Marathons were never for me. I genuinely didn’t love running so couldn’t fathom training through winter with not much more than a fitness tracker as company. I was also much like the 75% of women who, according to Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, want to be more active but are put off by a fear of not being fit enough. You see, with my job title there’s an expectation from peers and followers to be seriously fit, and in marathon terms that often means running a sub 4-hour marathon.
So, what changed? And how did I go from running 5KM in just shy of 30-minutes to running 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 57 minutes?
For starters, I signed up and decided there and then not to obsess about a time. I wanted to run for the joy that’s in it, but also have first-hand experience of marathon training and understand what conquering the marathon distance does to your body. Here at WH, we’d never suggest, nor cover topics, that we wouldn’t do ourselves, so London Marathon 2018 was my chance to experience what so many of you are keen to try.
My sub 4-hour marathon strategy (or lack of one)
I never set out to run a sub 4-hour marathon and in fact, I didn’t train for a specific time. Instead, I used marathon training to learn how to become a better runner and in doing so, quickly picked up pace.
I knew the fastest way to
dislike hate marathon training would be to suffer from DOMS. Especially, on Monday mornings (the day after a long run) when everything is already that bit harder. But, muscle soreness is less likely when your body and ego are on the same side; you set your pace by your legs, not your watch and you commit to more than just running.
For 20-weeks I followed a balanced programme of speed work, progressive sessions, long runs and strength workouts. Sounding intense? Well, I ran no more than four times a week and never doubled up on workouts.
In the week, I trained either at lunchtimes (speed session) or after work. At the weekends, I kept my wake-up time the same as a normal working day and got my runs done, while the rest of my house had a lie-in.
It wasn’t a walk in the park but it wasn’t hideous either. Of course, as the runs tipped over into the ‘long run’ category there was times when I got frustrated (everyone else was brunching, I was running) but I got smart with my strategy: set off early and arrange to meet my boyfriend for lunch somewhere 13+ miles away.
I didn’t suffer from injury and I didn’t have to take the lift because, ouch, legs.
Read on for exactly how I tackled sub 4-hour marathon training.
Strength training for runners
I’m no stranger to strength work and spent much of last year re-building my body after one too many HIIT workouts. That said, I hadn’t considered why I’d need weight training more than ever during marathon training. 'Running freely without injury and pain requires reciprocal alternating movement,' says Luke Worthington, head of trainer education at Third Space. 'Everyday life often does not promote this kind of activity and can lead to imbalances and asymmetry.'
Due to the repetitive nature of running, marathon training will often highlight imbalances in the body. And, as Worthington points out, it’s these imbalances that can cause you to come a cropper even before the start line: 'Asymmetry is not really a problem for regular activity levels, but the increase in training volume required for a marathon attempt, not to mention the event itself, means that small movement deviations become large ones, and injury risk is extrapolated.'
So, what did I do? Well, first off, I didn’t try to do everything at once: in the early months, I trained to move well; in the later months, I trained to move more.
Worthington, my strength coach, prescribed simple, yet effective, exercises for reciprocal gait. What that means is, rather than being OK with my right leg not moving in the same way as my left, I worked on creating a more balanced stride. I wouldn’t squat with bad form so why would I run with it?
From there on in, I diligently worked through a variety of resistance and balancing movements (you can access the best strength-training exercises here). I also never skipped mobility work or pre-run glute activation.
If before, I saw these pre-warmup warmups as a bit of a chore, during this first month of marathon training when I had not one ache nor pain, that changed. Even today, I can’t recall a time that I needed to take the lift because of DOMS.
As Worthington explained to me, running is essentially a series of hops from one foot to the other, propelling your bodyweight forwards for approximately 55,000 strides. To do so, you require significant lower body and core strength.
Lower body strength
I progressed onto staple compound strength movements of squats, single-leg deadlifts, presses and pull ups. All in the low rep, high load ranges. 'A marathon consists of 55,000 reps and a weights set of 20-25 reps is simply not going to build the muscular endurance needed,' Worthington explains. 'The low weights required to complete such a set are not going to elicit an increase in strength. You’re better off using the weight room to get strong, and build up the endurance out on the road.'
Plus, only doing sets of 3-5 reps per exercise kept the set time short enough to minimise hypertrophy gains – great news as getting stronger not bigger was my goal. It also allowed me the time to register how my body felt doing the exercise. Again, this is key to moving well, repeatedly.
Aka the secret to managing your body when fatigued – your legs may be what carry you forward but it’s your core that keeps you upright.
'There’s more to your core than abs so training only one set of muscles without the others can create more problems than it fixes,' says Worthington. 'Integrating core stability into running specific movements preps the body for how you move during a marathon.'
