If you’re training for a spring marathon this year your training will be well underway, and you will have a few weeks of running under your belt. You’re still in that fairly early period of marathon training where the running isn’t too demanding. You’re likely still adjusting your life around your runs and finding your training feet. If it’s your first marathon, or even if you’re an experienced marathoner, you might also be starting to think (or maybe even worry a little bit?) about the ‘other stuff’ that isn’t the actual running bit.
When you see pictures of other runners on Instagram necking beetroot juice shots before their marathon training run, or boasting about intensive gym workouts, it can be easy to think you should be doing the same. For anyone trying to achieve a time goal or just wanting to get the start line in simply the best shape possible, paying attention to all the ‘other stuff’ is a really good idea but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
In this blog, I’m going to use my coaching knowledge and personal marathon experience to de-bunk all those marathon training myths and help you decide which parts of the ‘other stuff’ are really worth worrying about (and those that definitely aren’t!)
What you should be doing:
Rest and Recovery
Aside from the running bit, this is most important part of marathon training. When we push our body and stress our muscles, (and that includes the heart muscle) they need time to repair. When they repair, they get stronger. And then we repeat that cycle over and over again until we are so much fitter and stronger than when we began. Our muscles can only do that if you give them sufficient recovery time. This applies to athletes at every level. From the parkrun plodder to the Olympian, sleep is their best asset in their toolkit when it comes to training successfully. And best of all, it’s completely free!
I’m that much of a fan, I’ve talked up the benefits of sleep in a previous blog. Use every opportunity to put your feet up. Get as many early nights as you possibly can. This becomes even more important as the mileage ramps up and the pressure on our bodies increases. Pushing through a session when you’re tired is not going to feel great and you will make yourself susceptible to injury and illness. Sleep is the dream, but if you’re not a great sleeper just resting and relaxing still has great benefits. Have you ever had a better excuse to get out of the washing up?!
What to eat during marathon training can often be made to seem like a complicated smorgasbord of options and decisions but for almost all of us, it really doesn’t need to be. Most people will drop a few kilos during training. Given the volume of calories burnt, especially as the training miles start ramping up, it’s almost impossible not to start using up your carbohydrate stores and start burning through some of those fat stores. But it’s key that you’re fueling enough that you don’t burn through that fat completely and start turning to those valuable muscles for an energy source. Most of us have plenty of stored fat but whether you are slim, or not so slim, you just need to ensure that every meal you eat contains all the three food types; carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Quite simply, you just need to eat a balanced diet and make sure you eat enough to train properly. In reality that’s a carb heavy meal, such as a decent plate of pasta, the night before a long run, a good bowl of porridge in the mornings and snacking on plenty of fruit, veg and nuts. I usually find during the height of marathon training I’m constantly hungry. To avoid raiding the office vending machine or a mad dash to the corner shop I try to make sure I’ve got plenty of bananas, rice cakes, packets of mixed nuts and Tupperware with me containing cherry tomatoes and chopped cucumber. I’m also a bit more careful to ensure that I eat enough protein. Whilst carbohydrates give us that all-important training energy, protein helps us repair those hard-working muscles. As a vegetarian, I rely on those (unsalted) mixed nuts but also eggs (hard-boiled in the work Tupperware) and beans (hello humous and bean chillis). I also love veggie sausage sandwiches.
Forget supplements and vitamin pills, if you eat well and plenty, you’ll get all the good stuff you need to not only train well, but also stay healthy. For most of us,
marathon training is the biggest physical challenge we’ll ever put our bodes under, and that includes our immune system. Missing training, or worse still, the actual marathon, because you’ve picked up a cold, is so disappointing. So do eat well to give your immune system the best possible chance to beat off any virus that comes its way. And of course, the odd naughty treat is well deserved, just keep it to a sensible minimum.
