Monday, August 30, 2010

Training for the Berlin Marathon

In 25 days I will step out onto the starting line on Unterdenlinden Strasse in the Mitte district of Berlin, amongst some of the top marathoners in the world (and 35,000 others) to confront the fearsome challenge of running 42.2km as fast as I can around the streets of Berlin. This will be my fifth marathon, having run the Rotorua Marathon (April 2006), Dublin Marathon (October 2008), New York Marathon (November 2009), Rotterdam Marathon (April 2010).

Having first joined a running club in 2009 (Rathfarnham A.C in Dublin), I am relatively new to the sport of competitive running, and I still have a lot to learn about the sport. I'm trying to pick up as much knowledge as I can by reading, asking questions of more experienced club-mates/coaches, and putting training methods into practice.

In the lead-up to Berlin marathon, I hope to offer an insight (over a short series of posts) into some of the things that I have learned so far, and write about my progress and some of my experiences in preparing to attempt a sub-2:40 marathon.

There are no short-cuts

John Walker

Picture: a historic and emotive picture of John Walker, a legendary NZ runner, claiming victory in the 1500m at the Montreal Olympic Games 1976

Running is not a glamorous game of skill and tricks, so there is limited scope for relying on ‘natural ability’ to achieve results. Running is a sport where the results almost entirely reflect how hard and smart one has trained over the weeks, months, and years leading up to the race.

Race day is the product of years of preparation. The Kenyans that you see running on television were not simply ‘born fast’. They became fast by spending their lives running, and free from many of the distractions and temptations that occupy the lives of people in developed countries. While children in the developed world are pampered and chauffeured to and from school every day, many East African children are already ‘marathoners in training’, commuting everywhere on foot. While we spent our late teens discovering partying and late night fast food jaunts, many (obviously not all) of our Kenyan or Ethiopian counterparts were resting between runs and eating nothing but basic healthy foods such as corn, ugali (a type of porridge made of maize), potatoes, and beans. Unfortunately this means that the rest of us have a lot of catching up to do!

But our upbringing is just one piece of the puzzle. Running a fast marathon requires large volumes and periods of prolonged high-quality specialised training. For example, professional marathoners (and elite middle distance runners) would typically run in excess of 200km per week for sustained periods, involving long runs, intense track work, fartleck, tempo sessions (fast paced distance runs), and hill running. It takes not only talent, but also years of discipline and consistent training before an athlete is able to reach this level of training intensity.

Competitive runners are typically highly motivated to train hard and improve, but their ability to progress towards this level of training and performance is most often constrained by his or her ability to cope with increases in mileage and intensity in training over time. The challenge for an athlete is to increase training and build strength steadily whilst avoiding set-backs such as injuries or illness. This is a difficult balance to strike, is different for every runner, and requires patience (particularly in a high impact sport like running, which puts considerable strain on the body).

Obviously my own training program is tailored for my current level of performance and ability. At this point if I were to replicate the training program of a professional runner, I would (a) lose the quality from my sessions due to fatigue and (b) most likely pick up an injury soon enough. Starting from a decent level of base fitness and strength, my marathon build-up is based around a 16 week training program. My weekly mileage started at a fairly modest 90km per week, and reaches a peak of 120km three or four weeks before race day (before winding back towards race day). Training to run a marathon in under 2:40 involves more than just going out jogging every day, it involves teaching the body to run at pace. To this end, my program is based around the following key sessions (plus recovery runs in between): long runs (up to 38km), interval sessions, tempo runs, hill runs

Long runs

The purpose of long runs is to teach the body to operate efficiently while running. Specifically, to burn a lower proportion of glycogen (stored sugar that is derived from carbohydrates) and a greater proportion of body fat when running. The effect of this is that the athletes glycogen reserves last for longer, and the athlete is able to run faster for longer (and hopefully avoid 'hitting the wall' or 'running out of glycogen' during the marathon). Long runs are typically run at slow to medium pace (because running fast burns more sugar, so running fast on these runs would defeat the purpose)

Modern day Ethiopian legends Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa running side by side

Interval training

Interval training is a type of physical exercise that involves bursts of high intensity work, alternated with periods of rest or low activity.

Distance runners often practice interval training on tracks, running hard at a certain pace for a specified distance (or, less often, time) and jogging, walking, or resting for a set distance or time before the next speed burst. Distances can also vary; from sets of 400 metre intervals right up to 2000 metre intervals. Many other types of sports people, including rugby players and sprinters, also use short intervals to build speed and strength.

The purpose of interval work-outs is to improve anaerobic performance (performance of the body in an oxygen deprived condition i.e. puffing hard, legs burning). In other words, to replicate race conditons where there are high levels of lactate in the muscles. The idea is that the body is better prepared to cope when you're breathing hard and suffering in the final stages of the marathon (and so that you have some speed in the tank to potentially out-kick opponents at the finish line). Speed training also has the effect of making marathon-pace feel more comfortable.

Tempo / Steady state runs

Uninterrupted fast-paced runs that are aimed at training the body to maintain speed over distance, by increasing the runners lactate threshold (the level of effort at which the body fatigues quickly). During tempo runs (and races), lactate and hydrogen ions - by-products of metabolism - are released into the muscles. The ions make the muscles acidic, eventually leading to fatigue. The better trained you become, the higher you push your "threshold," meaning your muscles become better at using these byproducts. The result is less-acidic muscles (that is, muscles that haven't reached their new "threshold"), so they keep on contracting, letting you run farther and faster.

Note: tempo run can be replaced with a race. I normally race about ten times during the 16 week marathon build-up.

Hill runs

During hill running sessions, the athlete is using their body weight as a resistance to push against, so the driving muscles from which their leg power is derived have to work harder.

Hill training offers the following benefits:

  • helps develop power and muscle elasticity
  • improves stride frequency and length
  • develops co-ordination, encouraging the proper use of arm action during the driving phase and feet in the support phase
  • develops control and stabilisation as well as improved speed (downhill running)
  • promotes strength endurance
  • develops maximum speed and strength (short hills)
  • improves lactate tolerance (mixed hills)

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