Pacing a marathon

On Sunday I'll be running the London marathon for the first time. I was lucky enough to get my running club's only place (thanks Fulham Running Club!) and as it's in my 'home' town (unless there's a Sunningdale marathon I don't know about) I'm excited about taking part.

As they say in the US, this ain't my first rodeo, though. It will be my fourth road marathon so I know a bit about what to expect. Part of this is knowing that you need a plan, however vague, if you want to hit any target beyond simply finishing. And although this isn't my B race for the year, never mind my A race, I do want to give it a good crack.As I'm nowhere near 'good for age' (sub-3.15!), I may never get the chance again.

Before I go any further, here's where I get my pre-race excuses in. Since last May I knew I'd be doing the North Downs Way 50 mile race this May, so when I got into London which falls three weeks before, I felt I had to make a choice. Train for one of them and hope the other worked out. So, most of my training has been slow and hilly which should stand me in good stead for Box Hill and environs but possibly isn't so ideal for a PB attempt around the nation's capital city.

But as the London marathon has got nearer, I've become more excited about it and rather than simply get round the course, I've been planning my race strategy and pacing. Conventional wisdom suggests an even paced race is best, or maybe even a slight negative split (second half faster than the first). Realistically, very few achieve this as my past races prove (see below). Hitting that sweet spot is tough though. Set off too fast and you die in the second half. Set off too slow and you might get a negative split but did you really push yourself hard enough?


2013 - Belfast

My first marathon and with a target of 3:45, I hit halfway almost bang on schedule but simply didn't have the fitness to maintain it. An 8-mile uphill section in that first half probably didn't help but in the end my lack of endurance did for me. With about 9 miles still to go. Moral of the story: first marathons are hard!

0-13.1 - 1h53m
13.1-26.2 - 2h03m
Time: 3h56m

 

2014 - Edinburgh
This came six weeks after the South Downs Way 50. My training in between had felt lethargic (perhaps unsurprisingly) and although I hoped for a PB I wasn't sure how fast I could go. Taking a cautious approach, I got to halfway feeling comfortable and just felt better and better as the race went on. Mile 26 was my fastest and I didn't want it to end. Moral of the story: ultras make you faster.

13.1 - 1h50m
13.1-26.2 - 1h48m
Time
: 3h38m

Taking it easy at Edinburgh in 2014

Taking it easy at Edinburgh in 2014

 

2015 - Kingston
Despite a distinctly sub-optimal training block (albeit including a great two weeks eating my way around Europe), I decided I should go for sub-3:30. I hit halfway on target but even by then knew it was an unsustainable pace. The last eight miles were agony. Another PB but nothing like the elation of Edinburgh. Moral of the story: do the training.
0-13.1 - 1h44m
13.1-26.2 - 1h50m
Time: 3h34m


And now for London.

My longest run in training at anything above an easy trot was 18 miles and even that wasn't at target marathon pace. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the crowds will pull me along. Maybe hiking up hills in Surrey will finally pay off. 

So my aim is to run even splits by reaching halfway feeling okay and sneak a PB. It probably won't work but I'll give it a go. What's the worst that could happen?

Uphills, downhills and cowbells

When I was 7, I had a favourite toy car. Playing with it in the house or garden was fun but nothing like the thrill I got from letting it find its way down St Ann’s Hill in Thorpe. My Mum and Dad would drive me and my sister there and after scrambling up the slope, I’d release the purple racing car and watch as it hurtled down the slope, bouncing over lumps and being buffeted by debris down to the bottom. To do it again I’d have to go all the way back up but it was worth it for that feeling of exhilaration as I sprinted down after the car.

Several decades later and I feel much the same about trail running. The latest Surrey Championship cross-country race for Division 3 and 4 men, in which Fulham Running Club competes, was held in Oxshott. The heath there is blessed with some delightful wooded paths and one or two steep inclines. Despite the heavy recent rain, the course was fairly dry and to some extent didn’t feel like a proper cross-country race. But when there’s single-track trails to be enjoyed, I for one wasn’t about to complain.

As with the previous outing at Epsom, the men’s team numbered an impressive 19 runners. Even better, we had most of the ladies’ team and a few other FRC diehards on hand to provide support, more of which later. (Earlier in the day, the ladies’ team had performed superbly to finish 4th in their own race.) A far cry from the downpour before Epsom, this was a beautiful, crisp winter’s day with sunshine to be seen between the evergreen-covered hills.

There was a buzz of excitement and a feeling of positivity as we changed into our race gear, while Cap’n Andy chastised various people for daring to wear anything under their black and white vest. He wasn’t even wearing socks and you get the feeling that if it was up to him, it would be vests and spikes only, and lord help the eyes of the spectators. Anyway, once I’d seen Max sporting his trademark football boots, I knew we were in for another great day of battling performances - not least because the ground really wasn’t soft enough for that.

Warm-ups done and top layers discarded, 260 or so runners made their way to the start, bounced up and down for a few minutes before the starting gun went off and we were away. I can’t speak for the front of the pack but from where I was, most of the first lap was a lesson in patience as runners found their pace and tried not to get in each other’s way on the occasional single-track trails. The first real test came just half a mile in with a short but steep hill. Luckily, we already had a cowbell-touting Fulham supporter in the form of Faye who was encouraging Fulham runners in particular to get up and over as quickly as possible.