Similar to rest and recovery, massage can help your tired muscles to repair and get stronger. There is certainly less scientific evidence to support that its essential to recovery, but plenty of runners (including me) swear by it. And I’m not talking about expensive spa-day style aromatherapy massages, it should be an uncomfortable, occasionally rather sore, targeting of your tight spots. It doesn’t even have to be administered by a professional. You can do it yourself! By that I mean by using a foam roller or massage ball. A cheaper alternative to professional massage, our spare room has a collection of various torture devices we’ve accumulated over the years, and I use them regularly.
As I’ve hinted, massage and self-massage is not for everyone. Some people find it simply too uncomfortable; others genuinely don’t feel any benefits but many, many do. If you suffer from DOMS (delayed onset muscle syndrome – that general achiness you feel a day or two after hard sessions) you might find massage can minimise those aches and pains. When I started running marathons, I suffered from almost crippling DOMS. I would struggle through a Sunday long run, still aching from the previous long run, seven days earlier. Now, ten minutes a day on the foam roller and a fortnightly sports massage are essential parts of my marathon training regime.
Perhaps an area that is sometimes not appreciated enough when marathon training is the time and effort devoted to planning. If you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated personal coach, they’ll take on the bulk of this thinking load, but for the rest of us we can avoid training disasters and even race day stresses by devoting a bit of brain power to forward planning.
The first thing I do when writing a marathon training plan for me, or anyone else, is plot out the potential obstructions and hurdles to training. These can be holidays, business trips, weddings and anything else that we simply can’t (or won’t) avoid. Are you really going to fit in that 20-mile training run during your skiing holiday in the French Alps? Is there even a way to run 20 miles in a snowy ski resort? Equally, moving your Sunday long run to Saturday, is far better than pretending you’re going to get up early the day after your best mate’s wedding. Missing training sessions is not desirable but being realistic about what you can and can’t achieve and adapting your plan will at least mitigate any negative effects and keep you on track.
The same applies to running routes and training races. Spring marathons mean almost unavoidable training runs on dark evenings. It’s also going to be cold, sometimes raining and occasionally even snowing. Work out some well-lit local routes where you can’t get lost. Maybe recruit some running buddies for motivation and accountability. Sign-up to some races and organised marathon training runs in advance. Get the right gear. Practise using gels. There will be plenty of times when you come home from a long day at work and your motivation to go on a training run will be next to zero. By planning ahead, you will significantly increase your chances of ticking off those runs and staying on schedule. All you will need to worry about is lacing up your trainers.
Stick to the plan
If I had a pound every time someone questioned their training plan, I’d spend it all on running shoes. I understand the desire to question the plan. Especially if you see others running longer distances than you are at the same stage or maybe they’re doing some fancy intervals session that promises dramatic (possibly unrealistic) results. At times the training can feel too easy and at other times it can feel too hard. That’s normal. Whilst it’s perfectly possible you’ve chosen, (or been given) the wrong plan, it’s unlikely. If you’ve had a set-back such as an injury and then you may want to adapt the plan. But for the most part, a marathon training plan only works in its entirety, so you really just need to stick with it.
What you don’t need to do:
Science has spoken and ice baths do not work. For years, professional and amateur runners alike (including me) would carefully and uncomfortably inch themselves into a literally freezing cold bath, believing that it would reduce DOMS and improve their training. Ice is invaluable if you’ve suffered an acute injury and you need to reduce inflammation, but we don’t want to make our muscles cold when they’ve simply had a bit of regular training stress.
It’s important we allow our muscles the best opportunity to recover and to repair and making them cold is no longer believed to support that natural process. So, hurrah, no more ice baths! In fact a regular warm temperature bath is good for you. It’s a great way to relax and get some of that all-important rest and recovery. My typical post-long run recovery involves a cup of tea in the bath, chilling out with a running podcast. I highly recommend it.
Strength and Conditioning (S&C)
So, this one is a bit controversial. Let me confirm straight away that I think strength and conditioning is a really key part of an overall running lifestyle. It becomes even more important as we get older. And I would highly recommend that anyone taking on a marathon spend some time at the gym lifting weights and really working on their lower limbs. But, and it’s a really important ‘but’, if you haven’t done it before you have started your marathon training plan, it’s simply too late.
