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Running a marathon? These are the 10 lessons I've learned

Blog post courtesy of Jack De Bokx.

This autumn I ran my 21st marathon and I learned quite a few lessons during these 21 efforts. Each marathon is different, and weather can play a huge role in whether you are successful in achieving your objectives, but there are a few general strategies that usually work quite well.

I like to share the 10 most important lessons I’ve learned over the years, and I hope they can help you achieve your best self when you run your next marathon.

Lesson 1:

It all starts with the love for running. If you simply run a marathon to be able to ‘brag’ about running an event, without feeling a love for running, it might be hard to put in the miles in the months before. And yes, there are athletes who can run (or probably more walk) a marathon without too much training, they will most likely suffer from quite severe muscle soreness (DOMS) and never feel tempted to run such a distance again. If your only aim is to get that medal to be able to brag about running a certain marathon for the rest of your life, probably the rest of this blog is not for you. If you enjoy and love your running it’s much easier to get the miles in and do your training. I quite often run with other athletes and we have fantastic discussions about this, that and everything and I really enjoy that. I also vary the terrain quite often to keep the running exciting and engaging. It all helps in sustaining a love for running.

Lesson 2:

Adjust your training to what you want to achieve; are you going for simply having a great time and are you not too worried about the time it takes you? In that case it’s OK to just run a lot of miles in the 3 to 6 months before the marathon at a sustainable pace to make sure you can cover the distance. You won’t be fast, but you will enjoy the run, interact with the supporters, talk with other athletes and admire the scenery (depending which marathon you run). But if you have a specific time in mind, it pays dividend to adjust your training to get the best out yourself and give yourself a good chance to achieve that time. Besides your long runs, you must bring in some higher intensity interval training to establish a good speed. The combination between longer slow runs (or Zone 1 or 2 runs) and HIIT training ensures your energy machines (mitochondria) are optimized to work as efficiently as possible. For most marathons I ran, I had a certain objective and I adjusted my training to achieve that time. I never skipped my high intensity training, usually I used Park Run or a weekly track session for these workouts.

Lesson 3:

Don’t forget the speed you need on race day. Too much focus on HIIT and Zone 1 or 2 training might make you and your legs forget your race pace, which is somewhere in between. If you never train at your race pace, you can easily start too fast and fall back into Zone 1 or 2 or you never even get beyond that Zone 1 or 2 and don’t get to reach your potential. I try to limit the race pace training to maybe once or twice a week and certainly not too long distances (max 10K), which has enabled me to usually pace my races quite well. For me, around 20% of my running miles (not time!) goes to HIIT, around 60% is easy effort (I call it Zone 2) and 20% is steady race pace.

Lesson 4:

Nutrition and hydration are important but are very personal. It’s very hard to have a one size fits all approach to eating and drinking as it really depends on your microbiome (how well your digestive system is capable of absorbing glucose and fructose) and how much and salty you sweat. I usually eat a bit more simple carbs the days before a marathon and limit the amount of fat and protein, and I make sure I drink enough. I swear by having a simple pizza the evening before a race, but again that is very personal. For me it’s a safe choice to avoid any stomach issues. I have a porridge as breakfast and around 30 minutes before the race I usually eat a banana. During the race I religiously take a gel every 4 miles, but the first one might only be 5 miles into the race. I also take something nicer for halfway, recently I’ve been taking Kendal Mint Cake, with or without chocolate covering. I feel the mint opens my airways and I consider it a real treat. Something to look forward to. I am not a heavy sweater so I only drink a few sips every 5K or so, but if it’s very warm obviously I need a bit more. If, however, you are a big sweater and finish races with white patches on your clothing, you might want to consider salt tablets and much more hydration!

Lesson 5:

My race strategy is always to divide the marathon into two half marathons. For me that works, I run a half marathon and when the second half starts, I can count down the kilometres (or miles) until the finish. Some runners I spoke to treat their marathon as an interval training from feed station to feed station and that’s fine as well, the importance is to have a strategy and stick to it. When it gets tough, I always think about my family, my friends and the athletes I coach. Usually, I share my objectives before the race, and if it gets hard during the race, I think about not letting myself and them down. It’s a bit of an extrinsic motivator but it works for me.

Lesson 6:

To run on feel or run at a specific pace, that’s the question. For me it’s usually run on feeling for the first 15 minutes and then move into a pace. If I set myself a target for a finishing time, and I only do this for relatively flat road marathons, I know what my pace needs to be. I take the first few kilometres to get into a good running rhythm – I usually have a good idea what pace I am running at – and then settle into the pace I need to finish at my given time. My best marathons all had a very small positive split, maybe 2 to 4 minutes faster on the first half and I am OK with that. I don’t think you should be too focused on running a negative split as that can mean you are actually running a bit too slow. So, give yourself some time to settle into your pace and then try stick to it as long as you can manage it.

Lesson 7:

Clothing is important, you don’t want to get too cold, too warm or too uncomfortable with what you wear. Running a marathon is not a fashion show, so wear what you feel is comfortable and doesn’t give you any chafing or discomfort. I am usually not too picky about the shirt I wear, but I’ve been wearing ‘Runderwear’ for at least my last 10 marathons, and tights with plenty of pockets for my nutrition (Ronhill). No chafing since then. I’m not too bothered about my socks, as long as they are running socks, but I do believe that shoes are the most important attribute to running a good marathon. Find yourself a pair that feel comfortable, are light and fast and make you feel good. With new shoes coming to the market every year, it’s a bit of a minefield, but once I have a pair, I really love, I usually buy a second pair to make sure I can run in them for a bit. Currently, I really love my New Balance Fuel Cells SC Elite V3 – but that’s obviously very personal.

In training I will always rotate shoes, but I do try to stick to one or two brands.

Lesson 8:

Be active! The preparation for a marathon is not only about doing 3 to 6 months of long runs, HIIT and Race Pace runs, but also about being active throughout your days. There is quite some science-based evidence that suggests that brisk walking is great in establishing a solid aerobic foundation for endurance running. It’s good for injury prevention and it’s certainly something you can do every day. More and more people work from home and sit behind a screen all day without any more action than the occasional walk to the kitchen or bathroom. A lunchtime, morning- or evening walk can make all the difference. I know there is a debate about the usefulness of step counters, but for me – being a bit data driven – I do use the counter on my Garmin to make sure I am active throughout the day.

Lesson 9:

Control what you can control. I try not to focus on things I can’t control. It’s OK to look at the weather forecast for race day but accept the fact that you won’t be able to change it. For me it’s to know what I need to wear, but I am not going to let it impact my mental state. I know I can control my preparation, what I will wear, what my strategy is and what I eat and drink during the race, all of the other ‘stuff’ I can’t control and therefore I try not to worry about it.

Lesson 10:

Despite all of your efforts, the outcome might not be what you expect it to be. I have done a few marathons where I surprised myself, and I’ve done a few where I was slightly disappointed. Very seldom I have run a marathon where everything went exactly to plan. And that’s OK. Accept the fact that in a 42.2K race, which for most of us lasts over 3 hours, things might not go exactly as you planned. I’ve lost gels, I have had difficulties overtaking people, I had collisions with other athletes, I have had some stomach discomfort and most athletes I have talked to had similar issues. It happens, accept it and learn from it and move on to your next race. Amsterdam Marathon was one of the few marathons in my ‘marathon career’ where everything did go to plan. I nearly finished in the exact time I set myself, my pacing was spot on, I had no discomfort throughout the race, and I was back running quite well three days later. But that rarely happens or maybe I finally learned my lessons!



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