Less than a mile later, after a few more twists and turns, ups and downs, was another Fulham supporter zone, this time with Emily, Rose, Myriam and Carolyn shouting for the team as we swept past. The best thing about this was that you could hear their cowbell as you approached up the previous hill - and it’s amazing how much difference the noise makes to your spirits. Further down the course was Amy and then Charlie and Judith, variously cheering, taking photos and ringing a bell, as we neared the end of the loop.

With one down and two to go, I felt like I’d paced myself well. Heartbreak Hill wasn’t any easier the second time around but I was finding my rhythm and enjoying the rise and fall of the woodland trails. Almost exactly halfway round this second lap I must have lost concentration for an instant as I hit a tree root and felt my left ankle turn outwards in an all-too familiar way. I stayed upright and kept going but slowed down as I assessed how much damage I’d done. After half a mile of tentative trotting and grimacing (sorry supporters!), I concluded it wasn’t getting any worse and pushed on as fast as my mind and body would let me.

The hill was by now a lung-busting mountain while my excess holiday weight and unconditioned legs were now in evidence as I tottered around the course trying not to get overtaken. I was fortunate in as much as being one of the slower runners, all of FRC’s points had already been secured by the time I hit the finishing straight. Not only that, but I got the benefit of the encouragement of the finished Fulham runners who were lining the final yards of the course.

Photo by Charles Craven

Photo by Charles Craven

As had been the case at Epsom, the men’s team took first place with all top 10 Fulham men finishing in the top 30. A special mention must go to Bob Lynam, our V65 representative. Both Max and John commented that it had taken them a while to catch him up - particularly impressive because Bob had already done parkrun earlier in the day. Although maybe if he hadn’t, they wouldn’t have caught him at all!

Running heroics aside, the story of the day was our incredible support who were told they were too noisy (as if that’s possible!), compared to a Nordic skiing crowd, and generally amazed and encouraged the runners with the wall of sound as we climbed those hills. Cap’n Andy summed it up thus: “That was FRC's Super Saturday. We have exceeded our goal: build a great team environment. The great results are a bonus.”

From a personal perspective, I’d had a brilliant afternoon. Sure, the old chassis had taken a bit of a battering, but that’s half of fun of taking the brakes off and letting loose on the downhills. Roll on the next round...

Cross-country revisited

Last weekend I did cross-country running for the first time since school. There's only one photo of me from that era and here it is.

I was nine years old and rugby shirt, goalie gloves and plimsolls were clearly the order of the day. I've no idea if this was one of the weekly runs in Windsor Great Park or an inter-school match but according to the back of the photo I came 3rd. Fast forward (ahem) 33 years and I'd signed up to represent Fulham Running Club in their second match of the season...

It was five minutes before the start of the Surrey League Division 4 cross-country race. Max, Kevin and I were sitting in Bob's car as the rain hammered down. It quickly transpired that for all of us, this was our first XC race since school. And for some of us that was a very long time ago indeed.

"We only need 10 finishers to qualify for the points and there are 18 people here," said Max. "They don't need us at all. Shall we stay here?"

It was certainly very tempting. But getting wet and muddy seemed to be the only prerequisite for cross-country, with running a distant second and I reckoned I could manage at least one of those. For the record, my two other goals were to not fall over and to not get lapped.

Having finished a highly creditable second place in the first round, Fulham Running Club's Men's team was looking to go one better in the second outing. With the first 10 placings counting towards the club's overall score (1 point for 1st place, 2 for 2nd and so on, with the lowest points total winning), it was important to get at least 10 runners finishing. With nearly double that number turning up at Epsom Downs on a windswept afternoon in November, things were looking good.

With everyone decked out in the black and white hoops of FRC, we all trotted down towards the start line and did a half-hearted warm-up while the rain sheeted down. By the time we'd lined up at the start and been told it was two laps, it had stopped raining but I was already 100% wet. I reminded myself to use this extra weight to my advantage on the downhills.

The first of these came immediately as everyone charged down the hill towards the first corner. Grass soon have way to gravel and then mud, and before long people had given up avoiding puddles. I hadn’t worried too much about shoe choice as I only had ‘road’ and ‘trail’ to choose from, but Bob had invested in some shiny new spikes for the day. And then lost half of the spikes while warming up in the car park before the start. Still, he didn’t fall over so they must have done him proud.

Within five minutes of the start I saw the first casualty of the day as a man limped off the course looking glum (amateur diagnosis: twisted ankle) and I redoubled my efforts in watching foot placement. Up the first hill we went, around a corner and up some more before doubling back on ourselves and down down down to a tight corner with a steep drop.

Looking ahead there was a long incline. I found out later on Strava this section had been named Grassy Monster Hill Climb and it lived up to its name. At the top, there was another casualty, a man on all fours and two teammates telling him he should rest despite his protestations. We weren't 15 minutes into the race so he must have put in one hell of a shift to be broken so soon. Either that or he wasn’t a runner at all and had been drafted in to make up the numbers.

