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  • Ben

How to improve your marathon training!

On the 13th March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 London marathon was postponed. For most of the runners, this meant that 3-4 months’ worth of training went down the drain. At least, this is what it felt like.

I’m writing this blog 22 (and a bit) weeks from when the London Marathon has been moved to (4th October 2020). Which coincidently is the ideal time frame to begin your training for a marathon. It is important to point out, there are many different lengths of time you can complete your training. For me and my clients, being over prepared and as strong as possible is important. Integrating strength training, core stability and, of course gradually progressing the mileage.

I am hoping to outline the benefits of starting your training ready for October 4th, as well as highlighting some of the methods or techniques you may have missed out on when training for the original date.

Now, I’ve been a personal trainer for nearly 10 years. Over this time each and every client teaches me a lesson. When it comes to training for a marathon, you may think that 26.2 miles will be the same for every amateur runner. This will become apparent as you go through your training plan, some days you’ll feel unstoppable, others unfortunately, you’ll struggle with the simplest 5km run. Below, are hopefully a few things you are already doing during your training, along with some new ideas and methods you haven’t used.

1. Use (and understand) progressive overload!

This should be pretty simple, but if you’ve only ever followed online training plans or just worked out your own training you may not understand the importance of this, accidently getting the benefits without giving it much though.

When training for a tough event like a marathon, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to go from very little training to completing it without suffering some kind of injury or even your body having the biological ability to work for that long. That’s why, when we’re training we need to gradually push and challenge our body, allowing it to develop at a steady rate. Why is it important to improve at a slow and steady rate? When you’re exercising it is suggested by ‘Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome’ that our body goes through 3 phases; Shock phase, Adaptation phase and Exhaustion phase.

Shock phase – this is immediately after your workout. Tired, hot, sweaty and fatigued. A multitude of various biological and hormonal reactions are happening, how your body responds after your workout in this phase will dictate where it goes next.

Adaptation phase – the workout intensity was suitable and your body has coped well. It responds positively and begins to develop the muscle tissues, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, allowing you to build your overall ability ready for your next workout.

Exhaustion phase – this is somewhere your body doesn’t like to be, you will feel run down, your immune system has taken a beating and you are at risk of feeling ill. Simply put, the workout was too tough, it might have been too far, too fast or not enough recovery from the last workout you completed.

Now unfortunately, humans are more complicated and our lifestyles wouldn’t allow us to ‘just add a mile’ to each workout. Although this theory would work for a certain length of time. Back in 1888, there was a study that looked into dangerous toxins and the dosage given to animals. It applies to our marathon training as well.

“for every substance, small doses stimulate, moderate doses inhibit, large doses kill”

Don’t worry! Your marathon training won’t kill you! But as Ross Edgley wrote, if you went out on your first training run and completed a small dosage 5-mile run, you’ll soon get fitter, this is because of the low-level stress and stimulus, your body will respond positively. A moderate dosage run, say 13.1 miles (half marathon), would not only be very ambitious, but would probably knock you back for a few days and inhibit your progress for the next training run. Lastly, imagine if you went straight out to complete the full marathon! The massive dosage would almost certainly make you want to curl up in a ball for a few days tending to the achy sore muscles

When it comes to progressive overload, don’t ‘just add miles’, take a moment to consider the dosage of your workouts and recover accordingly. But most importantly, continue to offer a new stimulus to your body and allow it to adapt.

2. Strength Train

I cannot stress enough the importance of strength training when it comes to your marathon training! Yet, so many people over look it entirely or just hope for the best without any planning or goals. Like running, your body needs time, stress and stimulus to improve. Firstly, let’s look at the scientific definition of ‘strength’.

“Strength is the body’s ability to generate force”

Why is it important to be able to generate force when running? This is something I teach to my clients and when they understand, the interest in doing squats, deadlifts and hopping drills flies up!

On average, most runners will take 800-1000 strides/mile. Studies have shown that when you run the force through each foot strike can be 3 or 4x your body weight! I weigh approximately 68kgs (150lbs), each strike could be worth 4x that. So 272kgs going through each foot strike multiplied by 800-1000 strikes in just one mile!! 272,000kgs/mile. You can see how your body is in need of being strong to cope with the repetitive movement of running.

