Training for a Marathon - Performance Training Academy

With the London Marathon upon us this weekend, it has inspired me to write a quick article to highlight the hard work, training, and dedication that these competitors would have put in over the course of the last few months. I think it is important to acknowledge not just the achievement that these individuals will experience on Sunday, but the sweat, determination and probably sometimes tears that they will have all gone through to get to this point.

Some individuals will have achieved this on their own, others with friends or family members and I hope a lot would have utilised the knowledge and experience of good coaches and good Personal Trainers. Training for an event like this is no easy feat. I often help individuals to realise that it is not just the event itself that is hard, but it is the hours and discipline that needs to be implemented around your busy lifestyle in the first instance that can be the real test on both body and mind.

It should also be said that it is not only the 26.2 miles of the marathon that is being acknowledged in this article, it is for those that have trained from nothing to be able to achieve 5km, 10km, half marathons and so on, no matter what your level or ability, you have all had to put in similar amounts of discipline and effort.

So how do you go about training for a marathon? It is not just a case of taking yourself out for a steady pace run twice a week. It should be a structured training regime, generally consisting of building up long distance runs, interval training, tempo runs and weight training.

Lets first address the latter, why would you need to embed weight training into your weekly routine when your overall goal is to be able to run 26.2 miles?? The fact is the stronger you can make your muscles, joints and core, the better your body will be at running further, faster and more efficiently. Your body will have to endure massive stresses with each stride, especially in the later stages when energy levels deplete and fatigue sets in. The stronger you are the better you can cope with this and you will have less chance of picking up an injury.

The weight training should obviously be specific, it is pointless planning in bicep curls and tricep kickbacks, it should include squats, lunges, planks, hyper extensions, standing presses, press ups, clean and presses and so much more. A variety of large functional movements, covering the whole range of muscle groups at least two times per week should be a minimum. Weight training can often be overlooked when it comes to endurance training, but it is actually important. It is vital to becoming stronger as a whole, a stronger core will eliminate back pain and will improve your running posture, causing less fatigue and more bio-mechanical efficiency. You will feel these benefits physically, it will make you feel like you are incorporating a better, stronger stride length, feeling like you are gliding instead of plodding and dragging you body as it sometimes feels.

I can relate personally to this, if you have read my blog on ‘Reversibility’ (link at the end of this article), I felt this exact way once I tried to get back into running. I felt sluggish, heavy and like I was running through treacle. Whilst before, my technique felt a lot more effortless, more powerful and easier on my body. This was all down to a weaker core, and weaker muscles.

So to benefit your running, and to ensure you can cope with the extreme demands, lift weights accordingly.

Interval training is also very necessary to incorporate into your weekly training programme. The idea behind interval training is to utilise the higher energy systems and the faster twitch, more explosive muscle fibres. The energy systems being the Anaerobic Zone – 80-90% of MHR and the Performance Zone – 90-100% of MHR. By applying at least one interval session into your weekly training plan, you will feel the following benefits:
  • Utilising the more explosive muscle fibres and running at faster intensities, will result in your pace per mile to slowly increase. For example, by implementing interval training your average long distance aerobic zone pace may be at 10 minute miles, this will in time get quicker to 9 minute miles, 8 1/2 minute miles and so on. On a treadmill for example, if your steady pace run is at 10km per hour, this will slowly feel too easy and you will have to increase this to match your bodies improved ability, so in time this pace will increase to 11k  per hour, 12km per hour ….
  • High intensity running will require a more powerful muscle contraction, this will also increase you pace and running bio-mechanics as your muscles get stronger.
  • When sprinting you will also require more oxygen to help the body recover on the rest intervals, this will in time force the body to lay down more capillaries within the body to increase the ability of distributing oxygen and removing waste products.
  • Lastly it will also raise you bodies metabolic rate, especially at rest, so you will be burning off more body fat as a whole. The lighter you are, the easier the run.
  • Essentially your fitness levels will increase massively.

These are just a few benefits in a nutshell, incorporate this training into your weekly plan if you haven’t already and see how quickly you feel the results.  Ideas for this can be found on another of my blogs at the end of this article ‘HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training’.

In terms of the long distance, Aerobic Zone (70-80% MHR) training,  this should be periodised effectively to match your timescale and ability. For example you do not want to be 3 weeks away from a full marathon with a maximum achieved distance only being 10 miles. It should be periodised so that you are building up your mileage week by week. Ie. at week 6 your target distance may be 8 miles, week 8 may be 10 miles. I always say to clients who are participating their first long distance event to not worry about running the full distance prior to the event. I think it is good to leave this achievement to the event itself. If you are within 15-20% of this distance, i.e. 23 miles as you max run before ethe event, you will have the strength, fitness and mindset to active the last few miles on the day.

The long distance training can be the hardest of all. Even though the intensity levels in theory are massively reduced, it can be harder on the mind. Whereas a weight session, interval session and even a tempo run can be done in under an hour, a fifteen mile steady pace run can be a good few hours out of your day, boredom can set in and if not fuelled properly, the body can fatigue and result in non completion of the planned session.

Always think about fuelling your body with the appropriate nutritional intake, stack up the iPod with good tunes and run a variety of routes to keep the mind strong and the body challenged, keep focused.

Lastly, Tempo runs. These are a great way to enhance your performance in the build up to a run. It is effectively a short distance of 5km – 10km (3-6ish miles) as fast as you can. At the end of the run you should be exhausted.

To do this you can not run it at your steady long distance pace. Ensure that you are running slightly in the Anaerobic Zone, slightly above OBLA (Onset of Blood Lactate Accumlumaltion). This will mean running slightly above 80% of MHR, where you feel the Lactic Acid building in the body and that you are pretty much out of breath for the duration of the run. It is hard, it can be testing on the mind and body, but it gives you great results.

It improves your overall running pace, it improves your bodies tolerance to lactic acid and it enables it to flush it out more effectively. It is also great on your time. A hard, exhausting, relevant training session in under an hour, compared to a long distance run of 19 miles over a few hours for example.

Obviously training for a marathon or any endurance event needs to be tailored and specific to the individual. This example is therefore fairly generic, but it shows what I believe works for most:
  • 2 – 3 Functional weight training sessions, enforcing overload, and implementing minimum rest between sets.
  • 1 – 2 HIIT sessions, periodising on different energy systems and different methods from Performance Intervals to Aerobic Intervals
  • 1 Tempo Run
  • 1 Steady Pace Long Distance Run. Periodised so that the mileage is going up every week or every two weeks.

I think it is fair to say that anyone who goes into an endurance event, and who trains in this manner should be showed much respect. It is hard work, it will involve a lot of lonely times, running on a drizzly sunday afternoon when you are trying to complete a 19 mile run, it is challenging to both body and mind.

All this and I haven’t even touched much upon the necessity of strict nutrition to fuel the body with Glycogen for energy and the importance of Protein to prevent muscle wastage, and fuelling for the long runs and event itself. It is a massive topic, if you have enlisted the help of a coach or trainer this should all have been planned with you. Ensure you  fuel your body and drink the fluid to prevent dehydration, lack of this will result in ‘Hitting The Wall’.

So when you see the participants on Sunday, completing this event. Maybe you are completing it yourself or know somebody who is. Let’s not just applaud them for the achievement of participating but definitely for the dedication, hard work and discipline that has got them to the starting line in the first place. Respect to you all!

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