Me and Phil on lap 1 (and still smiling) | Photo: Judith Clarkson

Me and Phil on lap 1 (and still smiling) | Photo: Judith Clarkson

Once at the top, I caught up with and passed Phil, and came through the lap mark in about 19 minutes. Now it was all about hanging on.

Whether it was the mud or my lack of fitness but even running downhill felt laboured and the ups were even harder. The field was much more spread out now and I couldn't see any other Fulham runners until I came down the hill before the Monster where I saw Jonathan storming up it, overtaking several fading runners. Some of them were even walking so I assumed they must be ultra runners who had forgotten what event they were doing. Despite the temptation, I managed a slow trot up the hill and gave Phil a gasp of encouragement as he shot past me.

The flat at the top wasn't enough to get the legs going fast again but once I glimpsed a gaggle of black and white vests near the finish I knew I had to give it a blast on the final descent and passed one runner before crossing the line in a muddy windmill of arms and legs in just over 39 minutes. Not bad for a little over 5 miles at my advanced years!

I found the FRC runners who had already finished who were standing around like they hadn't actually done the two laps. After cheering, clapping and shouting for the remaining teammates as they filed in, the sun came out just in time for it to set on a glorious afternoon of off-road fun.

The FRC 'convicts' in all their glory | Photo: Judith Clarkson

The FRC 'convicts' in all their glory | Photo: Judith Clarkson

Andrew’s 5-year plan to get into the top division of the Surrey League is looking good as we have won this match with a quite remarkable 10 runners in the top 31 places. Full results can be found here: https://surreyleague.org/slm/race/123/#d4_team

As the sun set and we were about to head home, we noticed someone still out on the course with the course sweepers collecting the marker flags after him. A look at the results shows it was Alan Lane of Vets AC in the V80 category. What a legend. I hope I'm still doing cross-country when I'm over 80 years old!

 

Marathon training week 16: Race week

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

 

Better than a Snickers. Maybe.

Better than a Snickers. Maybe.

This is it!

All the getting fitter is done and the race is just a few days away. Here are some tips on what to do in the run-up (ha ha) to the big day.


Running

Or more accurately running less. As I mentioned last week, avoid hard sessions in the days before the race. It will feel weird and you'll almost certainly get inexplicable aches and pains and go a bit mad but if you can hang on for a few more days, you're home and dry.



Eating

By now you've probably heard of carbloading or carbo-loading. The basic premise is to eat lots of carbohydrates in the days before your marathon so you don't run out of fuel (stored in the body as glycogen) during the race and 'hit the wall'. As you might expect though, we are all different and not everyone hits the wall.

This article by Matt Fitzgerald explains the science behind it but the bottom line is it won't hurt to do it. What I would say is don't eat too much in your last meal before race day, or eat it too late. Being carbed-up is one thing; bloated and uncomfortable is another entirely.



Travel

Unless you're really lucky, you'll have to travel some distance to your race. Whether it's an hour or days away you should know your route to the start, what you need to do and when (do you need to be there the day before to collect your race number?), and have a back-up plan allowing extra time in case something goes wrong. En route to my first ultra marathon, the train I was delayed which meant I would have missed my connecting train if that hadn't also been late. As it was, I had to run a mile to the start just to get there in time - and extra miles were the last thing I wanted!

Also - and this might sound obvious - check when the race starts. Just because 'most' races begin at 9am doesn't mean this one will.

 

Kit

By now you should have what kit you're going to wear on race day sorted. It's an old adage but unless you're 100% sure it will work, don't try anything new on race day. Depending on the climate or weather, you may need different options so make sure you have them ready too. Get it all ready days in advance. It may seem unnecessary but it won't if you end up forgetting something. Race number? Sunglasses? Plasters? Energy gels?

 

Sleep

The night the race you'll probably be nervous, excited and full of adrenaline so the likelihood is you won't get a great night's sleep. The trick therefore is to target the night before the night before (Friday if your race is on a Sunday) and get an early night then. Even if you don't get a good night's sleep the night before the race, it most likely won't affect your race day that much anyway.

 

Toilet strategy

Most marathons start in the morning, which means getting up early. Depending on your digestive tract, this may or may not play havoc with the timing of your morning visit to the porcelain palace. You can potentially bring the whole thing forward by eating earlier than usual the night before but this needs trying out in advance. You can also limit the number of visits by not over drinking before you start running, Hydration should take place the day before, not on the morning of the race.

However you plan your poo (and wee) strategy, find out where the toilets are near the start (and en route if you think you'll need them) and allow plenty of time. There won't be enough and there will be a queue so be prepared for that. You might even want to take toilet paper in case they've run out by the time you get there. Or you get caught short on the way round.

 

Race plan

Have a race plan. Have two, or even three. Because 26.2 miles is a long way and if something doesn't go quite right, it's easy to get disheartened and lose sight of your goal, whether that's simply finishing the race, or doing so in the best time that you can. If it's your first marathon, finishing may be the only goal. But if you allow yourself a plan to stop or walk for a while, that's absolutely fine, as long you remember your ultimate goal. Every step will get you closer.

