The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part four: Psychology

The final post in this mini-series is all about the head.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 21.54.07

Race day can be stressful and whilst I think that a degree of nerves can be a good thing, I want to keep it under control. And control is what I focus on. Control the things you can and don’t worry about the rest.

Getting prepared

I make sure my race day kit is washed, checked and packed days before the race. I pack spares of everything. I write a list of things I will need on the day – tape, Vaseline, Bodyglide, plasters, pins, something to eat and drink in the hours before the race, etc. Getting all that stuff organised on the Thursday before a Sunday race means less stress closer to the time. I figure out how I will get to the race days before the big day.

In the days before the race I spend time visualising the race. This year I am racing the London marathon, which I know well, so that makes the visualisation even easier. I know what it will feel like to cross Tower Bridge just before half way – look left and see the Mornington Chasers cheering station on the far side of the road. Pass the half way mark and check my watch (more on that in a minute) then focus on the Isle of Dogs. After that Canary Wharf where the crowds are immense. On the way beck west, there will be the 20 mile mark, which is an important point for me (again, more on that in a minute). Then the fun really starts.

Highlights of the race

First the RunDemCrew cheering station at mile 21’ish – a wonderful, life affirming sight and a huge emotional boost. The RunDemCrew means a huge amount to me and my running and to see them there yelling and waving will be amazing.

Then the Mornington Chasers just after mile 22. This is my club and they are all runners who know what it means to be at that point in a race. There will be people there who have played big parts in helping me achieve what I have and I can’t wait to see them and hear the  shouts.

After that, it is a parade of wonderful sights and sounds – the Blackfriars underpass, which feels a bit like a re-birth when you emerge onto the Embankment. Seeing the Houses of Parliament. Turning into Birdcage walk… the turn onto the Mall and the finish line.

Race tactics

As far as tactics for the race are concerned, I like to control the things I can, such as my target pace, as much as possible. So here is what I am planning –

  • Reach the half way point in around 79 minutes – that is five minutes slower than I finished the Cambridge Half Marathon, in the freezing cold and snow in the middle of a heavy training period. That should feel manageable.
  • Keep that pace going for another seven miles.
  • Then at mile 20, have a stern word with myself and start to race the person in front. Slowly, slowly start to increase the pace. 10km is all I have to run at this point and I can afford to dial up the effort one click at a time, working on catching the person in front and then the next one and then the next one…
  • All the way to the finish: if my plan comes together and I manage to dial up the pace from 20 miles then I should manage a PB (currently 2:38:30) which will be a very pleasing result.

There are many ways to approach a marathon. But from a psychological point of view, I think that breaking the race down into manageable chunks – 13.1 miles slower than you know you can manage, another 7 at that pace and then 6 miles as fast as you can manage – makes the marathon feel less daunting. And I believe you should visualise the things that you are going to look forward to so that you enjoy the journey. After all, enjoyment is the reason we run, so the marathon should be the pinnacle of that enjoyment.

Final thoughts

I really think that running is woven into our DNA. I don’t care to debate whether we should wear shoes or not. Or whether we should run 100m or 100 miles. I just know that when I run, I feel fantastic. You only have to watch children do what they love doing, to know that running is one of the most natural things we do.

I have decided to pit myself against the classic distance of 26.2 miles and I hope that I can motivate others to do the same. If you are doing the same, I hope that the last few blog posts have been though provoking and/or useful. Most of all, I hope you have a great race and do yourself proud. And remember, keep it simple…

The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part three: Fuel

Eat

As with hydration, I think that during the race, the best you can hope for is to top up your fuel stores as best you can. The body can absorb 90grms of carbohydrate per hour which equates to about 360 kcal.

In general running is considered to require about 500 kcal per hour. However this is a rough estimate. For a man of my weight running at my target pace of 6 min/mile the rate of calorie burn rises to almost 1000 kcal per hour.

Depletion is inevitable. The ‘wall’ isn’t.

