Psst! Over here! Want to know one of the secrets behind my personal-best performance in the Dublin Marathon last week?
A 500 ml bottle of water with a teaspoon-tip of sugar and a tiny pinch of salt mixed into it, which I brought with me from the start of the race.
For most runners in a marathon, water isn’t enough. You need to replace the electrolytes (minerals, mostly salts) that you are losing when you sweat. Many runners use sports gels for this.
However, I don’t like gels – because of the taste and also the inconvenience of carrying unnecessary and fiddly things on a run. In the start area of marathons I see runners strapping on elastic waistbands and armbands stocked with what look like tubes of paint; there has to be something simpler than that.
In my first marathon, planning for the possibility of four-hours-plus on the road, I chopped half an energy bar into small pieces that I wrapped in clingfilm and stuffed into my pocket. This did me fine in conjunction with a bottle from every water station, and I finished in under four hours. That said, only if you think you’ll be out a lot longer than four hours do you need to consider bringing food on a marathon.
Since then, I hadn’t been taking sufficient care with electrolytes during marathons. I would bring small glucose tablets with me and sometimes pick up a bottle of a branded isotonic sports drink along the route – altogether a haphazard and unsatisfactory way of doing things. For one thing, the sugar only gives you a temporary lift before causing you to crash. Also, it just wasn’t working; I ran well in Paris in 2012 but faded badly in the Dublin Marathons of 2011 and especially 2012.
So, for the 2013 Dublin Marathon I decided to sort this out.
From the time of my first marathon I’ve made a simple post-run isotonic drink after I come in from a hard training session. The recipe was posted on the Dublin Marathon website back in 2004 – add a little sugar and a tiny pinch of salt (be careful not to use too much salt) to a pint or half litre of water, with a little fruit juice for taste. Stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved, and then sip it gradually rather than downing the whole lot in one. This concoction is basically the same as your colourful branded sports drinks but without the added sugars and gunk.
My plan for the Dublin Marathon was to bring a small bottle of this home-made drink with me from the start, so that I could begin rehydrating gradually before getting thirsty or depleted. I recalled that when I set my then-personal best in the 2007 Paris Marathon I had carried water with me from the start because of the high temperatures forecast. My hunch was that early and timely hydration – with electrolytes – would keep me running strongly for further in the race.
Carrying my own drink from the start would also allow me to skip the jostling and panic around the early water stations in the marathon – I would be able to keep running down the middle of the road without breaking my rhythm.
As with all race-day tactics, I practised this hydration strategy on my long runs. I got a normal 500 ml-sized bottle of water and added the salt and sugar – but not the fruit juice, in case it went off in the heat or upset my stomach during the run. During these long runs I took a small sip every 15 minutes, so that one bottle would last me just enough for the duration of the run.
Ahead of the marathon, I had a dry run (as it were) in the Dublin Half Marathon, and everything went fine. Running past the water stations without stopping felt strange at first, but that feeling quickly gave way to a sense of freedom at not having my run interrupted. Whether from the special drink or the quality of my training, or the two combined, I ran in for a personal best.
My marathon plan was to have my first sip after 15 minutes as usual and after that to have a sip at every mile marker, which would be every 8 minutes according to my target pace. This would get me past halfway. From then on I would take water from the less-crowded stations at mile 15 and every three miles after that – or perhaps even one of those big-name isotonic drinks.
And for once in a marathon, everything went to plan – despite having picked up a stomach bug in week before the race. (Stomach upsets often bring about dehydration.)
Self-sufficient with my own supply, I glided past the early water stations in blissful disinterest. At mile 12 the entire field parted dramatically like the Red Sea to rush left or right in the hunt for bottles, leaving me alone in the middle of the road. My own bottle got me exactly to halfway, and from there on I sampled the wares of the water stations.
At mile 18, just after the Milltown viaduct and up the hill, I decided to take an orange-flavoured sports drink. Perhaps I craved variety or the treat of some tangy orange. In fact, it was a risk – my doctor had advised me to avoid fruit juices for fear of inflaming my sick stomach. Thankfully the big-brand sports drink didn’t have any ill effects – not that I doubt the orange-flavoured sports drink didn’t have natural ingredients or anything. No siree!
I kept up a strong pace for the whole marathon, even when things got tough near the end – and not once did I feel thirsty or dehydrated. So, you’ll be sickened to learn that this is a heartwarming and uplifting tale of learning from one’s mistakes in order to change for the better.
This worked for me but it might not necessarily work for you. As always, take responsibility for your training methods and for what you eat and drink, and test everything well before race day. Talk to your doctor.
You’re welcome to try out this home-made isotonic drink for yourself. In return, all I ask is that you have the good grace not to beat me in the marathon.