 

The start, the middle and the finish

If it's cold, take a bin liner to 'wear' at the start. Even if you warm up (and you should), you could be standing around for a while waiting to get going.

Pre-race 'poncho'

Pre-race 'poncho'

Don't set off faster than your target marathon pace. It will be hard because you'll be full of energy and adrenaline but you can only do harm by setting off too fast. Take it easy and relax into your rhythm.

Get water when you need it but be careful around the water stations. People have a tendency to stop without warning, change direction suddenly and throw down cups and bottles directly into your path. Slow down if necessary. A couple of seconds lost is better than a twisted ankle.

If there's one certainty in marathon running it is that, at some point, it will get tough. It will probably hurt and you will start to question if it's worth the pain and the effort. Remember all the training you've done and why you're running the race, whether it's to raise money for charity or to prove something to yourself. And then keep going. You will forget the pain. You won't forget your time or the medal.

The finish line is one of the best sights you'll see but try to enjoy all of the race, not just the end. Enjoy the support of the crowds as much as you can and if you've got enough breath, thank the race marshals and volunteers, they'll appreciate it.

Once you've stopped, get some calories in you as soon as possible. My favourite is a Fudge Brownie Frijj milkshake (other brands are available) but anything is better than nothing. If you can manage it, do some stretching. It will be the last thing you want to do but you'll feel worse later on if you don't.

Then celebrate. You've just run a marathon!


Read all my posts on marathon training

Marathon training week 12: Looking after yourself

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

Looks innocent. Really isn't. 

Looks innocent. Really isn't. 

As I sat down to write this post, I jabbed my calf with my finger. Prodded it, poked it, massaged it. With a marathon in less than six weeks and a lingering muscle injury, the PB is not looking very likely. But if I do everything within my power to help myself - and this includes prodding my leg - there's a chance I could still make it. This week's post is really just a reminder that no matter what your current state of health and fitness, you need to look after yourself.

 

Stretching

Hopefully this section will come as a surprise to no one. It may also make you groan; I've yet meet a runner who enjoys stretching. It can be uncomfortable, it's boring, it's taking time away from everything else you want to be doing i.e. more running or eating or sleeping. And yet without it you will almost certainly suffer, be it from soreness, stiffness or reduced mobility.

The simplest way to get your stretches done is after each run. You're in clothes that enable stretching so you may as well utilise this time. You're also probably ready for a sit down, and lots of stretches can be done on the floor, which is handy. Another option is yoga. Even if you don't fancy the idea of it, at the very least it forces you to do it once a week. When I go, I am invariably the least flexible in the room but you soon realise that as in running, there's no sense in comparing yourself with others.

If you'd rather do some in the comfort of your own home, here's a nice 20-minute yoga for runners workout I found:

 

Massage

When you run a lot, and especially in the midst of an intense training block such as that for a marathon, knots and tightness can build up. Calves, hamstrings and quads are common problem areas and while it's tempting to ignore niggles and run through the pain, it's a mistake. If I could afford it, I'd get a sports massage every week. But unless you're competing at the highest level or have bags of spare cash lying about, it's not realistic for the average runner. So it comes down to how much you want to budget for this. Is a remedial massage session when you're suffering more important than entering another race? Only you can decide but it's worth considering.

A cheaper albeit slightly less effective way to keep the muscles in shape is to use a foam roller. They come in all shapes and sizes but essentially take the hard work out of self-massage. Unless you're practiced in massage, your fingers and thumbs may well not be strong enough to get the depth of a professional, and more to the point, it's almost impossible to get the angles required to reach everywhere.

Here's James Dunne of KInetic Revolution on how to foam roll the calf muscles:


Beyond these two main areas, it's just a matter of common sense and making good decisions. You know that you need to eat and hydrate, rest and sleep well so do it, if you want to perform at the best of your ability. Don't ignore niggles and hope they'll go away on their own. You might have to back off your training for a bit but it's better than doing long-term damage. Looking after yourself might be a bit of a chore but it's nothing like as bad as being injured.

 

Read all my posts on marathon training

Marathon training week 11: Give me strength!

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

 

I'll be the first to admit that over the years I've not been very good at doing anything other than running. Stretching I do a bit, some yoga now and then, and occasionally some circuits if I'm feeling energetic. But exercise specifically to help my running? Not so much. A few minor injuries later and I'm a lot more conscientious about doing my exercises. It's often hard to do preventative exercise when you feel fine but unless you're really, really lucky, it won't last forever. And being injured is no fun at all.

While hill training provides some functional strength for runners, it shouldn’t be the only way to prepare the body for running a marathon, or indeed any distance. Some of your muscles will develop from running a lot of miles but it isn't enough simply to run. If you want to be an efficient runner who avoids injury, you'll need to address weaknesses in your body, some of which you may not even know about. Here's what Jay Dicharry says in his excellent book 'Anatomy for Runners'.

...running does not directly strengthen the muscles that stabilize us in the lateral and rotational planes. These muscles are critical with respect to injury and performance potential. We create imbalance as the muscles that propel us forward get a much larger training stimulus to improve them than the muscles that stabilize us. The more time and focus we give to one thing, the worse we get at everything else.