Even if I consume 90g carbohydrate per hour, that will deliver around about 360 kcal which is less than I need to run at my target pace. However provided that in the days leading up to the race, I manage to eat well and top up the carbohydrate stores in my body – the endogenous fuel – there will be about 2,000 kcal that I have in my body to which I add the gels as I go.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 21.42.59

The ‘wall’ is something I have encountered a few times – once in the London marathon – and it is pretty real. When it happened to me in the London, the change from feeling good and barreling along at 2hr 40min pace to shuffling through an aid station guzzling energy drink and gels, took just two miles – 15 minutes. Thankfully the recovery was equally swift and I was able to finish that year in 2hrs 43min. But I had missed my target by 8 minutes and those minutes were spent trying to refuel.

So my aim when I am racing a marathon is to buffer the endogenous carbohydrate stores that I have through the consumption of gels, in my case those from TORQ Fitness.

My plan in London this year is to take six gels during the race – one every 30 minutes – to keep the depletion of muscle glycogen stores to a minimum and to give the ‘wall’ a miss altogether. I would say that for most runners who are trying to race the best they can, a similar strategy will be beneficial.

The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part two: Hydration

Drink

I don’t think it is possible to race a marathon (I use the word ‘race’ as against ‘run’ or ‘complete’ because ‘race’ to me means pushing as close to your limits as you can) without getting dehydrated.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 21.21.23

As with so many things relating to a marathon, the key here is making sure you get it right in the days leading up to your race, so drink plenty in the few days before the race – and if you have to go to a race expo and walk around for hours looking at the latest gadget or pair of shoes, take a BIG bottle of water with you: a few sample cups of energy drink is not sufficient. Then on the morning of the race sip something like water or a diluted energy drink and make sure that you empty your bladder as close to the start of the race as possible.

During the race

Quite simply the act of getting water in your mouth when you are running as fast as you can, is not easy and at best you are likely to only get a mouthful or so. And even if you can get water into your mouth, your stomach can only absorb a certain amount and you really don’t want water sloshing around inside you as you run. So ‘little and often’ is my best advice here.

It has been reported that the great Haile Gebrselassie was 9% dehydrated when he set the then world record of 2:03:59. And his last mile was astonishingly fast. So dehydration can be managed. Just take a mouthful as often as you think is necessary, don’t drink too much and make sure you are very well hydrated before you start. Now that’s not complicated, is it?

 

The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part one: Timing

It was my birthday a while ago and my aunt sent me one of those gently amusing cards that cause very little offence or mirth. Here it is…

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 21.05.12

But it got me thinking about how all too often, achieving a goal can become a daunting exercise over over-whelming complexity. I know it was for my first few races.

But now I take a much simpler approach to the marathon and I thought I would share my plan with you in four blog posts over the next week:

  1. Timing (this post)
  2. Hydration
  3. Nutrition
  4. Psychology

Time to think about time

I really strongly suggest that you do not use a GPS to manage your pace on race day. They are notoriously inaccurate and especially when surrounded by 37,000 other GPS watches.

If you are running a marathon that has its course measured by the Association of UK Course Measurers, then the mile markers are accurate. Very accurate.

If your GPS beeps to tell you that you have run a mile before or after the mile marker… then your GPS is wrong. Thinking otherwise is a mistake that too many runners make.

If you accept that your GPS device might be a bit out, then think about this: if your GPS is short by 15 seconds per mile, that is six and a half minutes for a marathon. If you are aiming for a sub-4 hour marathon, your GPS only needs to be 43 meters out per mile – which is only 2.7% – and you will finish in 4 hours 6 minutes.

So what do I suggest?

A stopwatch. I use a GPS watch, but I turn off the GPS function and just use the watch as a stopwatch. Each time I pass a mile marker, I hit the lap button. If the time for the last mile is more than my target pace, I am behind schedule and if it is less than my target pace, I am ahead of schedule. I can then adjust as necessary. Simple.

The next post will be up in a couple of days. In the mean time, what do you use to make sure you are on pace? Or do you not bother with that? Let me know what your tactics are and how you have honed them in the past.

