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The deed is done … you entered and have been accepted.  In the cold light of day there now seems more to distance running than you expected.  When you first set out on a training run, your body is now crying out, “WHY?”  Family and friends are asking the same question!  So, here are some thoughts to assist you in responding and making your preparations :

1. Training from scratch ~ then, go slowly, slowly at first

If you are a novice, or previously have not taken running seriously, it is important to plan gradual increases in your training so that your body has time to make structural adjustments to meet the extraordinary demands you are going to make.  This is known as “super-compensation” ~ in the rest times you gradually become stronger to cope with the stresses of your training.  Once stronger, the bones and joints can handle greater stress, absorb more shock, and the muscles can act more efficiently and for longer.  Most sports injuries are a direct result of moving training along too quickly before the physique has a chance to catch up. 

Consider the specific movements involved in your stride and identify any weakness in technique or physiologically.  Your knees will be particularly vulnerable at the Marathon distance, and particular care should be taken to prepare and strengthen muscles and ligaments supporting this joint.  Warming up slowly and using some moves which mimic your running action or components thereof, will start to mobilise the joints, warming up the synovial fluid in the joint to soften and prepare the joint cartilage for its role as a shock absorber.  Such warming up with moves mimicking running will help to prepare better motor nerve pathways.  Squats and lunge exercises are beneficial in preparing the knees, together with leg extension exercises using gym machines.

Preparation stretches for your major muscle groups AFTER warming up (stretches held for 8 seconds per muscle in the preparation time) also help to safely prepare the muscle for what it is about to undergo, as well as improving the blood transport to the muscle and the joint and so make nutrient supply for energy production and removal of waste products (lactic acid) more efficient.   Once you have stretched, then rewarm your muscles and joints by starting off slower than your normal pace and so build up your heart rate carefully to its normal running b.p.m.  Note that stretching a cold muscle carries a significantly higher risk of injury to the muscle body, the tendons and attachment sites.

Your feet will typically be striking the ground 1000 times per mile during your training and for the Marathon itself (that’s about 26,000 times for a marathon … ouch!)   Many runners suffer having expected their legs (ankle and knee joints in particular) to cope with sudden changes in running surface.  They go from training predominantly on soft surface to entirely on hard, for example ~ without allowing time for natural super-compensation to occur.   Hard surfaces are true and do not dampen either the impact of landing or the propulsive forces for forward motion; which requires the bones and joints of the leg to absorb high impact forces. Conversely, soft grass and mud surfaces attenuate both the impact  and  the propulsive forces.  Thus soft surface running requires a very different technique and does not fully prepare the knees in particular for strains of prolonged road running.  So, you do need to make gradual changes to your programme so that neuromuscular motor pathways can learn the specifics of your hard surface stride, and so that your joints can adapt. You should plan towards training mostly on hard surfaces by your long-runs stage (say about four to six weeks before the Marathon).  You should then be running over a variety of hard surfaces and building up to some careful downhill running, which amplifies the impact stresses and so advances your conditioning for the Marathon itself.


I would note that the choice between soft and hard surface running and the programme development based on selection of different surfaces is a point of some controversy.  There seem to be those with definite opinions on both sides of the fence!  The most important consideration in training is staying uninjured.  You will have to assess how you feel as you train.  If you find the hard going too rough on the feet and joints in training, a compromise might then be to run the major portion of your mileage on the most forgiving surfaces you can find.  You would then build up as outlined above so that you then tackle one short to medium length run a week on the sorts of surfaces you will encounter in the race.

Remember that not all of the Marathon will be undertaken as straight line running ~ as is probably the nature of most of your training.  It can take up to 15 minutes to cross the start line in the London Marathon and, for the first half, with over 31,000 runners, it can be hard work avoiding everyone and difficult to get into pace and a stride not hampered with constant minor course adjustments!  Thus, some agility work that calls upon changes of direction will help to prepare your muscles, knees and ankle joints in particular.  Therefore, consider some ladder drills, plyometrics (jumping for controlled power), running sideways for short distances (leading alternate legs … just as training undertaken by footballers to prepare and develop the abductor and adductor muscles to each side of the thigh) and specific running patterns that involve dodging around real or “imaginary” obstacles.