 

Strong up top

Training with weights can lead to muscle gain and therefore weight gain, particularly in men. Extra weight is the last thing that distance runners want and so many will avoid hitting the gym for this reason. However, a strong upper body will help form and posture and encourage efficient running. The key is to use relatively light weights and focus on form rather than seeing how much you can lift.

 

My favourite exercise: Renegade row

I like this because it’s difficult. Lifting the dumbbell itself is relatively easy - keeping your hips level is the tricky bit, and that’s the part that engages your core.
 

Core? Blimey!

You may well hear a lot about how important a strong core is to running. Up to 10k, you might be able to get away without worrying too much about whether your abs will keep you upright. Beyond that though, your core takes on more responsibility for maintaining good running posture.

Often when people think of ‘core’, they think of sit ups. While these do target your abs, they don’t use exactly the same muscles as you use when running. For this reason, planks are far more useful, and there are numerous other options which target those running muscles.

Here’s a short (and sped-up - don’t do it this fast!) core workout from mountain runner Emelie Forsberg.

LINK: https://instagram.com/p/3tCsrniBM5/?taken-by=tinaemelie

As she says herself, anything is better than nothing, even if it’s only five minutes a day.

 

My favourite exercise: Mountain climber

This is another one that seems easy until you try to keep it going for any length of time. The key here is to make sure your bum (like I haven't in the first picture!) stays down so that your body remains on one plane.
 

Squat cross buns

Legs are the most obvious area to improve your strength for running, and squats and lunges are the most functional exercises to incorporate into your training. They key though is to start with light weights (or none at all) and to introduce them gradually. If you do too much too soon, you could jeopardise the quality or even quantity of your runs.

 

Favourite exercise: Reverse lunge

Like a normal lunge but you step back instead of forward. I like it because it’s also good for improving your balance, as well as giving you a good glute workout.
 

Circuits maximus

If you’re short on time, you might find it easiest to fit in any of the above whenever you can. If you have a bit longer (30-40 mins), you could do a lot worse than combine them and even some cardio elements into a circuit training session.

The best one I’ve found is ultrarunner Rob Krar’s 'The Equalizer'. 

LINK: The Equalizer

It’s a whole body workout and always leaves me breathless after and sore the next day. It requires a little bit of equipment but I get by with just a mat and some dumbbells. Once a week is enough for me!

 

Thoughts for the week

Strength work is crucial for developing supporting muscles and to prevent injury.

Introduce any sessions into your programme gradually.

Start with light weights, or even none at all.


Read all my posts on marathon training

Marathon training week 6: Being flexible

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

Unless you're a professional athlete (and if you're reading this you’re probably not), life has a habit of getting in the way of your precious training time. Work, family, sleep, holidays, injuries, illness, going to the pub, boxsets, household admin, watching videos on Facebook of puppies being cute - actually, how do we find the time to run at all? Let's see how it can be done, and how to cope when it can't.

 

9 to 5

For many of us, work takes up around 8-12 hours of the day, five days a week. That figure may or may not include commuting, depending on how far you live from your job and how demanding it is. Sometimes we have busy periods with work and that's life. But if you have some semblance of a routine it's possible to maintain and even improve your fitness with a bit of planning and creativity.

 

Keep on running

The ability to use your commute as a training session will not only save you in travel costs, but also make the most of your time. Whether you can actually do it will depend on the distance from home to work but it is possible with a few key things in place i.e. showers at work (but if there are none, only run from work to home), and having a backpack that can carry everything you need. If you live too close, you have more time to go for a run before or after work so no excuses there! And if you live too far and travel by car, bike or train, stop early to create an exercise opportunity.

If run-commuting really isn’t an option, get up early one or two days a week, or use a lunch break a week to fit in a quick speed session. If you want to make it work, you will find a way.

 

Rock around the clock

In my first job, I had this idea of writing a novel but couldn't figure out when to do so (there was a lot of going to the pub in those days). So I started getting the train to work instead of driving. Suddenly I had 80 minutes extra a day so I used those to write.

If you you don't have time for a training session, use real life to get some exercise in. Make sure you walk where you can (I always walk up and down the escalators on the London Underground), get off the bus a stop or two earlier, or even walk all the way home or to a friend's house. While you're waiting for public transport or to meet someone, do some stretches. I can usually be found doing calf raises on train platforms. Although I draw the line at doing press-ups as I’ve seen some people do. Each to their own though!

Some of these you can do on the fly, but for other more regular things it might be best to have a repeat calendar alert. Whether that's 10 minutes of core work as soon as you wake up, or 20 minutes of stretching as soon as you get home, getting into a routine will make it far more likely that you get them done. Just as running becomes a habit, doing the essential but often overlooked complementary fitness routines will also soon be second nature.

 

The Powerline Trail, near Lake Tahoe, California

The Powerline Trail, near Lake Tahoe, California

Holiday

Now and again you might be lucky enough to get a holiday. I've written before about my love of being a run tourist and this can be a good way of keeping the mileage ticking over while you're away. It might also be the perfect time to do even more running than usual. But... if you need a rest or your holiday is family or partner focused and that doesn't revolve around running (heaven forbid), don't worry about it. You won't lose that much fitness in a week or two and the extra sleep and rest you get (hopefully!) will be beneficial.

