With marathon season fast approaching we thought we’d update our marathon advice to help you avoid common mistakes made in marathon preparation and on race day. Having treated marathon runners for 19 years and with bitter experience myself of running 26.2 I feel well placed to share these errors with you to help you to optimise your training and enjoy your race day.
Before I divulge all the learning points I’ll give you some context by giving you an account of my marathon experience…
My Marathon Experience
I’ve always been a swimmer. I have a good set of lungs. 40 years of competitive swimming will do that to you. 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 at 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, especially 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 se 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. 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 to do the injection meaning is was late 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 in the crowd. 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 while 8 years later I’ve had a few pangs to do another one, good sense has prevailed, especially now with two young children at home.
That’s my story. I’ll now combine my lessons learned with lessons we’ve learned from our marathon running clients over the years to give you The 10 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. You don’t need to be perfect and don’t beat yourself up if you miss the odd training run but you need to do most of them. Especially that weekly long one.
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!
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. Don’t Do Too Much Training!
This can affect both experienced runners and first time runners too. Most experienced runners tell me they tend to run better if they are a little ‘underbaked’ going into the marathon. They’ll normally run their best times on fresh legs when they haven’t obliterated themselves with excessive training. This is why I always recommend finding a training programme that is achievable for your level of running.
Have an A, B and C goal so you’re not too disappointed if you don’t hit your absolute target. For example my A target was sub 3.30 – challenging but achievable, B target 3.45 and C target was to run every step of the way. Which I did. Even if it looked a bit odd at the end with cramp in 4 different muscles!
Don’t under estimate easy training too. I would say your 3 main runs of the week are your tough training. Anything else, unless you’re a seriously experienced runner should be about recovery. Maybe a gentle short run but something more like yoga, stretching, Pilates, gentle swimming, saunas. That kind of thing. If you’re really keen perhaps some relatively light complimentary weight exercises.
3. Be Organised On The Day
I was and then messed up. And it cost me. That’s my excuse at least! 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 follow?
- 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.
4. Know Your Pace
A lot of people use devices 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.
That said about devices it’s important not to get hung up on them during training or on the day. You also need to be able to know when you’re feeling good. And, more importantly, know when you’re not feeling good if on a training run you can’t hit those pacing targets. Some days you might feel not quite right or a bit laboured. Don’t feel too proud to adjust your running pace or even stop all together. Sometimes these days just happen. Most commonly due to increased stress levels or you’re about to come down with a cold.
Use the gadgets to keep you on track by all means but know when the feeling inside is more important than hitting those times. On the day the gadgets are very useful for helping you stay on the pace that you want to run. So many people get over excited and get carried away on the first half of the marathon. If you start slow it’s much more fun to pick up the pace in the second half than it is to die a slow painful death over the second half!
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 run within yourself. At the start of my marathon there was lots of talk over megaphones about making sure you don’t go off too fast… don’t let that affect you. You are the best person to decide how you’re going to run your race.
5. 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. It may be that the stiffer we are the more likely we are to get injured. If not injured it can get to the point where it’s harder for the muscles to work. Yoga is a great way to unwind those tight muscles and maintain a semblance of flexibility whilst iading recovery.
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 key determinants. From my experience I would recommend Yin Yoga as these are long relaxed holds ideal for loosening off tight muscles.
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 3 times a week on days you’re not running.
6. Get Any Injuries Sorted
Not so much a shameless plug for our services more of a general plea! It’s so much easier to sort injuries out if you get treatment when you start to feel them, not when you’ve ploughed through them for weeks. So many people leave it to the last week before the marathon to think about getting any injuries looked at. Please get things assessed and treated 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 here’s a link to our Running Injury Prevention guide.
7. 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 get ill for a week or two and then have to play catch up and have to push too hard leading to problems.
Many people start training after Christmas for their marathon training. I would instead recommend getting up to being able to do about 10 miles ideally but any kind of run fitness before Christmas is useful. Enjoy Christmas by all means and then start your training in earnest in the New Year. This ‘extra’ training just takes the pressure off and build in some contingency. 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.
8. 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, as we mentioned in point 2, something recovery focused such as gentle short runs, yoga, stretching, Pilates, gentle swimming, saunas or some complimentary weight training.
9. 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.
10. 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. Perhaps my less than ideal start caused my myself to hold myself a bit tenser than normal and could have been another factor in the multiple cramping issues. When we’re more tense we have to put more effort in. Nobody wants that. 26.2 miles is hard enough already!
I strongly recommend you get into relaxation breathing during your training and use it as a ‘warm up’ on the big day itself. Click the link to our Breathing Article for more details.
So there you have it. I hope you find that useful and it helps you avoid the mistakes I, and so many others, have made. Conversely, if you do make a mistake , don’t beat yourself up about it. That will just make you tense and make the running harder. Have a laugh about it and 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. Trust yourself to deal with it as it arises.
If you need any help in preparing for your marathon we’d be delighted to hear from you. Please fill out the form here and tell us how we might be able to help.