The truth about being the best runner I can be

As some readers of this blog will be aware, I recently managed to make the leap from my passion for all things running, into the way that I make my living: my wife and I have set up a social media and marketing business for running and endurance sports brands. The business is called freestak and you can check it out at www.freestak.com.

I love my work. I have a legitimate reason to spend time reading, thinking and talking about two of my favourite things – social media and endurance sports. At freestak we have a wonderful group of clients all of whom have exciting products that we really believe in. My job involves creating and delivering campaigns which I really love doing… but (you knew there would be a ‘but’) it is not easy. We are very, very busy and the amount of sleep I get seems to be inversely proportionate to the amount that I care about what we are doing. And I really, really care! So sleep is a rare commodity.

At the same time, I have been striving to get myself in the right shape to run a PB in the upcoming London marathon. But I am discovering that the two things – the growth of freestak and the desire to run a faster marathon – aren’t entirely compatible. Training has been patchy – a couple of really good 80+ miles weeks, then a crash and a 40 mile week, applying ice to various injuries and being a moody bastard.

Me being the best I can be.
Me being the best I can be.

So I have been wondering what on earth I am doing, questioning what I am trying to prove and what my priorities are? Listening to too many people and starting to feel really negative about my running. Then in the space of three days I read two things which have really resonated with me and I’d like to share them with you (and perhaps give myself a well-deserved kick in the backside!)

The first thing that I have been reading is James Cracknell and Beverley Turner’s new book, Touching Distance. In case you have not heard about this book, it recounts the period of their lives when James and his wife, Beverley, were dealing with a near-fatal accident that James suffered whilst cycling across the USA as part of a challenge he was taking on. He suffered a very severe head injury which led to changes in his personality that both James and Bev recount in the book. You can read about the accident here.

The start of the book is mainly the story of James’ life as an Olympian and elite athlete and it really tells a warts-and-all account of the ups and downs of trying to be the best in the world. At one point, having won Olympic gold, James writes that:

I believe there’s a gulf mentally between ‘not carrying on’ and ‘giving up’, even if, practically, it amounts to the same thing

This was at the point at which James was married, starting a family, getting older and wondering whether he had the drive to train for another four years to try to get to the Beijing Olympic Games.

In my own little way, I can really relate to that. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am on the same level as someone like Cracknell, but if I commit to lowering my marathon PB, that will involve running eight, nine or even ten times per week. That means spending somewhere in the region of 9 hours a week running, which is only the half of it, because I believe that for every minute actually running, it takes at least one more minute to get ready, wash kit, eat, stretch, travel to training sessions, lay on the sofa eating malt-loaf, etc. That means that it could easily take 20+ hours a week to train for a marathon. That is a big commitment at the best of times, let alone when I am trying to build freestak and do the best possible job for our clients.

I realise that this might sound as though I’m wimping out. And that is part of the problem. For me now, training has started to become something that I don’t really enjoy. I am not sure I really want a PB enough to put myself through what I know it will take to achieve it. That is not to say that I have made a decision one way or another, but I am not sure I have the drive to do all the training.

This is where the other thing that I read comes in. One of my training partners, Steve Tranter (@tranter_ on Twitter) sent me a link to an article in Running Times magazine written by an American runner and journalist called David Aim, who had the opportunity to spend a few days with a group of elite level athletes, during which time he discovers that, to some extent, the different between elite runners and recreational runners is their attitude.

One of the passages that really struck me in the article, was about how, in the desire to record ever better times, we can lose sight of why we run in the first place:

who of us hasn’t considered how our peers will react to our performance in a given race, whether good or bad? And in those moments, whom are we ultimately running for? The sport is difficult enough as it is; doing it for anyone but ourselves makes it unsustainable (David Aim)

I started running to improve my self-esteem, to lose weight, to take control of my life and undo the physical damage that I had been doing to myself since my late-teens with cigarettes, alcohol and general bad-living. I soon discovered that I wanted to see how good I could be. But what I seem to have lost sight of, is that I live in a set of circumstances and what I need to remember is that I am trying to be the best runner I can be in those circumstances.

