Improve your marathon time!

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.

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23 Responses to Improve your marathon time!

  1. Great post with a lot of sound advice. With your permission I’d like to re-blog this today. Getting advice from medical professionals and experienced runners is something we all should do on occasion.
    Andy

    • Run and Jump says:

      Thanks – feel free to re-blog, including a link to my blog.

      I suspect that too many marathon runners aren’t asking for basic advice – perhaps it’s due to the solitary nature of training, or else just stubbornness 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Imarunnerandsocanyou and commented:
    With permission of the author, I am re-blogging this post about Marathon training. I think we all know these things but hopefully reading this will help you take action and take care of your self. I’m as guilty as anyone else! I do have a PT appointment on my calendar, 2 years after my last one!

    • Run and Jump says:

      Thanks for that – I’ve linked to your blog and there’s plenty of interesting stuff there!

      • I need to figure out how to “link”. I see my site is now listed on your list of links. Do I need to pick a different blog style, or am I missing the process to add links?

      • Run and Jump says:

        First step: add the Links section – in the Dashboard go to Appearance in the left menu and select ‘Widgets’. One of them is called ‘Links’ – drag it over to a widget area on the right and it’ll appear on your site.

        Second step: add links – in Dashboard go to Links and then add new links.

  3. bollychees says:

    Hoping that some of your tips will help as I need to cut a good 20min off my PB to make a BQ timing… Thanks for sharing!

  4. John says:

    Great advice.

  5. Ray says:

    More miles, and more training days 🙂
    BUT, most of those miles to be done at an easy pace. You started each run not fully recovered from the last run, which wore you down, and your solution was to have bigger breaks between runs. Another solution is to make each run easier, so you don’t need a bigger break to recover.

    • Run and Jump says:

      You’d love there to be more than seven days in a week, right? 🙂

      I agree that you need to recover before your next run, but I’m not sure that simply slowing down every run is the answer. For instance, a 15 mile run at a relaxed pace will be tiring and require recovery time. And I find that a more effective recovery, physically and mentally, is simply getting off your feet.

      Also, it depends on your objectives. If you’re aiming for a certain time then you may have to throw in speed sessions and fartleks – and by definition they have to be hard. But if you’ve got tips for easy 400m intervals then let me know!

      • Ray says:

        15 miles is too far for a recovery run. But if you kept your current five runs a week, and on the other two days ran for 30/40 minutes at a very slow pace (20/25% slower than your marathon pace), you’d be back closer to 50 mpw than 40, and you’d have no extra fatigue.
        What’s your training plan and target for DCM?

      • Run and Jump says:

        Well, my point in the blog post is that I’ve had better marathon results and recovery with the 40 miles/5 days per week than with the 50+ miles/6 days, so I’ve found something that works for me!

        My weekly training for Dublin is one long run, one speed workout on the track (usually 400m intervals) and three other runs of around 6 miles – the distances and intensity will increase gradually and then I’ll start winding down. Not forgetting the two days I rest up 🙂 What’s yours like?

      • Ray says:

        Not running the marathon this year, just the Dublin half.
        Training is generally 1x Long run (about 25k), 1 x medium long run (16k) 1/2 recovery runs (6-8k), 2/3 easy runs (about 10k,sometimes with strides at the end),and most weeks something faster – intervals, tempo runs, or a short race…
        (all my training for the last couple of years is online http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=2056084511 )

        My point is that you could (should) make a clear distinction between harder runs and easier runs. Your long run and your speed sessions are going to be hard, there’s no way around it. But if you take your other runs easier you can do more of them, and the more runs/miles you can do the more you will improve. Your running economy and aerobic capacity will improve with your training volume. The trick is to do that while still recovering for your harder sessions, which is the problem you ran up against.

      • Run and Jump says:

        Yes, my long run is a good bit slower than my race-day pace, two of my three other runs are at race-day pace and my 400m intervals are near the Olympic ‘A’ standard, where ‘A’ stands for ‘Absolutely no chance’ 🙂

      • Ray says:

        oh, and even if you stick to your 5 days a week, it’s probably not a good idea to do 400m intervals so often. It just trains you to do 400m intervals 🙂 Longer intervals and tempo runs would be more effective for marathon training.

      • Run and Jump says:

        You’ll find plenty of experienced marathon runners who’ll disagree with you there!

      • Ray says:

        The two runs a week at race pace is what jumps out at me. In the Pfitzinger & Douglas marathon plan I followed last year, the only race pace running was as part of the long run (and that only every 2/3 weeks). There were some shorter, faster runs, but most miles were covered at slower than marathon pace. Jack Daniels has most runs at easy pace in his plans http://www.coacheseducation.com/endur/jack-daniels-aug-00.htm and Hadd also says you should build up the slow miles to improve your lactate threshold http://www.angio.net/personal/run/hadd.pdf
        Are you following a particular training plan in running at race pace, or is it just that pace feels natural?

      • Run and Jump says:

        Not from any plan – it just came naturally like that and I enjoy them. They are shorter runs and I recover quickly after them.

  6. Great advice! I recently cut my mileage down for my last marathon and had good results. Best of all I stayed injury free. I ran Dublin Marathon in 2009. Still one of my favorite races!

    • Run and Jump says:

      Glad to hear it! And Dublin is definitely an enjoyable marathon experience – I’ll be doing it for the third time this year. Make sure you come back and run it again!

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