 

Make things right

As I mentioned last week, we all get injured once in a while. The same goes for illness - and the effects of a bad cold or flu should not be underestimated. The key is to take your time in getting better or you risk slowing down your recovery or making things worse. This is just common sense but the number of people I see trying to do too much too soon, while understandable, is shockingly high. So be (a good) patient and take it easy. Most importantly, don't try to 'catch up' on missed sessions. You'll most likely overload your already weakened body and won't gain anything from it. Forget it, and move on.

 

Life

Sometimes life gets in the way. You have to work late, a friend has a crisis and beer must be consumed IMMEDIATELY. Missed training sessions happen. Here’s how to handle it.

 

DO NOT:

  • Try to fit it in on the same day as another session; you will most likely break yourself.
  • Fret about what's happened (or not happened); you cannot control the past.

 

DO:

  • Be flexible; swap it with another session that week if you can.
  • Focus on the big picture.

 

In the grand scheme of things, a single missed session won’t make much difference. If it starts happening every week then maybe it’s time to reassess how many times a week you can realistically run. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. If you’re constantly getting upset about missing sessions, it soon won’t be fun anymore.

One last thing. If you’ve yet to set out on your marathon journey and are worried that it will take over your life and be month after month of drudgery, pain and depriving yourself of alcohol, it needn’t be. I put off doing a marathon because of these very fears and like so many other people I know, quickly fell in love with the training. Far from being a drain on your time, it’s actually a great way to fill it with something new.

Read all my posts on marathon training

Marathon training week 4: Running efficiently

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

As children, we run without thinking about form, posture, technique or being efficient. And unless there's a major imbalance in the body, we tend to run with pretty good form. As we get older, injured, less flexible and perhaps having spent many years at a desk job, our bodies get out of the habit of running as we once used to. So it's no wonder that we're no longer the perfect running machine.

Whether you're running 100 metres or 100 miles, how efficiently you run can have a big impact on your time. The techniques employed by sprinters and ultrarunners are very different in some regards but there are some basic points which are common to all running, no matter the distance.

 

Keep your head up

Perhaps it's a function of spending a lot of time on the trails and keeping an eye on my footing, but I'm frequently guilty of looking down at the few feet in front of me when I run. While this is useful for avoiding dog poo on the streets and parks of London, it's rarely all that necessary. And besides, you can look down with dropping your head. So why should you keep your head up?

Firstly, it's a heavy part of the body and having it too far over the centre of gravity can create tension in the neck and shoulders. Secondly, if your head is facing down, your airway is partly closed - and breathing is quite an important part of running. Looking into the mid-distance will balance you better and ensure you're getting in as much oxygen as possible.

TIP: Imagine a helium balloon is attached to the top of your head, keeping your posture upright.

 

Arms go back

As we run, our arms move. It's a natural effect of moving and not something many people will even think about. Arm swing is not just a by-product of running though; it is also a method of propulsion. As your arm goes back, you go forward. But if your arm goes sideways instead of back and forward, you're losing some of that propulsion. To be most efficient, your arms should be moving alongside your body, and not coming across the body. It might feel a little awkward and even unnatural to change but it all helps, especially on the uphills.

TIP: Imagine there is a basketball in front of your stomach and your hands must go either side of it.

 

Don't spill a drop

Sitting a desk all day is just about the worst thing we can do to our bodies if we want to be efficient runners. And yet for many of us, that's exactly what we do. One result of being in this position is tight hip flexors - and these prevent the sort of full extension of the legs you see when elite athletes are running.

Edna Kiplagat on her way to 2nd place at the 2013 London Marathon

Edna Kiplagat on her way to 2nd place at the 2013 London Marathon

Because of this muscular restriction, our body position when running often isn't ideal. Either the pelvis is leaning back or forwards when it should be in line with the torso and legs. One reason for this, particularly as you tire, is a weak core. Running for any great distance requires strength through the middle of your body and exercising this regularly will help. (There will be more on this in a future post.)

A common suggestion for keeping the pelvis correctly aligned is to imagine your pelvis is a bucket full of water. Don't let the water tip out the front or the back and keep your pelvis level. Now, personally I find it quite difficult to feel exactly what angle my pelvis is at whether I'm standing still or running, but you may have better body awareness than me.

TIP: Work on core strength, engage it while running and if you can, try not to spill that water from your pelvis bucket. Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

 

Land your foot beneath your knee

There's a lot made of footstrike and particularly how heel striking is bad running form. Somewhat confusingly this is both true and untrue. Current marathon world record holder Dennis Kimetto appears to be heel striking in the video below but because his foot lands beneath his knee, it's not a problem.

The problems occur when your heel lands ahead of your knee. This results in every landing slowing you down, reducing forward motion and putting extra stress on your legs.

Heelstriking can be caused by overstriding, so consider consciously taking shorter strides so that your foot lands closer to your body. This will increase your cadence (frequency of footstrike) and reduce the braking action.

