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If you’re one of the 48,000 people who has a much sought-after place in this year’s Virgin London Marathon on April 25, your training should now be well under way. But if you haven’t put quite as many miles in the bank as you’d hoped – or worse still, haven’t even started yet, what are the options?
Well, you could cut your losses and save your effort for another time – about 12,500 runners are expected to withdraw before the start. Or you could pull your finger out and make the most of the time that’s left.
But how? “Building endurance should be your primary goal,” says running coach Chris Donald, whose company Purple Patch offers one-to-one coaching and training weekends. “That means focusing on long, slow runs.” Find a steady, comfortable pace and gradually build up your training time, by no more than 10 per cent a week.
As your runs increase in time and distance, you’ll start to get a feel for what your finish time in the marathon might be. Just “getting round” is not a sufficiently specific goal for any runner, no matter how slow or inexperienced. “If you don’t have a goal time in your head, you will set off at the wrong pace – invariably too fast – and run out of energy, making the last few miles a real slog,” explains Donald. And we’re not talking two or three miles of misery. In marathon terms, it is often said that the halfway mark comes at 20 miles, the point at which the majority of ill-prepared or over-enthusiastic runners have depleted their glycogen stores and are hitting the dreaded wall.
In some cases, runners hit the wall because they got carried away by the excitement of the day and started off too fast (one study found that running just 2 per cent faster than the pace practised in training caused marathoners to suffer over the last six miles of the race). But more frequently, it’s because there’s an obvious mismatch between their target time and the amount of training they have done.
“In my opinion, around 30 per cent of runners who take on the marathon have false expectations about what they can achieve,” Donald says. “They think they know what it’s all about, but they simply haven’t done enough training to achieve their objectives.” He’s right. In a study of entrants in the Hong Kong Marathon, the number and length of long runs completed was a significant factor in whether they completed the race successfully.
Unfortunately, long runs alone won’t enable you to reach your potential. Ideally, you’d also need to perform some sessions at a pace that exceeds your goal marathon pace. My top recommendation for those who have already built a solid base of endurance through steady running would be threshold training – running either continuously (say, 20 minutes to start with) or in bouts with short recoveries (3 x 8 minutes with 2 minutes jogging in between) at a pace which feels comfortably hard. Typically this corresponds to the pace you’d run a 10-mile race or half marathon. This kind of training enhances your body’s ability to process lactic acid, a by-product of burning carbohydrate as a fuel, enabling you to work at a higher percentage of your maximum capacity without this performance-hampering substance accumulating in your muscles.
Threshold training teaches you to run faster for the same effort level, so will help you increase your pace without a corresponding increase in how hard you feel you are working. But given the looming deadline, don’t start playing around with threshold training if you haven’t yet addressed endurance.
There is another way of introducing some faster-paced training into your tight schedule – racing. There are numerous tools to predict your marathon time from shorter race distances, such as half marathons (check out runnersworld.co.uk/racing/rw-calculators/1465.html). Once you know your goal finish time, you can break it down into a “per mile” pace, allowing you to train and race at the right speed.
With 11 weeks to go, it’s not too late to schedule a “trial” race. A half marathon will give you a clear insight into what running a distance race entails, and might also serve as a wake-up call. “If you cannot finish a half marathon in relative comfort with six weeks to go, you really need to think through the options,” says Donald.
Baling out is one of them. Or how about adopting a “walk-run” strategy? For many runners, “walking” is a dirty word. But there’s evidence that a walk-run protocol, in which you build set periods of walking into your runs, can help you extend your “time on feet” without leaving you fatigued or susceptible to injury. It might even help you get round the course faster. According to Jeff Galloway, a US coach and leading proponent of walk-run (jeffgalloway.com), the average improvement made by veteran marathon runners who adopted the strategy was 13 minutes.
“The reasons behind this are physiological,” explains Donald. “If you run to exhaustion and then walk the remainder, you’re in for a long, slow and painful finish. However if you run, walk (recover a bit), run, walk (recover a bit), you will enjoy the day a whole lot more and still finish faster than if you ran to fatigue.”
A walk-run strategy is not just useful but wholeheartedly advisable if you haven’t got beyond 15 miles in your training. Running 11.2 miles further than you have accomplished in training is daunting – but walking for two minutes beyond each mile marker will give you a physical and mental break that will help to keep you going.
If, however, your lack of training miles has been down to injury rather than “the snow”, or a multitude of other excuses, you’d be wise to skip the race altogether. Trying to run through injury – or get back on track too quickly – is a foolhardy move. Better to resolve the problem and set your sights on next year, when you’ll be better placed to reach your true potential.
Sam Murphy is the author of ‘Marathon and Half Marathon: From Start to Finish’ (A&C Black). She is giving a talk for first-time marathoners on Tuesday March 16 at Run and Become in Victoria, London SW1H www.runandbecome.com