2. Endurance part 1 ~ Mileage Matters (and Rest)

A respectable time for most participants to complete their Marathon (especially their first) would be between 3 to 5 hours. It is important to train at a steady pace (see 4 below) over long periods of time and to specialise over the last two months in particular towards running on a variety of hard pavement types.

During February and March, you should be completing a long run at least every fortnight if not more frequently. Start with 7 miles and build up to a maximum of 18 to 20 miles over the coming weeks. You should be aiming to be running in some form over 5 days of the week, allowing two complete rest days for your body to recover, repair and to build in physiological “improvement” for endurance, strength or flexibility.  This rest time is as important as your training hours.  Ignoring the need for rest can lead rapidly to “overtraining”, when you will not get physiological improvement, you will be at high risk of injuries or illness and your energy levels will drop as your system is stressed.  In the two weeks before the Marathon you should change from the long runs to medium to short runs to allow recovery and the build up of your glycogen stores ready for the main event.

Long Runs : Never, ever (ever) run for more than 20 miles or three hours (whichever is less) in training!  Training has a point of diminishing returns, and running over 20 miles takes more out of you than it gives back.  How Many Long Runs ? Run a maximum of two 20s ~ one four weeks before the race, and the other two weeks before.  You might use a Sunday pattern something like this: 16 - 18 - 15 - 20 - 16 - 20 - 12 – Marathon.

3. Endurance part 2 ~ Build from the Heart, on a Solid Foundation

Marathon running is without question an endurance pastime!  You do need to lay in a good foundation of endurance so that your system can cope with stresses to be faced.   In the final three months leading up to the Marathon, you should aim to undertake a substantial amount of running at a pace which may seem slow, but one that keeps your heart rate at “Level 1”, the Fat-burning Zone ~ this is particularly where your muscle cells are equipped with more mitochondria (the energy factories inside your cells); and for better blood circulation you develop “improved capillarisation” to transport blood, nutrients and oxygen as efficiently as possible to the muscles, and to clear waste products (CO2 and lactic acid in particular).  This heart rate is equivalent to  60 à 75% of your max heart rate (usually based on your theoretical max heart rate [calculated as :  220 – (your age) ] requiring long, slow, distance training (anything greater than 4 minutes in this Zone contributes to the training effect here).  Working in this Zone allows you to talk easily whilst training ~ so it is more sociable, too.

Physiological changes take time for the body to make ~ a minimum of 6 to 8 weeks of preparation where you are running from 50 to 70% of your endurance runs at a pace which holds your heart rate within this Zone.  After that, you should still retain some part of your training to maintain the improvements made ~ but that would probably reduce to only 25% of endurance running being at Level 1 in the final three to four weeks.

Some of this time could be in a gym using the treadmill machines and a gentle gradient of say 1 to 2% at most (note that 0% gradient on these machines is generally equivalent to running downhill).  This protocol should be used in conjunction with speedwork using intervals or fartlek (Swedish for “speed play”) training to provide a sound basis for your endurance to cover 26.2 miles.  In between the two will probably be your “normal” pace ~ or up-tempo running with a heart rate typically between 75% and 85% of your theoretical maximum.  At this rate you usually find your true endurance level, it is the rate at which you can run and run and run … 

The rate that is comfortable for endurance varies considerably between individuals.

4. Pushing the (upper) Limits with Interval Training ~ Speedwork

To help increase your fitness and performance times as effectively as possible, you should consider some interval training. You need to get used to working when your heart rate is starting to take you into anaerobic exercise (where speech is extremely difficult if not impossible and your body is crying out for recovery). For the Marathon, interval sessions such as 5 repetitions of 3 minutes of very hard running to take you up into the rarefied training zone where oxygen is not the prime commodity for energy conversion, with 3 minutes very easy jogging in between for recovery and for energy supplies to be replenished, are very good value. 

