs. Running for me has always been about getting my muscles to keep up with my lungs. I’m lucky in that I have a reasonably nice, relaxed running style for which I have been complemented. I like to think I know a bit about biomechanics. However, I am quite lazy. I’m good at pushing myself hard in the pool, not so good pushing hard when running.
I’d been increasing my running gradually over a number of years and done a few half marathons. During the first of which I thought I was going to die at mile 12. This is my first bit of advice, though not an official one, build up to marathon running gradually. Yes, you can go from doing no running to running a marathon in a 16 week training plan. But it’s much easier and you’ll be less likely to injure yourself if you have at least some running background.
I found the training tough. Not especially enjoyable beyond 14 miles. But I am nothing if not determined. Stubborn the wife would say! Towards the end of training I found my legs were not recovering well. I did not have injuries per say but my legs remained constantly heavy. On reflection choosing to run all of the long runs at marathon pace was an error. So too was not starting ‘proper’ training sooner. My legs just weren’t fully adapted to distance running.
That said I did all my long runs as per my training plan (thanks Claire!). I was doing a minimum 3 runs a week and went up to 22 miles in my last run. I also used my swimming to do other training that didn’t involve ruining my legs. Towards the end of training this really became just a recovery exercise as my legs were so shot.
On the day of the big race I had everything planned. I am a little OCD. Then promptly forgot about my last injection before the race (I’m a Type 1 diabetic). This meant I had to rush back to the house do the injection. This meant I was later than intended to the start pen and I didn’t make it through to the pace I wanted to run at – I was in with the 4 hour lot and I wanted 3.30. As a result I spent the first half of the marathon weaving my way past slower runners and running what felt like at least an additional mile!
The next 6 miles were great. I found my rhythm, clawed back some lost time and high fived a lot of people. The next 3 miles I realised I’d shot my bolt and I accepted I wasn’t going to make my target time and just settled in. The last 4 miles were utter hell as both calves and both adductors simultaneous cramped for what was the longest half hour of my life. Even a massive cheer from Zoe Ball only provided temporary respite.
I crossed the line in 3.36.05 and vowed never to do another one. And I haven’t… yet.
So that’s my story. I’ll now combine the errors I made with the ones we see so often in the clinic from marathon runners. First timers to experienced runners no one is immune from truly messing up a marathon… here are the 8 most common ways to mess up your marathon…
1. Actually Do Some Training
Not too crazy or controversial a point I know. I am always staggered by how ill prepared so many people are before a marathon. Running a marathon is a massive undertaking. My whole motivation for doing the training was to minimise the amount of pain I had on the day. That’s just me. Find whatever motivates you. But do the training.
If you don’t do the training the best that can happen is that you have to walk a lot of the last 10 miles. The worst that can happen is you get injured part way round as you’re simply asking your body to do something that it is not conditioned to do. Trust me the last 6 miles are agonising enough!
So get a training plan and stick to it. If you don’t enjoy the training ask yourself if the marathon is really for you.
2. Be Organised On The Day
I was and then messed up. And it cost me. Or I use it as an excuse for missing my target time. You decide! If you’ve done any marathons before you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t run one before pick the brains of anyone that has. Especially anyone who has run the same one as you.
Important things to consider include:
- How do I get to the start line? – many roads will be closed if you get a lift / taxi
- Where will I go for my last toilet stop?
- How do I keep warm while on the start line?
- What pacing time do I want to be next to?
- How much water do I need?
- How much food / energy gels do I need to take on for the race?
- Where do I book for my reward meal?
- Which pub do I meet all my friends in to show off my medal?
The last thing you need is to have to run to the start line as you’re running late as you didn’t consider road closures or traffic! I have seen so many people who’ve ended up running over 28 miles.
3. Know Your Pace
A lot of people use Garmin’s or equivalent to know their pace. I think this is a great way to rein you in or encourage you along. If you’ve done the right amount of training you should know what you’re capable of. But whatever you are targeting make it realistic.
I would also recommend have a series of goals. For example my perfect goal was to go sub 3.30, my next goal was to beat my mate Dave’s time of 3.33, the next one was to go sub 3.45 and the final one was to run every step of the way. I achieved 2 of these. Dave still has bragging rights! The reason for this is to be flexible. If it’s a warm one on the day you really need to add some time onto your target. Probably quite a bit.
It’s good to have different targets so if you realise you are missing one you still have others to aim for. You still have motivation. If my whole motivation was simply to run sub 3.30 then I’d have packed up and gone home at mile 18.
