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It’s taken me 9 marathons to properly crack the code, so I
thought I’d try to reflect on what has helped me to finally become a reasonable marathon runner (although I hope there is
still more to come).
Here’s the story so far...
Chester 2010 –
4:50:16 ... total nightmare – not well, should not have run.
Chester 2011 –
3:32:43 ... got cocky at 14, slowed at 20, crashed at 23.
Abingdon 2013 –
3:38:15 ... got cocky at 23, hit the wall at 24.
London 2014 – 3:37:35
... bit too fast in first miles, tried to compensate, slowed at 20, crashed at
Nottingham 2014 –
3:35:10 ... steady metronomic pace, slowed at 19, crashed at 23.
Dublin 2014 – 3:39:10
... deliberately slower pace, tough course/conditions but finished OK.
Abingdon 2016 –
3:31:02 ... slowed after 23 but didn’t crash.
London 2017 – 3:30:14
... even pace, tough final 4 miles but no crash!
Chester 2017 –
3:22:56 ... even pace, tough race but I was strong at end.
So, I was 7 minutes faster at Chester 2017 compared with 6
months earlier in London! I was also 10 min faster than at Chester 2011 – a
period in time when I set my current 5K, 10K 10M and HM PBs. So I am not any faster
now than 6 years ago... but I am much better at marathon running! And I did this on a plan that
averaged only 35 miles running per week. How? Well I think it’s down to the
spend most of my time carb-depleted and am weight-stable. I generally
avoid starch/sugars and prefer to eat meals based on protein, fibre and fat.
This reduces carb-dependence, up-regulates fat-burning metabolic pathways and
also makes me feel considerably less hungry – I have been weight-stable for 2
years without worrying about calories.
runs were always done in a carb-depleted state. I don’t mean just
skipping breakfast, which just means the liver is glycogen depleted, but also
ensuring that muscle glycogen levels are low too. So, I would run parkrun full
tilt on a Saturday, to burn off stored muscle glycogen, and then consume no
carbs between then and my Sunday morning long run (to avoid refilling the
muscle and liver glycogen stores). This really forces the body to run on fat. If
you haven’t done this before, and are carb-dependent as I used to be, then you
need to go through a few grim weeks of adaptation. But then running on fat
becomes easy. This probably wasn’t the key to the latest success, as I’d
already sorted this by London ’17 (and partially before Abo ’16) and noticed
huge improvements in fuel usage (i.e. no “wall”). But essential to maintain
For Chester, most of these long runs were faster than I’d done before – at about MP + 20-30
seconds. Running slowly is supposed to improve fat-burning ... previously I’ve
run at easy pace and perhaps put in a few of miles at MP at the end. But I
reckon if you are on low weekly mileage, and if you are carrying no stored carbs,
then you can afford to go a bit faster. You’re going to be burning fat anyway
and you should have the legs for it. The advantage it that you’ll work some of
those muscle fibres that the slower-paced runs never get to (unless you’re on
high mileage). I did have a couple of runs where I was not able to do this for
various reasons ... but most were comfortable at this faster pace.
I did 10
miles at marathon pace “MP” every week, always in a carb-depleted state.
I’ve done what I called subLT/MP runs before ... the difference this time was that
these MP runs were at my genuine “lactate threshold” pace. This is the effort level that
is sustainable in a real marathon (not “predicted MP” based on shorter race times
via on-line calculators which I used before, and not necessarily 80-83% maxHR) ... so that started out as 8
min/mile (based on my London ’17 pace and
a real life lab-based lactate threshold test) but edged faster as the weeks
went on. Alongside the faster long runs, I believe that this was KEY in pushing
my lactate threshold out and enabling me to eventually run MP at a higher
%maxHR (I ran Chester 17 at 80-81% maxHR average).
mileage with cross-training to replace the recovery/easy run mileage you’d
usually expect between the sessions/LSR. I ran only 35 miles per week
(over 15 weeks, not including the final pre-race taper week). Not all that much
running! Tues was the MP session,
Saturday was parkrun, and Sunday was long run. There were some Thursday 2 x 5
mile doubles too but they fizzled out. Long runs topped out at 3 x 20 miles, 2
x 22 miles and 1 x 24 miles. Races were sparse unless you include parkruns as
races (I do run them like races) ... I did a 90:24 HM 4 weeks before the marathon
and a 5:53 1 mile track race 2 weeks before, so knew I was in good shape. To
get the most out of the 3 key run sessions, I needed to be active but
reasonable light on the remaining days. I achieved this through cycling to/from
work (unless I did a Thursday run double-commute). If you’re younger or more
robust than me, then the more traditional easy “filler-runs” may be fine. But for
me it reduced my injury risk through avoiding over-training ... and it meant I
was fresher for the run sessions ... and I could get to/from work for free! Due
to summer holidays etc., it came out as 35 miles per week of cycling over 15
fuelling. I do not fuel up on carbs before a training session any more
... unless it’s high intensity, which is quite rare when marathon training. But
I DO fuel on carbs the day before all races, and sometimes for parkrun too.
Train low, race high! For marathons, I carb load from Thursday afternoon,
straight after my last run (which includes 4 x 400 m at “1 mile pace”). I eat a
lot of carbs Thurs/Fri, and calm it down a bit on Sat to avoid gut issues.
Muscle glycogen should be well topped up on race morning. On race day I have 4
slices of white toast 3 hours before the start, to top up liver glycogen stores
which deplete overnight. But then I avoid any further carbs. To start the race
on normal blood glucose levels, I start the race unfuelled ... the idea is to avoid
triggering insulin release as this potently switches off fat-burning. I want to
get the body utilising fat from the off. Once under way, I take 7 gels during the
race, one every 20 minutes, the first at 20 minutes..... once the muscles are
working away, they can take up glucose in an insulin-independent manner, so
fat-burning is not switched off. I know can run 24 miles in training unfuelled at
MP+20s but I still assume that I need carbs to maintain MP over 26.2, although
I haven’t tested this. While, the carb-depleted training means I now burn a
greater percentage of fat when running at MP, I will be likely be using some
carbs at marathon intensity (lactate comes from burning carbs ... and I am at/above
lactate threshold). The idea of the gels (60g carbs per hour) is to conserve
stored muscle glycogen for the later stages when the intensity goes up. The
last gel comes 2:20 into the race ... after that stage, it is unlikely the
digestive system will absorb any more. This fuelling approach has worked really
well in the last 2 marathons, in sharp contrast to earlier ones.