Fartlek is a variation on these “timed” intervals (those with a precise work : rest ratio).  This is where you adapt your speed, sprint intervals and “rest” zones regularly in duration/intensity and recovery according to how you feel.  It has also been found that doing speedwork training in the afternoon has benefits as your body seems to perform better then and has the night-time for recovery soon afterwards!

5. After the Rush

So, the endorphins are rushing around in your head, those little chemical buzz-makers induced by exercise … your heart rate is coming down.  Rather than coming down off your plateau of exercise, the Performance Zone, with a sharp bump, it is better to bring your heart rate down steadily and to remain active for a period after the plateau has passed, or the competition done.  This involves getting the heart rate down to less than 60% max heart rate and remaining active for typically 5 minutes or so.  That is the time to re-oxygenate fully, using controlled breathing and just … unwinding.

This protocol will aid your recovery from the exercise, but offers no real training benefit of itself.  It is towards the end of this stage when you should comprehensively stretch all major muscle groups. This involves stretches of from 15 to 20 seconds duration and the benefits are : clearance of lactic acid, return of muscle fibres to pre-exercise proportions ready for rest, and to prepare muscle also for the NEXT training or exercise session.

Good runners will spend a lot of time stretching muscles carefully after a race and their long, hard training runs in particular.  It is worth the time taken on this ~ stretching … don’t miss it out.  Then you are truly ready to enjoy the endorphin high.  After the competition, have plans in mind for about four weeks of “another” activity, other than distance running, to let the body wind down off the specific peak achieved to perform at this distance.

6. Protect your Feet and enhance your Performance

To prevent injuries, wearing the best, purpose-made shoes is as essential as getting your Marathon training programme right.   You should budget for shoes costing from £70 to £100 to get a quality pair.

Make the effort to go to a sports shop that can assess your stride and foot properly and thus help you choose appropriately.   For assessment, take along a pair of “used” shoes that you have been using at least for a couple of months or so.  Running shoes typically would last between 400 and 500 miles, so for the sake of protecting your feet  when training for a Marathon, you should be prepared to replace them every 3 months or so.  For the day itself ~ have a pair available that are comfortably worn in but not worn out ~ say about one third into their life expectancy!

Specialist shops to consider in and around London :

¨       The “Sweatshop” group at Chelsea, North Finchley, Covent Garden, the City, Harrods, Teddington, Maidstone, Woking … and online at http://www.sweatshop.co.uk.  The store in the City is at Cannons Sports Club in Cousin Lane ~ very near The Banker Public House, just a short walk from Cannon Street station; or

¨       “Run and Become” for shoes and clothing (Victoria area ~ 42, Palmer Street, London SW1H 0PH :                 tel (020) 7233 2867

¨       "Runnersworld" ~ Church Street/Surrey Street  Croydon 

¨       "Simply Sports" ~ in Oxted & Reigate, Surrey


Brands : experience (and videotape) shows that Asics, Brooks and Saucony are considered reliable performers.

Other clothing : Wear kit that is comfortable, worn in training and so has been washed and softened. If your nipples rub ~ use plasters or Vaseline to protect them from Runner’s Nipple.

7. The WALL

If possible, it is important not to go too fast over your normal pace in your first 13 miles of the Marathon ~ to leave enough energy to undertake the whole of the second half. It will make the experience more enjoyable and comfortable if you can do this.”  This advice came from a veteran of three Marathons (“Thanks, Ian” ~ ran and completed London, New York & Dublin Marathons for Whizz Kidz) and brings me to the subject of The Wall.    Ian recalls running the first half of his last Marathon as a personal best, but then recording the slowest second half.

You should become very familiar with your standard pace ~ and be aware of changes to it that are needed as you get into longer runs, particularly to cope with the endurance heart rate training capping at 60 to 75% of your max heart rate (the Fat-burning Zone Training ~ as above).  This will help you in the later stages of your run, when you are coping with the rigours of running when your body has drained its limited glycogen stores and is trying to convert fat stores for providing glucose for continued energy.  This conversion to the new metabolic pathway takes a small period of time and the resultant lack of fuel will affect an athlete’s performance; the fat-burning process itself is slower than the metabolism of carbohydrates and of glycogen stores to do the same task.