There is no point comparing myself to anyone else: I have no idea what their circumstances or motivations are. And moreover there is no point in comparing ‘me now’ to ‘me then’ – my circumstances have changed and I should be striving to be the best runner I can be in today’s circumstances.

Now I come to think of it, every time I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to elite athletes they have been the same as those described in the Running Times article – kind, encouraging, helpful, modest. None of them has belittled me or the results I have achieved. I recently met Haile Gebrselassie and he said that my marathon PB was great, for goodness sake! The same cannot be said for many of the non-elite athletes that I train with and associate with.

So I am going to try to develop a mind-set closer to that described by David Aim in his Running Times piece – I am going to try to develop an elite attitude and see where that takes my running. Here are my new rules, courtesy of David and his elite friends:

4 Keys to An Elite Attitude

1 – Don’t treat training runs or race times as indications of your self-worth

2 – Value every runner’s efforts, success and potential

3 – Don’t beat yourself up in training or in evaluating your workouts and racing

4 – Recognize that your running ability is a result of many factors, not just how serious you are or how hard you push

 

The storm is coming

Think back if you will, to the point before your marathon preparation cycle started. Let’s take November last year for example. Whether or not you raced last autumn, it is highly likely that last November you were not training for anything specific. Wasn’t that a lovely time? Blissful in fact. You were running, sure, but it was base building stuff – more steady runs and less sessions. Maybe even skipping a run or two if life or work got in the way.

But now, if you listen carefully, you can hear the rumble of the approaching spring marathon. Coming like a train down the tracks, ever day it is getting closer and closer…

And the training is getting harder and harder.

Welcome to the Twiglet Zone.

As I look around me at my compatriots, my training partners and the people I have contact with through this blog or through social media, the incidences of injury and tiredness are becoming more and more common.

At the track last night, people were missing. Others didn’t manage to finish the session. The recoveries between reps stretched out from 60 seconds initially to 75 seconds.

I have heard from friends who are starting to get over stretched. Little injuries are appearing. General fatigue is setting in.

I’m suffering too. As I write this I am sat on the sofa with my feet up and a cup of tea, like an old man. I felt OK after my track session last night, but a combination of a hard session, a rather restless night and possibly not eating very sensibly after the track last night, left me feeling utterly drained as I went out for my run this morning. I managed the 60 minutes and kept to the pace that I usually manage for those runs, but I felt ragged and there were several very sore spots in my legs – right calf, back of the left knee and both quads. I was in a sorry state!

But I have now got to the point where I realise this is all part of the training. If you want to be the best runner you can be, you have to manage these difficult periods. Training for a marathon involves having injuries treated or resting them for a few days. It involved making sure there is enough food in the house. It requires making sure that you create the environment that will allow you to sleep properly. And most of all, training to run the best marathon you can (or excelling in any sporting endeavor for that matter) requires you to embrace the challenges that come with training hard and the build-up of fatigue that is part and parcel of training week in, week out.

Professional athletes suffer too!

It is tempting when you see the runners at the top of their field, floating along at super-human speeds, to thing that the pros have it easy all the time, but that is far from the truth. Check out Jessica Ennis in this BBC film, at about 4min 25sec talking about the struggle of getting out of bed when the weather is horrible and she feels broken from all the training. Or consider Julia Bleasdale, who I interviewed recently, who told me that

Sometimes when I am really tired and I have a second run to do and the weather is miserable – those runs are very difficult, but of course they can also be the most beneficial.

What the pros know is that when it comes to the day of the race or event, all the hard training will pay off and succeeding will look easy. That is what we have to focus on – the end goal.

So, there is no way to sugar-coat this. If running a marathon was easy, there would be NO POINT DOING IT. We do it because it is hard and because it is a challenge. But in reality the bulk of the challenge is now, not on the day. So get that injury fixed and make sure you have the right stuff and the right environment to train hard and recover. And visualise the moment when you achieve your aim… I promise you: the pain and fatigue you feel now will pale into insignificance on the day. You didn’t really think it would be easy, did you?

