I ran the 2011 Dublin Marathon, my fourth marathon, in 3:44.30. Six months later I ran my next race, the 2012 Paris Marathon, in 3:32.10. Here’s how I took 12 minutes off my marathon time thanks to 5 changes I made to my training, in no particular order:
1. Go to a sports physio for a check-up: The Dublin Marathon took its toll on me – my legs were still heavy and stiff six weeks later, and I had an occasional jabbing pain in my right knee. At first I was reluctant to see a sports physio, fearing I’d be told to stop running, and thinking that I could run it off or toughen it out. Fortunately, I saw sense before I did any serious damage to myself.
Simply by not going “Aha! There’s your problem!” when I told her I was a marathon runner, the physio won me over. She gave my creaking legs a thorough examination and studied my action and impact when I walked. She also did some fixing on my troublesome knee – basically knocking it back into shape. And she gave me plenty of good advice about doing squats to build up core strength so as to ease the burden on the legs.
Just as you go to a doctor for a check-up before you launch into marathon training, seeing the physio is also good preparation. In an ideal world a physio’s cert would be as compulsory as the medical cert is for some races. The medical cert should be compulsory for all marathons too, but that’s another story.
(I went to Total Physio in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin and I highly recommend them. Other sports physios exist and you should check out your nearest one.)
2. Cut back on training mileage per week: Or ‘kilometrage’ if you prefer. For Dublin 2011 I was getting up to 52 or 54 miles a week. I cut this back by at least 10 miles when training for Paris 2012 – 42 miles on the four ‘peak’ weeks in my schedule and 30 to 36 on the other weeks. The long runs stayed the same length but I scaled down the shorter midweek runs and the speed sessions. Result? On race day I had plenty of long running in my legs but still enough gas in the tank to see me to the finish.
The physio had also told me that I could improve my marathon time by cutting back on my weekly mileage. From now on I shall be consulting my physio on all major life decisions – career changes, holiday destinations, what tie goes with what shirt, that sort of thing.
Cutting back the mileage goes hand in hand with the next tip…
3. Cut back on training days per week: I trained six days a week for Dublin 2012, hence the 50-plus mileage. Bringing it down to five days a week, along with the shorter midweek distances, had the obvious benefit of giving me more rest and recovery, and therefore more running in the long-term.
Rather than getting lazy, I’d be chomping at the bit to get out running again – the extra day off did wonders for my physical and mental energy.
Overtraining, whether by too many training miles or too many training days, accounts for many of those bodies you see slamming into The Wall on race day. (Other bodies may have been victims of mid-race prawns and wine, though that’s specific to the Paris Marathon.)
4. Rest up properly: There’s an understandable feeling that marathon training involves as much running as possible. In fact, allowing your body to recover is just as important as clocking up those miles. You probably have a day job or family life which demands much of your energy too. And resting means resting, not spending the time on your feet by hiking or shopping or entering an Irish dance competition.
You’ll have to learn how to distinguish between the inner voice of shirking (“Ah, don’t fancy it tonight”), the inner voice of panic-fuelled bravado (“Ah, only 12 weeks to go and I ought to be doing 20 uphill miles tonight despite the leg hanging off”) and the inner voice of common sense (“Ah, there’s that knitting-needle jab in the knee again – better rest it up and bring it to the physio”). This isn’t easy, and I know that I’ve dragged myself out on nights where I ran while worn out and simply tore through the gears. This was counter-productive.
The advantage of having two nights off per week is that I can re-schedule my run if needs be – if tonight I’ve a slight injury I’ll rest up and go out tomorrow instead. But just in case this sounds like a dosser’s charter, I still have to hit my target of days and miles per week. And rain is never a reason for postponing a run.
A tip for thinking positively about your resting-up: instead of recording your non-running nights in your training planner with a zero or a dash, simply write in ‘rest’ or ‘recovery’. This will reinforce the idea that your recovery plays an active and productive part in your training, and is not just an absence of running.
5. Get advice on running posture: Even if you’re sceptical about the mystical sound of Chi Running, an experienced and competent athlete or coach can give you valuable feedback on how you run. We all run in our own style, but some slight adjustments can make a huge difference to your performance and comfort.
I was fortunate to have Irish athletics legend Catherina McKiernan as a Chi Running instructor when I attended a course earlier this year – she talked us through various points of our running posture and impact, then showed us routines to help build up core strength, eliminate tension and correct potentially damaging habits such as heel-striking. (My physio had also stressed the importance of core strength and avoiding a heavy heel strike – so I was reassured to hear the same advice from a top-class athlete.) Since then, combined with my lighter training schedule, I’ve had none of my previous training or recovery problems.
If you don’t have a Chi Running course or former Olympian in your neighbourhood, then simply chat with a local athletics coach or an experienced runner. Remember that it’s always good to have a second opinion so that you can compare advice and find something that’s realistic for your objectives and current fitness. Mister Back-In-My-Day-We-Did-100-Mile-Fartleks-For-Breakfast might mean well but he isn’t necessarily right.
So, that’s how I improved my time in my last marathon, and hopefully these changes will help me go even quicker in this year’s Dublin Marathon. If you have similar training tips of your own, feel free to leave them in the comments below.