The Wall is a physiological and a psychological barrier that ultimately is scaled by each marathon runner in one form or another.  There are a number of factors which contribute; including but not limited to lactic acid build-up, dehydration and changing energy sources for our continued activity output.  Glycogen is derived from carbohydrates in our diet.  Glycogen is stored in the muscles and liver for conversion to glucose as the muscles’ primary fuel. The brain also depends on glucose as primary fuel ~ and our body automatically tries to conserve some reserves of glucose in order to protect the brain.  Our physiology dictates that we cannot hold sufficient glycogen stores in our body (in the liver and the muscles) from the start to allow us to complete 26.2 miles ~ this would have been the case for the runners in Ancient Greece, and it is still true today. 

The Wall occurs somewhere typically between 15 and 21 miles into the run.   How much the Wall will affect an individual will very much depend upon the body conditioning undergone in training and on careful ingestion of nutrients and water before and during the run.  When you hit the Wall your body feels suddenly very weak as if you are running out of steam ~ “chewing on tarmac” was an excellent description I found.  You are unable to run at your normal pace ~ and you may have cramps in any or every part of the body. Many people feel unsteady on their feet and light-headed as levels of glucose available for the brain reduce.  Coping with the Wall involves training the body to being used to running whilst the body changes from the glycogen conversion pathway for glucose, to the fat-conversion system.  Train your body to accept this change by running a number of long training runs into that zone. The second is to take carbohydrate gels or drinks during the race to keep your glycogen stores topped up.  Thirdly, develop your own strategy to cope with the mind games that come with hitting the barrier and thereby helping you through .  Thinking ~  like eating and drinking on the run ~ has to be practiced beforehand. Practise your mental strategy (planning for the finish, running tunes through your head to keep you going, calculating the value of pi or counting key landmarks etc.) during the last miles of long runs so that during the marathon you can tap in more easily as the going is tough.

Kevin Beck is a veteran of at least 11 Marathons in the States, and with times of at or under 2 hours 30 minutes for many of his runs, he is usually in the first corral of runners starting.  He maintains a journal of how he felt through several years competing … even including those where he only took home a “DNF” record.  Kevin frequently writes of the Wall (in most of the events in his journal, in fact).  From his webpages, (http://www.kemibe.com/marathonraces.htm) here are a couple of excerpts from different events ~ coming from one who is well used to the challenges he will face :

I reached the steep downhill at 25K I still felt reasonably strong, but when I got to the bottom … it was as if a switch had been thrown: I was in serious trouble.   From this point on I slowly deteriorated until flattening out at around 6:30 pace. At 20 miles (1:56-low), I briefly felt better as I climbed Heartbreak and my legs received a respite from the pounding, but I figured I would be lucky to run a 40-minute final 10K, assuming I even finished at all. I had never been in physical pain while trying to run hard. The taxation of pure effort was one thing, but this - jolts of agony freewheeling wickedly throughout my joints with every step - plain sucked. I probably would have quit had it not been for the boisterous crowds in the last few miles.”

Even in the throes of glycogen depletion I figured I would set a personal best and this I did, managing to straggle home in 2:30:52. I had run 90% of a stellar race and chalked up the remaining 10% to stupidity - passing up fluids between 18 and 20 miles because I simply didn't feel like drinking them. I resolved that if I learned nothing else from what was, on the whole, a satisfying effort, I would not make the same dumb mistake; I would make other dumb ones

Passing through the Wall and finding your way to the end ~ this is when you join the Elite amongst runners. Whether it is your first time or you have been there many times before; whether you like your finishing time or hide from the clock; whether you walked a little or forced the pace out the whole way ~ crossing that finishing line is what counts.  The crowd will mostly help you along through the later stages, although too many of them seem to be there to see people truly suffering and so to enjoy it vicariously!