I see plenty of marathon training plans with ‘S&C’ in there. Regardless of the fact that many people rarely actually do the S&C session – often they don’t know what to do, they don’t do enough, they do it incorrectly or they don’t have the time – we are putting your body under enough strain already with all the pavement pounding. If you already do gym-work and don’t see an impact on your training, you can certainly incorporate one or two sessions a week into your plan as your body will be more used to it. But tone it down the moment you feel it’s too much and forget it entirely during the taper weeks when your priority is rest and recovery.
It might be too late for this marathon, but doing some strength training for three months before you start your training plan can be extremely beneficial. Two to three times a week, in a gym with proper weights, working on your glutes, hamstrings and calves is possibly the best pre-training prep you can do. It will help ward off potential injuries and because you are stronger, you will be far less likely to suffer from DOMS when the mileage ramps up. But if that ship has sailed, just wave it away and make a mental note for next time. You’ve got your hands full with all that running!
Cross-training is incorporating some other kind of training into your plan. This usually takes the form of cycling or swimming and sometimes yoga or Pilates. In a nutshell, and in a similar fashion to S&C, if you weren’t already doing it before you started marathon training, it’s unlikely to be a good idea to start now. Even if you can fit it into your schedule, why tire yourself out even more? Remember that all important rest and recovery? I often cycle to work but when I’m at the height of marathon training, I favour commuting by Tube or train. Even though I might have been doing it regularly before I started marathon training, I usually start feeling too tired to do even more exercise, and I make the most of an opportunity to relax (assuming I get a seat).
Yoga and Pilates are less demanding and often afford some complementary activities to excessive running, for example, stretching and meditating. If you enjoy it, can find the time and don’t make it too strenuous, this kind of mat-based cross-training can be helpful for some. But it’s certainly not a requirement.
Cross-training really comes into its own when you can’t run, usually due to injury. During my most recent marathon training, in an attempt to alleviate my plantar fasciitis pain, my podiatrist said I should eliminate at least one training session a week from my plan and I should stop doing intervals. He suggested I switch to an interval session on a gym bike. It doesn’t provide all the benefits of interval running training, but it still works my cardiovascular system as well as my glutes, hamstrings and quads. Use cross-training when it’s useful but don’t add it to your plan for no reason other than you think you should.
Abstaining from alcohol
This is something non-runners often assume that marathon runners should be doing. It’s almost as if it’s some kind of punishment they expect us to endure. Let’s not pretend that alcohol is good for you. It’s not. It’s actually a poison, but in reasonably small quantities does little or no harm to you. But as long as your body is processing these little amounts of poison it’s not performing its rest and recovery functions to its best ability. Alcohol can also have an impact on your sleep patterns, and it can encourage craving for unhealthy food. If you’re into marginal gains, then this one’s for you.
If you want to abstain from alcohol, then knock yourself out. But it’s not a requirement. You will probably find that your busy schedule means you don’t have much time to go to the pub anyway. You may even have an alcohol-free Saturday night out because you want to get up and run 16 miles in the morning. But the odd drink or night out is not going to impact your overall performance. There is even plenty of evidence to suggest that the odd glass of your favourite tipple can actually help you relax, which is definitely something we want to encourage. I love returning from a long run, having a nice bath and then re-fueling with a Sunday roast and a glass of prosecco. I feel I’ve really earned it. One glass is always enough and I’m soon ready for a mid-afternoon nap. Cue more rest and recovery. You get the idea.
So, there you have it. Just a few of my top tips for any marathoners out there. Sleep and eat well, have a massage, plan a bit, then follow said plan. The rest is just there to either scare you or make you spend money. For those who’ve asked about my recent injury, there is some change but more to report in my next blog. Until then, as ever, thanks for reading. If you’ve enjoyed the read, then feel free to ‘like’ the blog or share your thoughts in the comments on social media. Happy running.