How to run a faster marathon: Part 1
BY DAVE FOLEY
Editor’s note: Dave Foley, whose marathon personal best is 2:25, competed for the Michigan ADIDAS racing team in the 1980s and has been coaching marathoners for 35 years.
The first marathon is more of a quest than a race. Your goal is to reach the finish; awards and fast times are secondary to somehow just getting through 26.2 miles. Once you’ve got that first finishers’ medal or certificate in hand, for some that’s enough. Cross that off the bucket list and move on. For others the marathon is not so easy to leave. The goal now becomes, “How can I run my next one faster?” For these folks I have some answers.
To show improvement, obviously adjustments must be made to the training program. However, decisions made about race selection, time of year, diet, as well as other factors also can greatly affect your performance. So before developing a running plan let’s look at some other variables:
Choosing a race
We run most efficiently when the temperatures are somewhere between 40 and 60 degrees. In the Midwest, spring and fall are the optimum seasons for scheduling marathons. The possibilities of snow, sleet, ice and freezing temperatures make December through March poor choices. Likewise, running a marathon on a scorching summer day is not conducive to recording fast times.
Although people run personal bests in all marathons, I prefer a race that has somewhere between 300 and 3,000 competitors. Much of this has to do with the start. Even though wearing a chip yields a “chip time” measuring only the time that competitors are between the start and finish lines, the crowding at the start may mean spending several minutes walking or trotting 9 to 11-minute miles until you can get enough room to speed up to your planned race pace.
When the race is smaller, runners may find themselves out on a stretch of road alone with no other competitors nearby. For some, this is disconcerting and, without others to help them pace, they slow down.
Pick a race with a good reputation. There are plenty of them available. Look for races with aid stations at least every 2 miles and split times given every 5 kilometers as well as for the first mile.
Although the super athlete may knock a big chunk of time off his marathon finish time logging 30 miles a week, to significantly improve performance usually means gradually raising training mileage up to 50 to 60 miles a week. To find the additional hours for training involves making not only a time commitment, but a change in priorities. Now that the focus is the marathon, you need to keep your legs fresh. It’s time to ease back on other sports – fewer tennis matches, less racquetball, and shorter, easy-pace bike rides.
Fitting in runs six or seven days a week may mean doing workouts in the pre-dawn hours before work, during lunch hours or after dark. As you decide which race to do, look for a time of year where it will be easiest for you to devote the four to six months needed to be ready to run the best race of your life.
Bad weather does not cancel marathons, so paying homage to the postman’s credo that says, “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow….” will stop him from making his rounds, the tantrums of Mother Nature are no longer reason enough to cancel or postpone runs.
Sacrifices may also be needed in your eating habits. The less of you there is, the easier it will be to run. The folks that win the age group awards aren’t chubby. There are all kinds of studies to show that the thinner you are, excepting those dealing with anorexia, the better you will run. If you can jettison some of the junk food from your diet, you will likely shed a few pounds. However, don’t follow a crash diet. To remain healthy and energetic as you increase your mileage, eat a balanced carbohydrate-rich diet.
A Marathon Training Program
Each week should feature three hard days of training, including a long run, a practice incorporating fast running, and a session of hill running or in the absence of hills, a fartlek (the blending of continuous training with interval training) run. Follow each rigorous workout with one or two days of recovery runs.
Since a run through a marathon course will take anywhere from 2.5 to 5 hours, you have to get your body used to running for that period of time. The long run, therefore, becomes the cornerstone of any training program. To figure out the length of those long runs, take the longest distance that can comfortably be done at your current stage in your training and add 1 to 2 miles each week until you are covering 20 miles. By the time race day arrives, you should have completed three to five of these 20-milers. Although initially you should run these at a pace that is a minute-and-a-half slower than your projected marathon race pace, eventually you should try to run these faster. These training runs should tire you but not leave you ragged with exhaustion.
The second hard effort of the week should be a shorter run of 5 to 10 miles done at your projected race pace. During the first weeks of training this run will probably be slower, as your body hasn’t yet attained the fitness needed to run at race pace. Later, speed intervals will be used in place of this workout.
The third component of marathon training is hill running. On initial runs over rolling terrain, just attempt to climb the hills. As you become stronger, run more aggressively uphill. If you are unable to find hills, try to run fartleks, putting in a few quick surges lasting 1 to 3 minutes, alternating with recovery running.
If you miss a day or two, don’t try to make up these workouts by doing them on successive days. Those easy-paced runs are important – being necessary to allow stressed muscles to recover. Typically an easy day is 3 to 5 miles of slow running. If the legs are really stiff, a long walk is a good substitute for a run.
A few words about overtraining
Overtraining injuries have derailed many marathon programs. Staying healthy means being smart enough to know when to ease back and take a couple days off or postpone an intense workout. As you increase mileage and the intensity of workouts, muscle soreness is to be expected. This soreness, which is equally felt on both legs, means your muscles are rebuilding to handle the greater work load you are putting on them. However, if the pain is localized in a joint or one particular area, you need to ice that area, take anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen and then back off until the pain diminishes. You can’t run through overtraining injuries.
The next installment of this marathon training series will tell how to predict the optimum pace for your marathon, as well as provide more specifics in determining the speed and distance of your workouts in order to better prepare you for race day.