Training for a marathon is a daunting task and frankly, on several occasions in the build-up to race day, the thought of running over 26 miles can be perceived as an impossible task. Yet millions of people around the world achieve this feat every year. For me, the keys are self-belief and taking your time when making your way through a training program. But to help, I have formulated my own tips to get you in optimal condition on the start line.
When it comes to training, there are two primary physiological parameters that we are aiming to improve to enable us to run 26 miles, which are your VO2max and running economy. An easy way to think of these measurements is with the analogy of a car. An athletes VO2max is the engine and their running economy is how economical they are running at a given speed. Just like a car it is great to have a large engine but equally as crucial to be able to use that large amount of fuel in an economical way. So how do you increase an athlete’s engine size but also make them more economical?
Your VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen you can take on board during exercise for the production of energy. There tends to be two popular methods these days with how to train this. The first is long steady state running (LSS) which has been proven to increase VO2max, and the second is high intensity interval training (HIIT) which is not new but the popularity in recent years has exploded. This is mostly down to our human nature which is to be attracted to quick fixes and HIIT on the surface presents this because this type of training can also increase your VO2max to the same extent as LSS and in some case, to greater extents. However, there are two major problems with HIIT training in relation to marathon running. Firstly, the majority of research that has identified this benefit with HIIT training has been done in elite athletes. In other words, these are athletes who already have well-trained physiological systems and are therefore starting at a more advanced training level. For us non-elite folk, the results of undergoing HIIT are likely to be less pronounced and building a training program which focuses on high volume and distance (LSS) will achieve greater improvements in VO2max. Second, an athlete’s VO2max is not the be-all-and-end-all, not by a long way, especially when running a marathon because you’re not going to be running anywhere near maximum effort during the race. Therefore, it is suggested that the focus should be on becoming more economical.
Secondly, your running economy is basically how economical you are at using that energy over a given time period. Unlike VO2max, running economy is less-well understood, with many different factors effecting how economical a runner is. The complexity of training running economy is evident when we consider the many factors that influence how economical a runner is and these factors can relate to the biomechanical, physiological, molecular and anatomical make-up of the athlete. However, the physiological adaptations seen with LSS training do relate to changes that would allow the athlete to become more economical. For example, improving oxygen transport around the body, improving oxygen extraction by muscles, improving fat metabolism whilst running and relying less on carbohydrate as an energy fuel. Another benefit of focusing on LSS running during training is that this will replicate race day speed and help with pacing on the day. Additionally, a form of training that tends to be underappreciated by runners is strength training and more specifically plyometric training. Emerging evidence suggests that plyometric training in the form of exercises such as knee hops, bounding, box jumps and even hill running can improve running economy. This type of training is linked to the benefits of something known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). This refers to the efficiency of how elastic energy is used during the transition from one type of muscle contraction (eccentric) to another (concentric) when the foot hits the ground and sub subsequently pushes off. In short, this reduces foot contact time with the ground which is a hallmark of good runners. For example, if you watch any good-level runner they almost bounce along the road with a natural spring.
Overall, focusing on three sessions per week is a good rule with the focus on LSS running to gradually build up the mileage to improve your VO2max and running economy but also familiarize yourself with the psychological battle of running for a long period of time. If you’re a more experienced runner then adding in a plyometric session once per week may help you become even more economical.
There are our main areas to consider when it comes to marathon training nutrition; energy intake, carbohydrate intake, protein intake and hydration.
An easy way of finding out if your diet contains enough energy (calories) to support your training is by measuring body weight. If you’re losing weight, then you may be under eating but on the contrary if you’re gaining weight then you are likely eating too much. Also, consider how you feel during the day or during training sessions. This is because many athletes I have worked with say they feel “sluggish” which is usually just because they haven’t eaten enough calories in total and this is typical with athletes who are training for performance but are also aiming to reduce fat mass.
Once you have addressed the total energy intake of your diet, you can begin looking more specifically at the carbohydrate and protein content. Carbohydrate will be your predominant fuel source when training and on race day. Generally, to support training demands a carbohydrate intake of between 4-5g/kg/day is a good target. So, for a 70kg athlete this would equate to 280-350 grams per day. You should aim to eat a variety of carbohydrates such as cereals, vegetables, fruits, rice, pasta and breads. To help hit daily targets, increase feeding frequency and portion sizes is always a suggestion of mine. However, if you need to supplement your diet with a source of carbohydrate to help hit targets, you could try Ultra-Fine Scottish Oats.
Another important consideration is the protein content of your training diet. Protein will help your muscles recover from exercise as well as increase the muscles adaptation to the training session. To ensure that these effects are optimised, it is advisable to consume 1.2-1.6g/kg/day of protein and spread this evenly throughout the day to maximise protein synthesis. Good food sources include lean meats, Greek yogurt, dairy foods, lentils, beans, nuts and fish but if you need to supplement your diet with extra protein to help meet targets, protein shakes are a good choice. Planning 3-5 meals per day that are mostly made-up of a carbohydrate and protein combination will help hit both nutrition targets.
The next consideration from a nutritional perspective is hydration and this is a topic that has been controversial over the last few decades. For example, it is generally accepted that even a small drop in dehydration results in reduced exercise performance. Yet, it is somewhat contradictory when looking at evidence which shows those who run the quickest marathon times lose more weight through sweat compared to those who run slower. In other words, the runners who finish quickest are the ones who are most dehydrated! But one thing we get taught early on as researchers is that correlation does not equal causation. Therefore, for me, the two key tips for managing hydration during training are to firstly begin the training session hydrated. From my experience, athletes are great at drinking during training but often start dehydrated in the first place. Therefore, I would ensure you begin the training session hydrated and then drink to thirst during the session. Finally, once the session has finished, aim to replace any weight lost with 150% fluid (1kg would equal 1.5L of fluid) and consider options other than water such as milk, which due to its protein, carbohydrate and sodium content can be a superior rehydrating drink.
My final tip in relation to nutrition is to give yourself time to experiment with race-day strategies. For example, what will you eat the night before? What will be your pre-race meal? Do some foods work better for you than others? What form (gel, drink or food) of carbohydrate will you take on during the run? Also, consider ergogenic aids that may benefit your race performance. An example of this is caffeine. I often recommend athletes to trial these in training to find out how it may work for them. Caffeine and carbohydrate supplements are common in marathons and finding out how your stomach will respond to different types is a good idea. Just like the muscles, the stomach can be trained for the stresses of marathon running as well!
About the Author
Shaun Chapman is a Sport Nutrition consultant currently working with runners, cyclists powerlifters and people aiming to lose weight. With a background in football, Shaun has since competed in many running events, including 5km, 10km, OCR and half-marathon races. When he’s not marathon training, Shaun can be found in the gym working on his strength training.