Tuesday, March 29, 2011

From the depths of marathon training

When I first began running with a club in September 2008 (Rathfarnham W.S.A.F), I was preparing to attempt a sub 3 hour performance in the Dublin Marathon. I introduced myself to the coach (Adam Jones), whom then introduced me to the lads with whom I would run a set of 5x2000m on the grounds of Terenure College in South Dublin. Welcome to the world of pain. Many of the lads who were kicking my ass around the park at training looked at me like I was mad, or extremely brave, when I told them I was training for a marathon (and especially an ‘Ultra-marathon’). I was puzzled by this sentiment, because these guys were clearly not afraid of pain, and were obviously extremely fit. They were notching up as many miles overall as I was in my marathon training, and at a greater intensity. Most of were capable of running well under three hours for a marathon, if only they had decided to turn up on race day. To put this in context, only about 5% of runners typically break the three hour mark in any given marathon.

They clearly knew something that I didn’t, and over time I have come to realise why so many serious runners (club runners) steer clear of marathons. Of course there are the obvious reasons, like the arduous and largely unpleasant 30km plus runs that are required to train your body for the marathon (let’s be honest, long road runs aren’t much fun). But that didn’t add up, because these club guys actually like running, and would normally run 90 minutes on a Sunday anyway.

The less obvious reason that so many competitive runners don’t run marathons is the toll that marathon running takes on the body. And perhaps more importantly to competitive runners, it is feasible that running marathons can slow down a runner’s rate of improvement.

About a month ago I was running well in training and in races. Since then I have really stepped up the long runs (23 miles at 6:30 min/mile average, or 36km at 4 min/km), and have been focusing on getting the endurance together in time for London Marathon in April (sitting on 140km total per week). After a month of peak marathon training, I’m struggling to hit the same interval splits or pace in training sessions that I was a few weeks back. I’m chasing my own shadow. This is because every Sunday I get out and flog myself on the pavement for 2 ½ hours. And then try to hammer out three sessions per week on legs that are never fully recovered.

The constant fatigue that is synonymous with marathon training prevents me (and I presume other marathoners) from extending myself and pushing the pace in training. It is logical then that speed and in particular the development of anaerobic capacity is sacrificed in the effort to improve endurance. This effect is easy to detect when you begin the season running side-by-side with club mates, then as the season goes on you fall behind in sessions, despite putting in hundreds of miles of good quality uninterrupted training.

But that’s only part of it. The taper stage, combined with the recovery time after race day, knock a marathoner out of serious training for at least a month. Meanwhile, my cross-country and track focused friends are hammering out quality training sessions time and time again. It makes you think.

Having said all of that, there is almost no feeling like the satisfaction of honing in on the finish line at a big marathon, knowing that months of training have gone into this moment and it is paying off. That atmosphere of mass crowds and celebration (see photo of starting line at the London Marathon - 40,000 runners and over a million spectators). Crossing the line, and knowing that in about an hour you’ll be smashing a Big Mac combo (for the first time in six months) and will already be on your second pint or stein after weeks of strict dieting - probably in an amazing city like Berlin or Amsterdam or London! By contrast, if you were a 5k runner, you’d cross the line, look at your watch, chat to the guy who just outkicked you at the line (or vice versa), then casually drive home (because the race would probably be local) and check online to see whether there is another similar race on next weekend.

Marathons are a high stakes game. You only have one shot every six months to nail it, so you’d better get it right.

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