Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Marathoning for beginners – part two

Last week I blogged (insofar as ‘to blog’ is an acceptable verb...) that Haile Gebreselassie retired from distance running in the wake of his disappointing performance in NYC. However, since Haile has now unretired, I suppose I shall have to unblog. He has since stated that he loves running and racing too much to give it up – which I can sympathise with – and that his sights are now set on London 2012. Hooray!

I can only assume that Haile has made this decision having read Marathoning for beginners – part one, and realising that actually running marathons is superb and he should carry on doing so for as long as possible. Well, Haile, here goes part two: tips...

Your weekday training runs will have to fit around your life, which means running at non-ideal times of day. First thing in the morning, straight after work or last thing at night may not seem like optimum times for exercise, but unfortunately the miles have got to be done and this is the only time most people have to do them. There are a few things you can do to make them easier:

- Try to eat a high-energy, healthy meal or snack 2-3 hours before your run. If running first thing in the morning, have a big dinner the night before and look forward to breakfast after your workout.

- Stay hydrated, not just during your runs but throughout the day.

- Vary your routes to keep things interesting – get hold of a map showing local footpaths and cycle lanes to plan these, which will give you more options than following roads. Or use websites like www.mapometer.com to plan your run before you start.

- Use your training runs to explore new parts of town, such as areas you’ve only ever seen from the road or on a map. When I first moved to Edinburgh I did this to learn my way around. Unfortunately this knowledge proved almost no use at all when driving around this ridiculous city...

- Every so often, plan a ‘destination run’ and drive to a different area to train in, ideally meet someone to run with and get them to show you their favourite routes. This is a great way to break up your routine and to give you some training to look forward to. (In time, you'll end up running to your destination run!)

The Long Run
The weekend long runs in the mileage chart may look intimidating if you don’t run much at present, particularly the 16 and 18+ mile runs. Which is fair enough, that’s a bloody long way on foot. But don’t worry. You’ll build up to them gradually, and your body will be ready to tackle a 36-mile week because it will have had 11 weeks of preparation by the time you make that demand.

It’s impossible to overstate how important the long run is. You and your body will learn certain things during your long runs which you won’t get anywhere else; you’ll learn how to cope with the inevitable aches and pains and test out how your body reacts, how to manage your eating and drinking before, during and after the run, whether your clothing and kit is comfortable, and how to overcome or manage the temptation to stop or slow down. At the same time your body will learn how to efficiently turn glycogen into energy, which will help you to avoid hitting the wall on race day, or at least delay hitting it for as long as possible. (I'm going to blog separately on hitting the wall, it's a big concept).

More than that, long runs are awesome. When you meet your mates on a Sunday afternoon, walking into the pub like you’ve got no knees, you can tell them with a calm sense of pride that you ran 18 miles before lunch, and will probably go for an ‘easy 5’ tomorrow to shake off any tightness left in your epic leg muscles. I like to add an element of drama to this by planning a route to somewhere specific – pick a town 9 miles away for an out-and-back route and tell your friends you ran there this morning. I used to run from my parents’ house to the next county and back, turning around at the border, which sounds much further than the 10-12 miles it actually was.

Food and Drink
During training, eat a lot of food and drink a lot of water. Straightforward.

Try to cut down on alcohol during training, and go teetotal for at least a week before the race. I avoided drinking (almost) entirely for 6 weeks before both of my marathons, and it was a revelation of health and wellbeing, regardless of the athletic benefits. I also cut down on caffeine, though not by much...

You can see my energy gels on my fuel belt above, 
waiting for the Brighton Marathon to start.
You can also see my friend Alex,
who beat me by a solid 15 minutes.
Make a plan for your raceday nutrition, which you should practice before/during your long runs. This means planning exactly what you’re going to eat on the day, at exactly the right time. This might be more difficult than it sounds, particularly if you’re staying away from home the night before. If the race starts at 8am, will you be able to get a bowl of porridge at 6am in Berlin, for instance? If you’re using energy gels or other products during your run, will you be able to take these with you? Or buy them there? For your reference, I have a bowl of Oatso Simple and a banana, with a small black coffee and a glass of water with a berocca vitamin tablet, two hours before the race starts. Then I use energy gels containing carbohydrates, electrolytes and caffeine, typically one gel every 45 minutes or so. Buy these from running shops for about £1 each. Above all, go the loo before the gun fires. The consequences of not doing so are grave indeed.

The Race
If you're new to running, consider entering a half-marathon or a 10k before your big race, so you can learn the basics of race day protocol. However, in brief:

- You'll be issued with a race pack, which may be posted to you in advance or you may have to pick up at the race 'expo' the day before the event. In here you'll find your race number and some safety pins. On the back of the number you'll have space to fill in your details - do this immediately - if the worst happens the first aiders will rely on your info being correct. You'll get a brochure explaining the course and any other special arrangements for the race. If it's a big race, you'll also be given a timing chip. This goes on your shoe and will record your time as you cross the start and finish line, ensuring you get a result accurate down to the second, which will probably be posted online for all to see...

- You'll probably be assigned a 'pen' behind the start line, based on your predicted finish time. This is so runners of roughly the same ability are grouped together, so everyone can start running immediately without having to waste energy weaving in and out of slower runners. Inevitably, a lot of people lie when registering, or overestimate their ability, or just sneak into a faster pen. This is antisocial and bad form - when you're trying to run an even-paced race the last thing you want is to spend the first 10 miles dodging walkers and people in banana suits who've put themselves in your way.

- You'll be handed water, energy drinks and possibly food by volunteers. Don't take it if you don't want it, particularly if you've made a careful nutrition plan, though make sure you're taking on at least some water throughout. But if you get to the end of the race and you're feeling rough, then you may as well just pig out. This logic is how I ended up eating pastries and drinking cider in the last few miles of the Paris Marathon...

- For god's sake, thank the volunteers, or next time there may not be so many. The same goes for marshalls and police who control the traffic. Similarly, smile and at least acknowledge spectators and fellow runners - this will make the race a much happier environment for everyone.

- When you get to the finish (and you will get there), keep moving once you've crossed that magic line. Suddenly the world will be a different place, colours will be more vivid, life will have more purpose, trumpets will sound and elephants will dance, but before you enjoy all that you need to hand over your timing chip, collect your medal and goody bag, drink some water and try not to seize up...

This post has got extremely long, so I'll leave my musing on hitting (and overcoming) the wall and my pseudo-philosophy of marathoning and marathoners to another day. Perhaps part three. If there's anything I haven't covered or anything which seems peculiar, please leave a comment below and I'll try to address queries as best I can. Equally, if you're planning on running a marathon next year let me know, I'd love to hear your plans.

Happy Marathoning!


P.S. Hello Singapore!

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