In my last blog I wrote about the highs and lows of running a half marathon (check it out here). As much as I had a fantastic time and feel proud of what I achieved, I also made some big blunders by not sleeping enough, not eating properly and ignoring some niggling injuries. I firmly believe I’d never have made it to the starting line had I not implemented some really cool stuff prior to the race that made me a stronger runner. Here I share five things that supported my running goals.
1. Running a Marathon is Not Healthy
I’ve cheated a little here because as soon as I realised a marathon wouldn’t be healthy for me and would potentially shorten my running days I didn’t actually run a full one! My experience running a half marathon confirmed what I suspected, it wasn’t going to support my health. Here’s why; the extra training disrupted my sleep, my menstrual cycle disappeared, I gained weight and just felt generally more hyper, anxious and stressed. Ultimately I made the long-term decision that this wasn’t going to be for me. I ran a half marathon with a pretty good time but I crossed the finish line with aching joints, I was shattered and hungry for days and it took years to fix my injuries and get my menstrual cycle back.
That’s my story and my experience and much of this is down to other aspects of my health and personality, which means an exhaustive, highly competitive goal like a marathon will likely bring out the worst in me.
However, I wanted to make this point because a marathon can seem like the ultimate runners goal. When you watch the hype around many of these races they can seem like a great idea and a cool incentive to keep your training on track. It’s easy to perceive a marathon as a super healthy thing to do, but actually the training and event itself places a huge amount of physical and mental stress on the body, it can take years (I’m not joking!) to recover from this. I’m certainly not discouraging marathon running, it’s a fantastic achievement, but if you decide to crack on with your marathon goal you should really only do so knowing that your lifestyle needs to be highly anti-inflammatory to support your training. You need to be a pro when it comes to stress management and totally on point with your nutrition and sleep. Most people I work with struggle to manage this and therefore a marathon is the last thing their body needs!
2. Don’t Just Run, Cross Train
These days I mainly run the odd 10k with Hamish and running has become a minimal part of my training programme. Typically I might run 1-2 times a week for around 40 minutes only and I combine it with cross training in the form of strength sessions and low impact forms of cardio. Long walks with Hamish are my favourite and whilst I don’t train daily I do ensure I move each and every day.
Whilst training for my half marathon I was lucky as I was also teaching spin classes and always used a rowing machine as part of my weekly training – either for intervals or for an endurance workout covering 5,000-10,000m (you need an awesome playlist for the latter). By the way, swimming, kettlebell swing drills and low impact bodyweight exercises would also be good options you could use.
The combination of low impact cardio with strength training that I had implemented is likely the only reason I was able to run a half marathon, I don’t doubt my injuries would have caught me sooner if I’d just run all the time. Many running programs and marathon schedules suggest running 4-6 times a week and most people simply don’t have the biomechanics or joint health to withstand pounding the pavements this much. It goes without saying your nutrition, stretching, mobility and recovery needs to be epic for your joints and muscles to cope with such high levels of inflammation and physical stress.
3. Train Legs Like a Boss
During the second half of my half marathon I was beginning to struggle. Looking back I started out a little too enthusiastically and therefore too quickly. I guess the novelty of taking part in a race began wearing off half way through as this was the fastest pace I’d ever run for such a distance, my body was starting to question whether it could continue.
I was really starting to call upon mental determination at this point when my stride naturally fell into sync with two guys and we began to act as pace makers for one another. It was funny as we never uttered a word to each other throughout the race yet hung out for 6 miles. At numerous stages they kept me going but as soon as we hit an incline I came into my own leading them. I genuinely put this down to my kettlebell sessions, squats and deadlifts. Power and strength training really is a runner’s best friend and when we spotted the finish line despite not feeling confident I had adequate control of my legs, I remember hearing Matt cheer my name and kicked into a sprint leaving my buddies behind.
After finishing I found the guys and we shook hands, laughed at how we’d not said a word, yet all confirmed we couldn’t have maintained that pace without each other. Before departing one of the guys asked me how on earth I managed to maintain speed on the hills and find energy for that final sprint, “Train your legs!!” I told him.
4. Focus on Your Posture and Core Strength
When Matt and I are walking we often spot runners with terrible posture and technique. When you consider the demands it places on the body and joint function, it’s highly imperative you run with good form before embarking on any considerable distances. Training your core and back muscles is a highly effective, preventative means of decreasing your risk of injury and improving your running technique. By this I don’t necessarily mean pilates (although this can help) or crunches but rather getting off the floor and performing exercises that require more reactive core activation i.e. your muscles have no choice but to join the party otherwise you’ll fall flat on your face. Some of my favourites include front squats, kettlebell renegade rows, TRX suspension training, plank variations, kettlebell swings and even just standing more and sitting up straight, these will all make you a better runner.
If you are desk bound and slouched all day core muscles are effectively switched off, upper back muscles also lengthened and weakened, plus many runners are stress junkies and as a result carry a lot of tension in their traps. This can manifest as both lower and upper back pain or neck issues, all of which caused me considerable grief when I first started running, yet disappeared when I performed core and back exercises regularly. It’s important to consider running from head to toe: a strong core and back effectively coordinates the movement of running by keeping everything together, ensuring hips, knees and upper body are working as a team with control and stability.
5. Nail Your Pre-Race Nutrition Routine
As your race approaches lots of people start to offer you advice about pre/post run nutrition and much of it conflicts. Having run for almost 17 years now my advice is to experiment on yourself and start well before your race so you have time to figure it out. I’ve discovered through trial and error that I’m genuinely a better runner when fasted, if I eat anything at all it’s a small amount of fats prior to a run. Believe it or not most of us have enough body fat to run several marathons and need little fuel for it BUT this takes a degree of adaptation so don’t just dive into a fasted run and hope for the best.
Following the advice of fellow runners I tried eating carbohydrates or having a protein shake before a run and I felt terrible – in particular I struggled with stitches and reflux. After experimenting I resorted to training my body in a fasted state or implemented a 3-4 hour gap between eating and running. Establishing what worked for me gave me the confidence on race day to know what I was doing and there was no panic eating in the morning. I simply drank some water, had a coffee, dropped the kids off at the pool and focused on warming up mentally and physically.
Try and suss out what works for you well in advance of the actual race. If you plan to run on a Sunday use the week to trial different approaches. Maybe try consuming more carbohydrates 2-3 days before, nothing too extreme that overloads your digestion or gives you a blood sugar crash, then eating lighter the day before so your body works on using fat stores for energy. Your body needs adequate magnesium, zinc, B vitamin status, blood sugar regulation and gut health to burn fat so if you’re having to consume a banana to even consider putting your trainers on you might need to rethink nutrition a little. However, don’t make drastic changes either as the shock may lead you to assume it simply doesn’t work but rather your body needs time to adjust. Try eating a little less each week (or a little more if you wish to try fed training) and build in the changes gradually.
Remember pre-race nutrition is really what you consume in the months before the event as this will determine your nutrient status, ability to utilise fuel and the efficiency of your energy production. If I had known then what I knew now I would certainly favour potatoes, rice, quinoa, root vegetables and fruit over the cereals and flour-based carbohydrates I used, plus I’d eat lots of gut friendly soups and stews with bone broth and anti-inflammatory garlic, ginger and herbs!
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