Another tip on a personal note is be confident in the time you have chosen to aim for. You know what shape you’re in. If you’ve done the training you’ll know what you’re capable of. If you haven’t then you’ll equally know you’ll need to to run within yourself. At the start line for Brighton Marathon 2015 there was lots of talk over megaphones about making sure you don’t go off too fast… don’t let that affect you last thing. Stick to your race plan.
4. Do Lots Of Yoga
Brighton is of course the European home of yoga. There’s no excuse not to. Running generally causes your muscles to shorten. Runners are generally speaking stiff. Yogi are generally speaking loose. However, the stiffer we get, the more likely to injure ourselves we are. Yoga is a great way to unwind those tight muscles. Maintain a semblance of flexibility. Help recover from runs. And reduce likelihood of injury. It’s also good cross training as running by it’s nature is very much single planar – in English that means you’re always going in one direction. There is no sideways or rotational movement.
There are loads of yoga classes available. You decide what works best for you. The combination of convenience of timings and your preferred style of yoga being the two key determinants. From my experience I would recommend Yin Yoga as these are long relaxed holds ideal for loosening off those tight muscles. There is also specialised Yoga For Runners too.
If getting to classes doesn’t work for you there’s still no excuse. Simply type in something like “Yin Yoga For Runners” into YouTube.com and away you go. There’s also a great website called Do Yoga With Me where you can choose from an array of classes to follow at home. I would recommend at least 3 times a week on days you’re not running.
5. Get Any Injuries Sorted
Not so much a shameless plug for our services more of general plea! It’s so much easier to sort injuries out the sooner you come in for treatment. Trust me. So many people leave it to the last week before the marathon to think about getting any injuries looked at. Please just get things assessed as soon as possible. Maybe even consider some preventative treatment even if you’re not having problems.
Every year in the last 2 weeks before Brighton marathon we are inundated with desperate people trying to rekindle their dreams of being able to run the marathon. Whilst we have worked many miracles over the years you give yourself the best chance of recovery with early treatment.
For those not lucky enough to live anywhere near Brighton, or our other clinics in Swindon and Salisbury, here’s a link to our Running Injury Prevention guide.
6. Allow Contingency In Everything
One of the main reasons we see people at the clinic injured part way through their training is illness. They started their training plan exactly on time but then they got ill for a week or two and were playing catch up. They pushed too hard and had to come see us. Alternatively people start their training too late.
Many people start training after Christmas for their marathon training. I would instead recommend getting up to being able to do in the region of 10 miles (although any kind of run fitness is useful) before Christmas. Enjoy Christmas by all means and then start your training in earnest in the New Year. It just takes the pressure off. If you do get ill you can afford to take some time out. To expect to get through the British damp squib of a Winter without illness is unrealistic.
Another important contingency example is getting to the start line. Allow way more than you initially think. As I mentioned previously, you want to avoid a sprint to the start line at all costs.
7. Cross Train
We touched on this in the Yoga recommendation. There is only a finite amount of running you can and should do. Runners who have been running for a long time are conditioned to run every day, sometimes twice. But us mere mortals are less well adapted. Find something that works for you that isn’t running but still good for your fitness. Ideally something that gives your legs a breather. Swimming and Yoga would be my two bets recommendations.
8. Stay Hydrated
Obvious I know. But really think about this one. How are you going stay hydrated? How much water will you need for the whole marathon? How will you get the water into your system whilst you are running along?
This is the one that really cost me. Being the scientist that I am I had worked out I needed about 2 litres of water for the marathon. I’d practiced in my training runs. However, I didn’t like running with a bottle holder so I relied on the water stations on the course. Sadly my lack of experience drinking from stupid plastic cups cost me. Most of the water went down me and not in me. This is the reason (excuse?) that I cramped up so badly with 4 miles to go having had no issues during training. This was in no way due to a lack or preparation on my part… most definitely not… well might have been a little bit.
9. Stay Relaxed
I blame the hydration but thinking back I suspect I was just a bit too tense for the whole thing. Many people wind themselves up so much about doing an injury they develop a mysterious injury the week before. This is all stress. I don’t think I was in this camp but my less than ideal stressful start to the day I suspect meant I was running more tense than I normally would.
When we’re more tense we have to put more effort in. Nobody wants that. 26.2 miles is hard enough already!
So there you have it. I hope you find that useful and I truly hope you don’t make the mistakes that I and others have done in the past. Equally if you make a mistake don’t beat yourself up about it. That will just make you tense and make the running harder. Roll with what the marathon throws at you. It’s near impossible to run the perfect marathon race. Something will go wrong at some point. If you’ve dodged all of those problems above, it shouldn’t be something you can’t handle.
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