(The Gear Loop) - Have you ever flirted with the idea of running a marathon? Those 26.2 miles seem so achievable yet out-of-reach, so easy to gauge when in a car or on a bike, but daunting when out under your own steam.
Don't worry, you are not alone. Plenty of keen runners have toyed with the idea of running a marathon but haven’t ever gone the whole nine yards - or 42.195 kilometres, to be exact. With tales of hitting "the wall" and hands-and-knees crawls to the finish line, it’s not hard to see why so many people see a marathon as the challenge to end all challenges.
But that’s where professional help comes to the rescue. We’ve been speaking to Nick Anderson, head coach at Saucony, England Athletics flying coach and manager of GB running squads for his tips and advice on nailing that marathon challenge. Having coached beginners, right the way through to Olympic level athletes, Nick knows the ins and outs of how to prepare, manage and tackle your training.
So if you’ve ever thought of trying to power through a marathon, read on - Nick’s got everything you need to know about running this elusive distance.
Where to start?
Knowing how to go about the business of training can be one of the trickiest parts of the pre-marathon business. But according to Nick, it’s about dividing up the types of runs you’re doing.
"We suggest you do three runs a week. One as a long run, which gradually gets longer the closer you get to race day, one is an easier run that you do before breakfast, which might be 30 to 35-minutes long, and the final run should be the chance to really push yourself - something we call 'threshold running'. Rather than absolutely beasting yourself, you should be working in the top end of your aerobic zone, do this and you’ll see the strength of the heart really improving and that makes the long runs feel easier. Three runs a week is enough, it really is."
You need to make sure that your easy runs really are just that - easy. "We call it 'the speed of chat'", says Nick, meaning that you should be able to hold a conversation while you run.
Build up the distance
"If you’ve got sixteen weeks before you first marathon, for instance, your first three or four weeks are going to be building up to your first 5K. That could be very achievable if you do a lot of walk/running - as simple as a minute of very gentle jogging and before you get out of breath you switch it to brisk walking."
Don’t be tempted to go out there and smash PBs right away, this is all about steady progression, according to Nick. "Really, you need to be super, super patient. You don’t need to do too much, too soon and then - because you think you can - going out and beasting yourself and doing two hours when your last long run was an hour".
Nick points out that if you were to do a marathon with a minute of brisk walking and a minute of running at a time, you’d still finish in under six hours. "People have this misconception that you should be running the whole way and then staggering in, but walk/running can really work," he says.
Don’t forget the extra curricular activity
Remember that other activities can have a positive influence on your running progress. "Yoga and pilates are always a big tick," says Nick, adding that "your heart doesn’t know the difference between going for a run and doing other cardiovascular work". So head out for a swim, squeeze in a ride on the bike or even use the cross trainer for a few sessions a week to boost your CV ability when you’re out running. Again, it’s a "little and often" approach that seems to be the best angle of attack here.
Get the right kit
In the cycling world, there can be a little bit of obsession over kit. Is it the same with running? Perhaps not quite as much, but having the right equipment will make running more enjoyable and improve your recovery speeds, too. However, it all starts with the feet.
"The first thing to do is to get a gait analysis," says Nick, adding that it’s "a little bit like a really good bike fit". "Ideally you should run on a treadmill while someone records your feet to see how your foot plant is working and what the rest of your body is doing. From that, the trained eye will advise on the right shoes". A good pair of running shoes will offer the right sort of support for various running gaits, from perfect front foot strikers, to mid and even heel strikers.
After you’ve got that pair of perfectly fitting runners, it’s all about "good quality socks that breathe and are anatomically fitted to the foot," Nick says. After that shorts, good running underwear and tops that are comfortable over logn distances are important. If something doesn't feel right after a few miles, it's going to feel horrible at the 15-mile mark.
Don’t neglect rest
Though it can be pretty easy to get focused on mileage, timings and how quickly you’re running, ensuring that you’ve got a proper process for recuperation after your runs is vital.
The key to that, says Nick, is to keep moving - even walking the dog. "It’s that process of moving that is helping to keep things circulating," he says. "A weekly massage - or treating yourself to a massage gun - all of these things work".
However, one of the greatest tools in your aftercare arsenal is sleep. "It doesn’t have to be eight hours, but if it’s of reasonable quality, despite being in a shorter amount of time, then you’re recovering," he says.
So put the phone down, switch the lights off and get some decent shuteye in. Your legs will thank you for it.
But, of course, nutrition is paramount too. "After a run, the first thing to do after you come through the door is to have a recovery drink made up," says Nick. "Take this onboard while you’re stretching and while you’re doing some recovery work".
Nick says that if you don’t fuel up straight after a run, you’ll miss a window when your body is most receptive to nutrients. Even though it might be tempting to head straight for the sofa after a big run, you’re much better off doing some stretching while having a post-run recovery meal or drink.
The final push
You’ve been training for weeks, nailing regular runs and eating right. You’ve been sleeping right, too, while carrying out cycling and core strength work on the side.
It means that the big day is on the horizon, so how should you tailor your training as you approach the marathon? "About three weeks before the race should be your longest 'long' run. I wouldn’t - and this is always controversial - go any longer than three hours.
"That’s a leap of faith, of course, because if you’re going to take five hours or more to do a marathon then it might mean that your longest run has only been 16 to 20 miles, but that’s okay because you’ve been training well."
But Nick says that after that three-week point - while your longer runs become gradually shorter - the rest of your training can stay the same.
That’s until around 10 days to a week out, where it’s best to bring that intensity down and allow your body time to recuperate. The final few days should be spent relaxing, stretching, eating right and sleeping correctly.
It’s also a good opportunity to get mentally prepared - and create a "protective bubble", as Nick calls it - that you can draw on when you’re getting through the toughest parts of the marathon.
Is "the wall" real?
We’ve all seen it depicted in countless films, books and magazines, but is that brain-created bricks-and-mortar something we should be worried about?
Well, if you set off a little too hot, then Nick says that it could be. "I think people can start off too fast, so they burn out their carbohydrate reserves and then they just can’t sustain it. They’ve also burnt through their energy reserves and gels just won’t get them through. You can hit the wall in that sense."
But - as with much of this entire process - the key is to be patient. "Whatever happens, the marathon begins at 18, 19, or 20 miles," says Nick. "Perhaps in the last six miles, you dedicate each mile to someone special and then there’s a form of motivation that you can draw upon. You’re enjoying the crowd around you, too. You’ve got to remember your best long runs and why you entered the marathon."
Believe in yourself
A little bit of self-belief can go a long way in this business and backing yourself to finish the marathon is one of Nick’s final - and most impactful - comments. "You’ve got to tell yourself that you’re going to do it and it’s going to be good. And you will, because tens and tens of thousands of people do it every year, even those that are new to running. It’s totally achievable but it is tough - that’s why it’s the marathon".