Now if you had a squat session and added your bodyweight to the bar, that would be a 136kg (300lbs) squat for me. A typical workout would be 4 sets of 5-8 repetitions. In just one workout you’d have stimulated your body with a total of 5,440kgs of effort. This seems like a tiny drop in the ocean when it comes to the huge effort required to run 1 mile, but we need to look bigger than this. Your body adapts and creates a global ability to combine the mixture of training you put it through. These numbers don’t have to match.

Check back to see a blog post on how you can make the most of your strength training and workout example.

3. Mixing up the running intensity

I don’t want this to get misunderstood, firstly throughout your training you should be lengthening your long run throughout the course of the training plan. What many people miss out on are interval training sessions or paced mile sessions.

When you’re running your marathon, you will mainly be using your aerobic energy system.

So, it is important to be training this system throughout your training, working out at an intensity that you can hold a conversation. However, we have another energy system which will be playing a supporting role, your anaerobic system.

When exercising within your aerobic capacity, your body will be taking in the oxygen you breathe and utilise it to breakdown our energy currency (adenosine-triphosphate (ATP)). Providing your muscles with the constant supply of energy needed to run. When you train anaerobically, your body will still use ATP but from the muscle glycogen stores. Working at a higher intensity demands ATP quicker and faster, but this system doesn’t last long. So, training it will help to improve its ability to last longer and work when you need it.

But if my marathon is going to be an aerobic workout, why should I train my anaerobic system?

A valid question, hopefully understanding that the energy systems draw ATP from different places, if you’re 16 miles into your marathon and you need to tackle a hill, the energy drawn from a well-trained anaerobic system will be a great asset when it comes to that.

It is extremely simple to introduce anaerobic training into your marathon training plan. Check out below a link to my suggested training plan for a marathon (4hr target finish time).

Introducing a short 20sec to 30sec sprints with the same amount of rest, this workout should last for 15mins-20mins in total. Alternatively (and a little better suited to a marathon program), going for a short run and having set mile efforts. You might run 2 miles at a steady, aerobic pace. Then 1 mile and a more intense anaerobic pace. Repeat this a few times and feel the benefits to your long runs.

4. Warming up, mobility and stretching

How long do you spend before your run to warm up? Do you stretch? Use a foam roller maybe? Do you run as part of your warm up? These are just a few questions I ask my clients before they start on a marathon training plan. For the most part, there are a few ticks in a few boxes, but more often than not, there are plenty of improvements to be made.

The main reason to warm up is to prime the body to become ready for the activity you’re about to do. A warm up must be specific. If you’re planning on working aerobically, you should warm your heart rate up. If you’re doing an aerobic running workout, you should warm the muscles you’re expecting to use. But this is where things start to get confusing, and maybe even a little daunting. The time required to stretch and foam roll, then add some running intervals, and then set off could (and should) add about 15mins-20mins to your total workout. For an average amateur running, heading out to do a 13mile training run, the warm up strategy just adds more time than they’d like to the workout.

So, skip it all together…

The problem with this goes back to point 1 on this list. Progressive overload. As you push your body further and further, the stress on the body goes up. Without warming up before a tough run, so does the risk of injury. If you’re injured you can’t run, then the progressive overload decreases and you begin to lose the improvements you’ve worked so hard to do.

I see a warm up as an investment, a very good investment at that. If you invest the time before a run, the benefits you’ll receive during the run as well as the reduced risk of an injury, for me, is time well spent.

I challenge you before your next workout to put 20 minutes aside to a warm up. Use a tennis ball to get into the soles of your feet, into your hips and glutes. Take the time to do a few various running efforts, only 50 metres, at different speeds. Watch your heart rate increase and your body feel loose and primed.

In conclusion, marathon training is more than just long runs and arriving on the day to run 26.2 miles. This will and has worked for many people. However, the benefits of strength training, interval runs and a properly managed warm up regime will help to propel your running to a new level, unlocking a potential you didn’t know you had.

Thank you for reading, I look forward to seeing your comments below


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