Running a PB marathon

For every one of my 6 Ironman races and my two Ultraman races it was, in my opinion the run leg that turned an average race into a terrible one. I can recall a point in each of those races that I thought, ‘I really need to work out how to run a marathon better”.

If the truth be known, it was probably the swim and the bike that did me in before I even got into the transition tent but the very real feeling that the run was letting me down always sat in the back of my mind.

So as soon as I hit fifty I decided that this was the decade that I was going to fix my marathon run and what better way than setting myself the goal of winning entry into the hardest marathon in the world to qualify. Boston! I can hear you all bellowing with laughter and saying that is everyone’s running goal. All I can say in response, if it was easy, then it wouldn’t be a worthwhile goal. Right?

So, with the goal of running a stupidly fast 3:15 marathon for the 50 year old age group I sat down and simply looked at the key aspects that I needed to achieve my goal over a 16 week training program. My chances are slim but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from trying. ‘Shoot for the moon hit the stars’, type scenario. The following blog are my takeaways that have kept me on a firm trajectory of improvement over the last 9 weeks. I thought I would write this at the half way mark and I will write an update once I crossed the line and you can read if it is a, ‘what went right blog’, or ‘what I could have done better’, blog. Either way I hope that you may learn something along the way from my thoughts about attempting to set a marathon PB no matter your age or ability level.

As this is a PB marathon program it is assumed that you have done a marathon before and as such you may have been humiliated by the distance at some point throughout your career. Before starting this program, you need to sit down with your memories, any data you may have had and log book journal from your last race and analyse what went right and what went wrong. Many wrongly attribute the error with their marathon with the 32km mark. The infamous piano and the 32 kilometre mark gets all the blame from many a marathon runner who failed to reach their goals. While many come undone at that 32km point the damage that caused you to come undone was done before you even started the race that morning. These following points will help you focus your training on the positive elements and hopefully sidestep that infamous piano.

Here are my 5 key elements for a marathon personal best. Please us it as a complementary reading piece to go alongside the training peaks program that you can purchase here.

1. Sunday, we go long.

The marathon is all about the volume and 75% of your volume happens on Sunday. On Friday, you wake up thinking about the long run on Sunday and Tuesday your legs are still reminding you about the same long run you did on Sunday. Sunday for many is about worship and I know many of you will think it is sacrilegious to say but for marathon runners Sunday is a day of worship, a day to give thanks for your gifts and a day to test and push the limits of those gifts. Going along with the religious theme I must state that the number one commandment of ‘runner Moses’ is; “you must never miss your Sunday long run!” It is expected that you nurse your body through all the other session during the week so you can extract everything you can from the long run

The program will see you taking your long runs from 75 minutes in week 1 up to a ½ marathon time trial in week 10 to see how you are going. Then in week 12 you will run 3 hour 15-minute run before refining your long runs with back end speed from week 12 through to race day. This refining process will see you going out for a 2 hour run with the first 60 minutes being long and slow and the second 60 minutes being at race pace. This serves the purpose of getting you to run at your desired race pace after you already have some fatigue in your legs.

2. Speed works

Simple maths says that if you can get your legs moving faster with the same effort then you will do a faster marathon. Conversely if you train yourself to run long and slow then you will simply run long and slow on race day. It is a balancing act and the training program that I have writing and testing through this PB training block is designed to get the balance right. Too much speed work and you won’t get the distance done. Too little speed work and you won’t get the time. If you don’t get this combination right you may succumb to injuring and fall into the mental pit of wanting to do more and going into the race over cooked. My one piece of advice when it comes to doing speed work is to hasten slowly and err on the side of quality rather than quantity in terms of sets done. I would suggest that one set done well with your muscles firing and stimulating the growth of fast twitch muscles is better than three sets done to the point where injury follows and muscles are torn. Less is more!