Read: Are there any benefits of running in the cold?
This train of thought, or exercise prescription, comes from Worthington’s background in Postural Restoration; a US derived method that recognises that the whole body is connected: 'It’s about understanding that anything we do has a consequence to everything else.'
Cut to deadbugs, single-leg bridge exercises and standing glute activations before every run. These small, but precise movements – combined with an awareness of deep breathing and keeping my ribs down –are what kept me from ‘runners hunch’ on the home straight.
Now strong and stable it was time to get powerful.
'Yes, the marathon is an endurance event, but giving you that Mo Farah-esque change of gears in the final straight can be a game changer,' Worthington told me.
In practice, or training I should say, I spent part of my twice-weekly sessions working through more ballistic athletic based movements. This included plyometrics, medicine ball throws, box jumps and kettlebell swings.
'Our focus in this phase was to train the nervous system to fire more motor units when we need them (you can’t jump slowly!).'
And it worked. With 200 yards to go on marathon day I thought back to activating my glutes to explode upwards in seated box jumps. On The Mall, I tried my hardest to replicate this as I sprinted after a runner dressed as the poo emoji to the finish line.
Of course, you’re never going to run a marathon safely without weeks of running beforehand. And gentle jogging that increased week on week wasn’t going to cut it, so I found out. 'To really see results you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and continuously challenge your body,' shares Rebecca Gentry, Nike+ Run Club Coach and Equinox Group Fitness Trainer. My comfortable is very different to your comfortable, but this is where checking in with your body, not just your tracker, really can work.
Let me explain. In the beginning I used rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to gauge the intensity of my runs. This allowed me to push a bit harder when it felt right during speed work, or pull back if mid-way through a long run I was registering 8+ (the pace that I couldn’t hold a conversation at).
In the early weeks, I ignored pace entirely. I was much more concerned about tackling the distance and noting thirst and hunger queues. But when I got home, I would check my splits – and, crucially, learn from them. For example, I noticed that generally around seven miles I would slow and by eight I’d be running a minute slower. I decided to trial fuelling at five rather than six miles – and it worked. My minute miles no longer dropped and I went back to steady pacing.
To get fitter, faster and used to running through increased lactic acid production, speed work is key. Not only does it break up the monotony of easy-pace miles, but it helps improve your VO2 max.
Example speed session:
Warm up 1km easy pace (start walking and ease into around 9/10 kph or 6 mph)
12x 200m intervals @12 kph / 7.4 mph with 0.2kph/ 0.1 mph increases every interval
1 minute recovery between every interval at fast walk to slow run pace
Cool down 1km super easy run decreasing to walk
'Progressive longer runs increase speed for the ‘middle’ section of the run before decreasing back down to that marathon pace to finish off the run,' says Gentry. 'They push you out of your comfort zone during a long run, and over time those middle sections get faster.'
For me, they gave me insight into how different speeds felt for my body and after a few weeks of training I barely looked at my pace because I knew if I was pushing hard enough.
Example 16Km progressive run:
6km @ easy pace
6km @ long run pace
4km at easy pace
By the end of January, I was a fully fledge member of Sunday Runday. Each week my mileage increased by 10% peaking at 20-miles. I never ran further than this, although, I did run it twice because with 6-weeks to go I was feeling anxious. I to know that I could get through 20-miles and still feel like I had some energy left in the tank.
As recovery runs are performed entirely in a fatigued state, it’s thought they boost fitness despite. While the evidence for this is still thin on the ground, I actually found comfort in getting moving again after long runs.
Tracking my heart rate
The last piece of my sub 4-hour marathon puzzle comes from the heart, literally. With one month to go until M Day I booked into Surrey University. Here, I tested my lactate threshold, or the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed – this is important for ensuring I didn’t hit the dreaded wall.
The results showed I could run at around 159BPM before this happened. Theoretically if I didn’t excess this then I would be running at the fastest pace by body could handle.
Keen to better understand your body? You can book VO2 and lactate threshold tests for yourself.
On the advice of Dr Adam Collins, MSc Nutrition at the University of Surrey and expert for Form Nutrition, I began ‘carb loading’ 48 hours before the race.
During this time, I decreased my protein and increased the rice, pasta and sweet potato on my plate to represent around half of my meal.
The day before the marathon I also ate an extra high-carb snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and a protein shake before bed.
Running a sub 4-hour marathon time without obsessing about it
Running a marathon is a real accomplishment and nothing beats crossing the line. The sense of achievement is hard to put into words. As is the overwhelming human spirit that you soak up on the route. However, if chasing a sub 4-hour marathon is your goal for 2019 then consider this: I moved fast because I moved well and to move well I had to listen to my body.
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