8. Diet for Exercise

Sports nutrition ~ not something that can be covered in just a paragraph or two.  Consequently, I will just give a few starting points here to set you on the right track.

a)     Avoid dehydration, it will not only seriously affect your performance and endurance, it can also swiftly assume potentially health-threatening proportions.  Drink water or carefully prepared sports drinks (these can be made at home economically to provide you with a carbohydrate and water with a blend of salts to replace lost minerals).  Drink carefully before you exercise and regularly take sips during exercise ~ every 15 to 20 minutes if possible.  On the Marathon ~ accept drink at every water station. This keeps your sweat flowing and therefore helps to keep you cool.  Rehydrate fully soon after completion.  Do not leave it and then try taking large gulps to catch up!  If you do not drink sufficiently, then you will start to feel thirsty (you may be used to that, the dry lips and parched feel to the tongue) ~ the bad news is that if you start to feel thirsty, then you are already dehydrating.

b)     Practice picking up a bottle of water, drinking it whilst running and throwing it safely away is a useful skill to acquire. It is also possible to stop every mile to drink & walk; and still complete in under 3 hours.

c)     In the final stages of your training (last 4 weeks, say) it is recommended that you use the same sports drink as distributed widely at the London Marathon ~ to avoid any reaction on the day.  This familiarises your digestion/absorption with that particular formulation.  It is another step in giving your training the realistic feel of the event itself, so that the event is not a greater shock to your physiology than necessary.

d)     Ensure that your diet leading up to competition is as well-balanced as possible.  A good quality vitamin and mineral supplement will then ENSURE that you are getting a broad spectrum of the minerals and vitamins that you will need for endurance beyond health and of anti-oxidants to mop up the free-radical burden placed on the body by all the exercise.  A B-Complex supplement will also ensure that energy pathways are firing on all cylinders.  Other specific nutrients to consider would be essential fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils), Co-enzyme Q10, acetyl-L-carnitine and pycnogenol.  These all relate to energy production or the safe and swift absorption, transportation and allocation of nutrients for energy production.

e)     In the weeks leading up to competition, you can evaluate how you respond best to taking the carbohydrate reserves that you will be needing for the run.  This would probably be a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates.  You should never run on a completely empty stomach ~ and before even a short early-morning training run, you should eat (say) a banana about 30 à 60 minutes or so before you leave.  This will provide the energy needs for a shortish run.  Mix that with a few seeds of say sunflower, pumpkin, linseed etc ~ and you have added a broader range of carbohydrate supply with fibre & essential fatty acids.  Foods with a  low to medium glycaemic index will keep your fuel reserves lasting longer into the run, taken with some high glycaemic index foods for initial glucose stores.  Before a long run you should take in about 300 calories approx. 60 minutes or so prior to the start (or the time before that YOU are comfortable with).

To ward off glycogen depletion and resulting light-headedness, consume about 200 calories every hour. That could be from four cups of sports drink per hour; or biscuits, a banana, energy gels or an energy bar on the hour plus regular water every quarter of an hour.  The key thing is to find out beforehand in practice what system suits YOU best.  You may need to plan helpers to meet you and supply fresh items.

f)     After the run ~ you need to replenish carbohydrate reserves within 30 minutes to 1 hour (2 hours at the VERY most).  If you wait longer than this to give your system access to supplies to restock muscle reserves, then you will have missed the window of opportunity and your recovery will be the slower for it.  High glycaemic index foods will replenish your stores swiftly and aid recovery.

9.   When to Adapt your Programme and When NOT to Run :

a)     If you pick up an injury then stop your programme there and then for a period of recovery. Remember and use the First Aider’s formula of R.I.C.E. ~ which stands for Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation.

Don’t start back too early with your training.  When you do start, do not try to return immediately to where you left off. You need to take it slowly otherwise you will do more serious damage. 

b)     You are risking your life to take on 26.2 miles if you are not fully well.  If you have the flu or a cold you should not run at all until recovered fully, allowing some time after feeling ‘A-1’, to be certain.  For the Marathon itself, you will get an automatic pass on the day to allow entry to next year's event.  

If you require more specific assistance, please do contact LIFEafterFORTY.com CONSULTING ~ we will be pleased to help further with your training programme.

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