Another sign of being inefficient is noisy running. If you're hitting the ground first with your heel and then the rest of the foot comes down it will be louder than if you land with the foot flat. Granted, this isn't so easy to tell if you're running on grass but on tarmac you should be able to hear what your footfalls sound like. And even if you don't heelstrike, you can still be a noisy runner. Being light on your feet will generally promote an efficient running style.

TIP: Reduce your stride length and run like a ninja.

 

Take your time

If you do want to change how you run, it's a good idea to do a couple of things. Firstly, get someone to film you, in slow motion if you can, and from various angles. This way you can see how you're running and whether you need to change anything. Secondly, only try one of the techniques at once, and only for a short time. For example, on your next easy 5-miler, for one of the miles, focus solely on keeping your head in position. For the rest of the run don't think about it. With practice, it should become second nature.

As long as you don't expect overnight results, or do too much too soon, change is possible. And even if you only make a small amount of progress in one of these areas, the chances are you will benefit when running 26.2 miles.

Read all of my posts on marathon training 

Marathon training week 3: Get off the road!

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

Worm's eye view of the Runnymede Relay

Worm's eye view of the Runnymede Relay

Last weekend I took part in a marathon relay. That is to say, I ran a few miles and so did some others and in total we ran 26.2 miles. (Although maybe there's room for a race where EVERYONE runs a marathon and it goes on for days.)

The race, hosted by Runnymede Runners, is an annual event held in Windsor Great Park with Windsor Castle as a backdrop. As well as taking part in a relay race - I don't think I've ever done one before - it was that it was off-road. It's tougher than road racing, and invariably slower, but I find it a lot more fun.

At first glance, it might seem as though there are two types of runners. Those who run on roads and those who don’t. I used to be firmly in the road running camp. After all, I was training for a road marathon so it made sense for me to practice on the surface I'd be racing on. To an extent, this is a sensible approach. Specificity in training is crucial to success.

Another reason I avoided trails was that I felt it increased the chances of me twisting my already weak ankles - ligaments damaged from years of football-related injuries. But having completed five months of training and racing on the roads, I got bored. Bored of the surface, bored of the same old sights near where I lived, even a little bored of running. On a whim, I entered a trail half marathon taking place in Devon.

It's impossible not to take photos of this sort of thing

It's impossible not to take photos of this sort of thing

The closest I'd been to off-road running previously was on the Tamsin Trail round the outside of Richmond Park. As anyone who's run it knows, it's barely even trail. So I was wholly unprepared for the rocky, root-ridden, hilly paths of rural Devonshire and found myself sprawling face-first to the dirt within the first mile. No harm done, but it was a big wake-up call.

Despite my little tumble, I had the best time seeing the countryside on a beautiful day, not worrying about my time (it was about 15 miles anyway) and testing out some new skills (not falling over).

Sea crossing; swimming optional

Sea crossing; swimming optional

Since then, the vast majority of the races I've entered have been off-road and here's why I recommend trying it out if you've only ever run on the roads.

It develops new muscles

The uneven surfaces means you use and develop stabilising muscles, particularly in your feet and ankles.

It’s a natural obstacle course

The trails can often create their own obstacle course which keeps the mind focused and helps to hone your (not to be underestimated) leaping-clear-of-fallen-branches skills.

There are often hills involved

Not always, but when there are they will give you a nice little interval-style workout as you're constantly having to change your pace. It also gives you a chance to walk and enjoy the views, or even an opportunity to leap down them like a mountain goat.

It’s a chance to explore

Sure, you can explore in cities too but getting lost in woodland trails is far more fun. Better still, learn how to use a map and compass and don't get lost!

The softer the surface, the quicker you recover

Tarmac is very unforgiving on muscles and joints. Fields and trails - even hard-packed ones - are easier on the body than our man-made roads and footpaths.

The peace and quiet

Nothing helps clear the mind than a run in silent forest or a mountain footpath. We don't all have the Alps as our back yard but you don't have to travel too far to find some solitude and get away from traffic and Sartre's idea of hell (other people).

Nature

Did I mention how beautiful it can be? You might even see some wildlife. (Any excuse to include the following photo of a bear I saw while trail running in California.)

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today...

I didn’t see any bears in Windsor Great Park but did have a great day out with some lovely people.

The South London Mavericks (Photo courtesy of Jen Slater)

The South London Mavericks (Photo courtesy of Jen Slater)

Strava data: 5.34 miles in 40:17

Strava data: 5.34 miles in 40:17

Marathon training week 2: Run your easy runs easy

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

The Thames at Putney

The Thames at Putney

Take a look at any sensible training plan for distance running (i.e. 5k and further) and you'll see a lot of 'easy' runs. While they may not seem to be as exciting or have as much purpose as speed work, hill reps or tempo runs, they are just as important, if not more so. But why is what some people call 'junk miles' so critical?

To get to the bottom of this, let's take a look at the role that easy runs play in your training schedule. Here are five things they do.

Build base mileage

Obvious, right? But this is important because without a foundation, without those miles in your legs, you can't do the harder sessions.

Increase muscle tendon strength and bone density gradually

One of the reasons we're advised to do exercise in general - and particularly weight-bearing exercise such as running - is that it works and builds muscle and improves bone density. By running easy, we do these things gradually. Running hard all the time puts a huge strain on the body and increases the chance of injury.

