Running your Perfect Marathon - some tips for the 24th October!
Posted on October 14 2021
The Standard Chartered Marathon is now less than 2 weeks away and at this point, if you have been training for it, there is little more to be done. You have done the hard miles, all you have to do now is to complete your taper, and get to the start, healthy, motivated and ready to go.
But of course there is something very important to think about. Executing your perfect marathon is something that takes careful planning and above all, incredible self control during those 42.2kms.
Even with perfect training, poor execution on the day will leave you disappointed and wondering how could it go so wrong.
It actually doesn't matter whether you are targeting your first sub 4 or looking to break 2:30, poor execution can leave you disappointed.
The marathon is a distance which in these days of epically long ultra races, seems almost short, but if you want to run the race which will eventually be seen by you as the marathon race you were entitled to, where everything comes together and you do a time you will forever be proud of (your lifetime entitlement PB), it is devilishly difficult.
There is no hiding place, there is no place to take it easy for a while and recover, you are on the bleeding edge of success and failure all the way.
This is my take on how you can run your perfect marathon. It has worked many times for me, I hope it does for you.
For many years I ran marathons where I set out to run a certain pace, largely defined from my training. Seems logical but my problem always was, as it is for many marathon runners, a complete disintegration from around 30k onwards. It wasn't pleasant, it was always painful and while I wanted to break 3 hours the closer I got the more difficult it seemed.
"You are hitting the wall"..... "start off slower"..... yes of course but how and how slow is slow and is that the only reason?. Lots of questions.
I grew increasingly frustrated with my performance and so finally I brought in a coach (Mark Sharp) who got me into a more scientific way of thinking about marathon running.
Mark got me thinking about the way I consumed available energy in my body, the stored glycogen in particular that we all have at the start of a race. This is the most accessible and easily converted form of energy. When that is used up, your body will look for fat to convert, which is much harder.
Crossing that boundary can be felt and it is what a lot of marathon runners experience as "hitting the wall".
The challenge for marathon running is that you really are looking to push the enveloped to the absolute extreme and finish the race totally depleted of your fast and easily accessible energy source which you need to maintain your pace at close to your aerobic threshold. Unlike Ultrarunning, which is all about never even approaching that level of depletion, in a marathon you are much closer to the edge.
This energy source of course can be measured in calories and most references will say that the human body can hold around 2600 to 3000 calories in the form of glycogen. If you have prepared well, this is what you should have available on the start line. When this is depleted, the body switches as mentioned.
Most modern GPS watches will also give you an estimate at any given time how many calories your training run has consumed. This is calculated mostly from your heart rate. For me at the time I established that, 11 heart beats equated to 1 calorie.
Fairly logically then the available energy source will fuel so many heart beats and the faster your heart beats, the more calories consumed.
But how to "manage" this ?.
First of all I could actually see that this was true when I looked back at my past marathons and related time, heart rate and calculated the energy consumption, my pace always deteriorated as predicted when around 2600 calories were done.
Secondly, your heart rate relative to pace is determined by your training. The fitter you are, the faster (and further) you can run for the same amount of heart beats/calories consumed.
There are a couple of other dimensions too though.
For me, we determined that to maintain a steady pace over a marathon distance it was necessary for my heart rate to increase. We determined this by running 20 laps of a track at a steady heart rate and monitoring the deterioration in pace. This was pretty much a straight line. This may vary for others but it is an easy base line to establish.
We also determined that climatic conditions altered the pace produced for a given heart rate. Anyone who has trained in a HK summer will know the impact high heat and humidity has on pace.
This led to a few conclusions and guidelines for running a marathon.
1. CONTROL YOUR HEART RATE INCREASE. If you want to maintain a steady pace you will need to let your heart rate increase steadily throughout the race. Through trial and error we determined that to be a 2bpm increase per 5km throughout the marathon. If you haven't been able to establish that for yourself, then use this as a guideline.
2. SET THE RIGHT LEVELS. From the analysis in training we did know what a realistically usable max heart rate would be and if that was to be the HR in say the last 2km of the marathon that meant working back to calculate the HR to start off at. For me that was to start at 150bpm and finish close to 178 bpm at 40k in the marathon. Make no mistake, it is very hard to hold your heart rate down at the start, you want to run faster, your want to get "time in the bank", that's where the iron will comes in. You have to resist that at all costs.
3. EXERCISE IRON WILL. Get it in your head that half way in the marathon is 30k and you want to get there in good shape and ready to conquer that last 12 km. KEEP YOUR HEART RATE UNDER CONTROL!. It was interesting to see Eliud Kipchoge in this years Olympics lay down the hammer at exactly that point. But forget this, that's a whole other level !
4. DON'T BE DISTRACTED IF IT'S HOT. Recognise that if the conditions on the day are hot and humid, your available calories are exactly the same but at any given heart rate, your pace will be slower. There is NOTHING you can do about that, so just accept it. The good news is it will be pretty much the same for everybody else
5. YOUR GEL PLAN IS IMPORTANT. While there is a limit to what you can do to extend the available calories, a specific gel plan can help you slow down the depletion of your easily accessible glycogen. Each gel roughly delivers 100 calories of easily accessible energy so by adding 1 gel every 5km after 10k means an extra 500 extra calories to get to the finish line!. It all helps to move that deletion point to the finish line, not have it at 30k.
So this became my marathon execution plan and at my very next marathon (Seoul) I finished in 2:56!. and felt pretty damn fresh.
Over the next few marathons I gradually refined the plan and grew more and more confident until in 2009 I ran the Berlin Marathon in perfect, cool conditions.
Following my heart rate plan meticulously I was shocked to see I was well ahead of my target time at each 5km marker. If I hadn't had the heart rate plan for reference I would have been very concerned I had gone out too fast.
I soldiered on and finished in 2:43, very even splits and while tired, certainly not broken. All at the ripe old age of 49 which I was proud of. You might run faster or slower, the time is actually not the the main point, control is what really changed for me.
I ran many times under 3 hours after that and realised that even if the conditions were poor through heat or humidity, I could have faith in the heart rate plan and the pace would adjust accordingly and would be what it would be.
Of course this is only my personal experience and everyone is different but consequently I am a huge fan of using heart rate in training and in racing. See if some of these things work for you!.
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