The program will see you working most of your interval work at your threshold pace. An example interval set is 3 x 10 minutes at threshold with 90 second recovery at each. Each of these intervals have been placed in the middle of the week so that you have the time to absorb the speed into your legs. You will be amazed at how your long slow run simply get faster as your body naturally wants to tick the legs over at a faster and stronger cadence.

3. Walking to Boston. Recovery is key.

In an earlier blog I wrote about running naked (not literally) which highlighted the fact that you need to step away from technology in order to maximize your performance. Arising from this blog I started walking my recovery days and it opened my mind to inspiration around me and allowed my body to repair quicker as I walked my legs and body into better runs on the proceeding days. Instead of staring at a stopped watch at the end of my recovery run which always pointed towards a slow time I was able to write down some of the thoughts and ideas I had while I was out ‘blue sky mining’. Physically I have become a faster athlete because of walking and mentally I can process better on my harder interval and longer run days. It has been an amazing transformation and reawakening of an over trained athlete that I once was. In training for this marathon, I have run my fastest times ‘ever’ as a 50-year-old and my strava ‘fitness’ graph is at an all-time high. While I can’t put it all down to walking I would say that 50% of my improvement has been because of recovering better due to the walks. Consequently, I can now perform better on the days that needed me to step up my efforts.

The program gives you the option of rest days or putting your watch on the bench and going out to walk. I personally walk a couple of times a week to simply let my legs recover and allow my brain to float off and dream.

4. An army marches on its stomach.

I am not a nutritionist. I do not claim to be one and I would never offer advice to anyone who asked for my opinion. I have seen athletes perform on junk food diet (not very often I am quick to point out) and athletes who perform well on a strict vegan only approach to diet. My only opinion which may seems passé to say is, go with what works for you. In training and on race day go with what has brought the best performance previously. Sure, try new things and new foods (not on race day obviously) but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Be scientific and change one thing and see what effect that brings about in your performance. Read reviews with a critical eye. Listen to friends and coaches but don’t fall for snake oil sellers. I tend to eat protein more after runs and carbs before the sessions and I don’t pay much, if any, attention to the numbers on the scale if and when I weigh myself.

5. Muscle up for the run not for the mirror.

I am a sad boxing tragic. I used to watch it with my father growing up but I am quick to point out I have absolutely no desire to climb into a ring or even hit a punching bag. As a runner I have a skill in running and I would most likely use my mouth to get into a fight and use my skill as a runner to get out of one. Having said that as a precursor I watched the Joshua Vs Ruiz fight. Joshua was an adonis climbing into the ring and I am so sorry to say this Ruiz was a self-proclaimed dough boy. In the pre-fight shouting match Ruiz said this short fat man is coming for you. And come for him he did. He out lasted a fast-starting muscle machine. Absorbing the muscled blows of Joshua but in the end he could not fuel his muscles for an extended period. Ruiz came to fight and won in the seventh. Joshua came to look good, put Ruiz down in the first round but couldn’t finish it and ultimately lost.

The same is true for runners! You need muscle mass to keep your running form for the whole 42km. Your muscles need to propel you forward but also absorb the impact of the foot fall and transition this foot fall into forward momentum. This is done with the whole body. The arms, the core and the legs. Strength work for runners need to be whole body and the app that I have used for over a year now is SWORKIT. I liked it so much I bought the paid version of the app. I do this for 10 to 15 minutes a day. Oscillating between flexibility, Pilates, full body and ab routines. I found it has helped me and now in week 9 I have noticed myself holding a better form through the longer training runs and maximizing speed and intensity for longer periods.

I have written in flexibility and strength exercises twice a week for 30 minutes. But I personally do this every day for 15 minutes. Listen to your body and add extra sessions or take them away based on how you are feeling. In doing this you must understand that even the most analysed and coached athlete in the world will still need to listen to their body to maximize their own potential. Don’t blindly follow a program and think that is perfect for you. You are the CEO of your mind and body, employ a consultant, listen to their advice but you must ultimately make the final decision.