The danger of generic – free – training schedules

One of my pet hates is people providing incorrect information or unqualified opinions without bothering to check what they are saying. I’ll give you an example – I know that the new film in the Bourne franchise is due out on DVD on Monday. I strolled in to my local HMV store today and asked one of the shop assistants when they would have it in stock…

Erm, It’s like not out for another three weeks or something – we’ll have it then

Why, if he clearly didn’t know the answer to my question, did he feel the need to tell me something patently not true? And worse, for HMV, he is doing his employer a massive disservice giving people false information that will potentially damage sales. Hrumpf.

But actually I don’t care about HMVs profits and to be frank, if a company employs people who stretch their earlobes and get ironic neck tattoos and think that is a good way to build the business, then they deserve what is coming to them.

What has that got to do with running?

Dis-information is all around us. Take running for example. Anywhere that runners gather, you will likely find someone spouting off about the importance of never stretching or eating your body weight in pasta every day or running around the streets of your city with no shoes on. And the internet only serves to amplify this tendency for some people to say whatever comes into their heads and expect other people to take it as the gospel truth… take free downloadable training plans for example.

A quick search of the world wide web will reveal thousands of ‘free’ marathon training plans that you can download and print out and selotape to your fridge door to guide you through the weeks and months of preparing for a marathon. The problem is that they are – to a greater or lesser degree – wrong. At least they are for you.

What is the problem with free training plans?

This little rant has been inspired by a conversation on twitter that I was involved in a few weeks ago. A contact asked a number of people for a recommendation for a training plan. I suggested a few books that I believe explain the principles of endurance training and provide useful sample training plans and then came the all too familiar response:

Oh I really don’t want to spend any money – I only want free training plans

Now why is that? Perhaps the answer is that the person looking for free plans doesn’t put any value of the years of experience and knowledge that the authors of good training manuals have acquired? Which means – and this is where I get really frustrated – that they don’t put any value on their training OR the end goal they are trying to achieve.

Can it be right that £12.99 and a few hours of reading and studying is more than our intrepid runner is prepared to spend on achieving their goal?

The truth is that generic training plans are never going to be exactly what you need for your training. How can they be? The author has never met you, knows nothing about you and doesn’t even understand the basics of you life and your goals, like whether you work in a manual job or you have three children or you are aiming to break two and a half hours for the marathon.

And I think it is stupid to expect anything useful from a free training plan that you download from a website, after all you would never expect to ask someone for directions without telling them where you are going, how long you have to get there and how you are going to travel, would you?

So what is the answer?

Which brings me back to the start – people, often without malice, will tell you rubbish from time to time. There is no way to avoid that. Worse, some of them will write down what worked for them – or what they would like the world to believe worked for them (“Oh I ran over 100 miles a week every week in training”) – and publish that as a plan for you to follow. You might get lucky – the author of the plan might be exactly like you, with the same time pressures, same biomechanical weaknesses, same unmissable social events on exactly the same days as in your training, same race date, same weather conditions… I think you get my point – but it is likely that anything you download for free won’t be exactly right for you.

What do you do? Well I think that if you are prepared to spend £100 or more on a pair of trainers and much more on a wardrobe of kit, then spend £100s on massage and physio before spending hundreds or sometimes even thousands on race entries, flights and accommodation for your chosen race, you should spend a few quid and some of you precious time working out a training plan that is right for you.

There are some amazing books out there – my favourites include Pfitzinger and Douglas’ Advanced Marathoning and Marathon Running by Richard Nerurkar – and if you read one or more of them you will know how to build a proper training programme that is right for you.

Or you could invest £60 and get half a year’s access to the tailored training plans available through the RunLounge*

The truth is that the best training programme in the world is the one that works for you. If you can manage a speed session, a threshold session, a long run and a couple of other runs each week and increase the duration and intensity of those runs as you build up to you race, you’ll be on track to do well. But beyond that, you must realise that the details of how, what and when you do your training will be unique to you. That isn’t available for free from the internet!