Develop slow twitch muscle fibres

Slow twitch muscle fibres are the ones we recruit when running slowly. Everyone has fast and slow but genetically we are all slightly different. Sprinters will have more fast twitch muscle fibres, for example. By running slowly we use and generate more of the slow twitch fibres and while there is a finite amount we can acquire, the more we get the better it is for continuous use over long periods.

Improve your ability to use fat as an energy source

The faster you run, the more you require carbohydrates as an energy source. But if you train by running easy, you essentially teach your body to use fat as an energy source, meaning you run out of carbohydrate fuel later and delay 'hitting the wall' in your long runs.

Provide active recovery

I'm a huge fan of rest days but there's a place for active recovery too. Some use alternatives such as cycling as it has a similar effect without the impact of running, but easy jogs can help to clear waste products and prevent stiffness after a hard session. Do two or more tough workouts in a row and you're in danger of overtraining and risking injury.

How easy is easy?

The general consensus is that your easy run should be 1-2 minutes slower than your target marathon pace (MP). For many, this will feel like a slow shuffle. I would guess that most people have a default pace they slip into and that it's a fair bit quicker than even a minute slower than MP. Personally, 8.30 minute miles feels fairly comfortable, but as my MP is 8.00m/m, I should really be running at 9.00m/m, and probably even slower. In reality, I don't do this very often so that's something I'm addressing in this 16-week training block.

Trying to keep it easy

Trying to keep it easy

Partly because I know I'm guilty of running my easy runs too fast, and partly because it's the hottest week of the year and it's just good sense, I've been making doubly sure to slow down. It's easy to monitor your pace if you have a GPS watch but if you don't, employ the rate of perceived effort approach, where 0 is sitting on your sofa and 10 is a full sprint. Easy runs should be 3-4 on this scale - running but very little effort. For harder sessions, it's beneficial to run with people slightly faster than you. But for easy runs, it's actually better to run with someone slower. Or if you can't guarantee you'll be able to do this, run by yourself on your easy days. Don't get dragged into someone else's workout.

Beware of running for kudos

There’s no doubt that Strava is useful for recording your workouts, enabling analysis and providing a community in which like-minded people can comment and encourage you. However, there is a risk that you get influenced by a) what others are doing or b) what you think others think of you. Perhaps you don't include the warm-up section of your workout, or skimp on it altogether so that your average pace doesn't suffer. Or, maybe you just run the whole thing quicker so that you appear speedy to your online friends. While this may give you instant 'Kudos', is it worth it in the longer term? Think about it. What are you gaining by impressing your followers? Unless it translates into race results you're proud of, what is the point of all those thumbs up?

Thought for the week

Take your easy runs seriously. Don't skip them. Understand that they play a crucial role and aren't junk miles. Use them as an opportunity to run with someone slower than you, or to focus on your running form. If you can't get your running form right when you're running slowly and are fresh, you sure as hell won't when you're tired and trying to run fast. Enjoy the calm before the hard session storm.

Do you run your easy runs easy enough? Be honest now!

 

Read all the marathon training posts

Marathon training week 1: Find a reason to run

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

Once you've signed up for a marathon it's easy to think that the race itself is motivation enough to get out there and do your training runs. You've made a commitment to yourself or to a charity and that should be enough, right? However, it's not always that simple. Maybe the race is so far in the future that it feels like anything you do now isn't going to make any difference (it will). Maybe you're feeling tired (this will become a regular theme). Maybe you'd rather stay home and bake a cake (recommended but not in place of a training run).

In the first week of a training programme, I feel excited about the journey ahead. But after a big spring race (read my not-entirely-to-plan Thames Path 100 race report) and resulting injury, physically I'm not quite where I want to be. So Monday's easy six miles wasn't looking as appetising as it usually might. Unlike some people, I'm at the stage of my running that I'll go whether I really want to or not. Having said that, the news that the car from Back to the Future (my all-time favourite film) was outside the Royal Albert Hall absolutely sold me on a) getting out for a run and b) the route I was going to take.

"You built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?!"

"You built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?!"

As a result of my excitement in nearing the car of my dreams (I'm not a big fan of cars generally but this one, with a flux capacitor, and the ability to travel through time, is pretty exciting), I ran mile 3 a bit too quickly (see below - that is not easy pace) but otherwise I'd call it a successful session.

I realise that film memorabilia won't always be available as a motivator, or that it isn't for you, but with a little imagination, you can usually find a reason to run. Maybe take the long way round to the shop you wouldn't normally go to, get the groceries and walk back. Maybe you've got a friend to visit and they're just the right number of miles away for it to fit in with your plan. Or maybe you can make a delivery. I once ran 17 miles across London to deliver some DVDs for our video editor. It saved the company on couriers and I got my long run done.

Thought for the week

Trick yourself if you have to, but get out there. Not if you're injured or completely shattered - I'll come onto that another week - but if you're just missing your mojo, find a reason to run.

What gets you out on your run if you're not feeling up for it? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments.

 

Read all the marathon training posts