And then…?

And then when you have worked out exactly what you need to get you to the finish line of your key races in the time you want, you can post it on the internet and let people download it for free: you never know, they might be exactly like you!

 

 

 

 

* Disclaimer: I have a vested interest in the RunLounge as I edit and produce much of the content on there. Just so you know.

The value of a target

Like many people, I suppose, I started running to lose weight and keep fit. Somewhere in my cortex was the nagging feeling that I really shouldn’t live such a sedentary life: out of bed, sit down for breakfast, walk to the car or the tube and sit down on my commute to the office… where I sit down for the day and then sit down on my commute home before sitting down for dinner and then on the sofa for a couple of hours before going back to bed. I just instinctively knew that was all wrong.

The difference with training

Have a target

But training for something is different to running to keep fit or running because you feel that you ought to. Training, for me, is about constantly pushing the boundaries of what you are, and what you believe you are, capable of. You don’t need to run six, seven, eight or even nine or ten times a week to keep a promise to your ancestors. You probably should, but you don’t need to.

Once you are into running every day and then twice a day a few days a week, with only the occasional rest day and then adding cross-training or strength and conditioning work on top of that, then you must be training for something: something challenging and motivating and slightly beyond what you have done before. A target.

And this is why I believe that targets are so important

Once you have set yourself a target, then you know what you have to achieve and by when. From that point, it is a matter of working out what you need to do between then and now to achieve your target. There are suggestions for how you should plan the time you have between when you set your target and the date of the target:

  1. don’t increase the amount and intensity of the training you are doing too fast – you’ll just get tired and/or injured
  2. make sure you incorporate rest into your schedule – that includes whole days off and weeks when you drop the mileage and intensity
  3. plan for sore muscles and fatigue by making sure you get a massage from time to time and making sure you can sleep enough
  4. have some flexibility in your schedule to take into account illness or commitments that you weren’t expecting
  5. try to make sure that you have the means to eat well as you ramp up the training

I also think that it is important that the target should be a logical step on from something you have done before. If you’ve run a 10km then target a half-marathon. If you’ve run a half-marathon then target a marathon. If you’ve run any distance, set a target to run it faster. The reason I say this, is that I think it’s important for the target to be challenging, but not feel impossible. I once worked for a chap who used to talk about the portion of our sales target that was “unidentified reach” – which basically meant the sales that we had no idea where we there were going to come from. If the portion of the sales target that was unidentified reach go too big, the stress levels would really rise. So make your target something that you are at least partly confident you can achieve.

Tactics

So what do I do when I have set myself a target. Well it is a combination of the following:

  • get advice from people who have already achieved what you are hoping to achieve – think Felix Baumgartner calling upon Colonel Joe Kittinger for his super-sky dive.
  • surround yourself with positive people who believe in you as much, if not more, than you do.
  • research: read books and watch videos, especially when your fortitude starts to waver.
  • have a store of inspiration – videos, books or music – that really gets you pumped up. This is one of my favourites.
  • break it all down. You don’t need to go and run your marathon PB tomorrow – take each day, each week, each month one at a time and bank each one for when the day comes.
  • be consistent. It is important that you do go for that run today or stretch or do that core session or not get plastered on a Friday night. All of these things will add up to deliver you to you target in great shape.
  • be patient. There are no shortcuts. It will be hard at times and there will be set-backs, but just keep steadfastly plodding along and you’ll get there.
  • visualise the moment when it all pays off. I can’t tell you how many times, in my mind, I ran up the Mall towards the finish line in the 2012 London marathon before I did it on the day. It felt good every time I imagined it. It felt indescribably good when I actually did it!

This, of course, is not gospel. It is only my take on it. But I do believe there are some universal truths in here, the main one being that you cannot blag a marathon – not a good one anyway. So set yourself a target, create a plan, put the right things in place and – as my friend Charlie Dark says – DO DA TING!