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Marathon-winning tips from experts

Go the distance this year with expert tips from the English Institute of Sport

Marathons are the mightiest of all challenges: the perfect adventure of pounding endurance and gritted teeth. Make sure your marathon goes the distance with some expert guidance from the English Institute of Sport

Get your mind in training

During your training, build a positive picture of things that go well for you in the months of training and what makes you feel good so that you can build affirmations for the marathon for example words that energise you that you may repeat to yourself like a mantra, images you may see in your mind that may relax you and/or thoughts that may inspire you whilst you are running.

Prepare for pacing

You cannot write an in-depth timeline of what will happen to every runner over the course of a marathon because there is so much that can differ. Things like the fitness of the runner, course profile and conditions on the day can all make a difference. With all these taken into account it is still dependant on the most important factor. Pacing. If the athlete gets the pacing right, along with everything else, the performance will be good and can actually be very enjoyable. Get it wrong and it can be a disaster.

If you don’t like the heat…

Physiologically, running the marathon has a number of effects. Body temperature begins to rise from the onset of running and crucially in a marathon, a thermal balance must be reached i.e. heat production must be less than or equal to heat loss. This depends on the environmental conditions, the fitness of the athletes (e.g. body fat percentage) and the clothing selection. There is an 18-20 minute window at the start of the race when the body is cool so has a greater heat storage capacity – another reason why pacing is so important from the star of the race.

Curse of the cramps

Cramps are still not fully understood. A minor feeling of cramp could occur after just a few miles, but the further into the race, the feeling more likely is to occur. It is believed that the increased likely hood of cramps could be affected by diet, taper, body temperature etc. Severe cramps can cause collapse and prevent further running, but some recovery is possible with some gentle stretching.

The feelgood factor

Endorphins may be released during of after exercise and may cause pleasant euphoric feelings. They act on the same receptors in the brain as morphine, hence the term endorphin. Muscle damage (due to the eccentric component of the running action) and glycogen depletion are both features of marathon running, so there is a recovery timeline after the race of some considerable time e.g. glycogen stores may take a week to return to normal. More ugly aspects of the marathon include diarrhoea, blisters, vomiting, fainting and sudden death- however these are rare, with a rate of approx 1 in 100,000.

Toilet stops?

The last physiological preparations you will make are going to the toilet before you run. You will need to wait some time as the queues are likely to be long (30+mins). You can stretch in the cue and if you keep your things with you then you can sit down on the ground to rest your legs. Ensure you are hydrated but not overloaded before the race and plan your hydration over the run. During training you need to practice taking on fluids to work out what is optimal for you.

Vaulting over the wall

Hitting the wall is simply the terminology runners use for fatigue. You become sluggish, reaction time slows down, co-ordination and balance start to go, concentration dwindles and you feel light-headed- these are all signs of fatigue. The main cause of fatigue is due to running out of those vital carbohydrate fuel stores, although dehydration alone can also result in fatigue. Therefore you need to start the race not only well hydrated but also with a full tank of carbohydrate fuel.

At any point in the marathon there is a combination of fuels being used by the body – carbohydrate is the main one (around 700g burned over a marathon), although some fat (around 300g) is burned and some people are greater ‘fat burners’ than others. Protein catabolism occurs in long distance races, amounting to between 5 and 10% of the total energy production, some from the diet, some from body energy production, some from the diet, some from body stores. Due to the fact that the body can only store a set quantity of glycogen in the liver, muscle and bloodstream, and this is less than the quantity used in a race, there is a requirement to take on some fuel during a marathon to avoid ‘Hitting the wall’. This could occur anywhere between 15 and 22 miles, depending on the individual. Carbohydrate drinks are a must, from the start of the race.

Do some damage limitation

Taking extra vitamin C in the few days prior to the race may reduce the likelihood of developing a sore throat and cold after. Increasing protein intake may help to reduce the extent of muscle damage and soreness in the days following the race.

Drink up, winner!

At the London marathon water is available at practically every mile point- this doesn’t mean that you need to take a drink every mile or indeed drink the whole bottle. Firstly, bear in mind that you will also be getting 330ml of fluid from your sports drink pouches, so that’s, 1540ml from 5 pouches. So if you’re sweat rate is 500ml per hour you would need about 2000ml in 4 hours, but with 1540ml from drinking all 5 sports pouches you would probably only need an additional 350ml of water. Of course if you run slower or indeed faster than your sweat rate will probably be different so you may need to drink less or more than normal.

If you pick up a sports drink pouch at every station it’ll provide a total of 105g (5x21g) carbohydrate. That’s equivalent to 35g per hour for the 3-hour marathoners, 26g per hour for the 4-hour marathoners and 21g per hour for the 5-hour marathoners. In general, this rate of carbohydrate intake is about right as the fast sub-3-hour marathon runners, who are working more intensely and so have a greater fuel need, will get to the first feeding station in around 30 minutes. Whereas those running at a slower pace for the 5-hour marathon will get there in about an hour, but are not running at a level that elicits fatigue and so fuel needs are not so great.

Meet your milestones

Think about dedicating each mile to a specific person, a loved one, a supportive friend etc. During that mile take your mind away from the running (dissociating) by thinking about them.

The final push

At the London marathon, once you finish you have almost another mile to walk down where you get given your water, goodie bags and your timing chips taken off you, so have in your head that it doesn’t completely end at the finish line. You may feel light-headed after crossing the line. This could be the result of low blood sugar level, so some rapidly absorbed carbohydrate in the form of a sports drink is useful.

Post-race care

After your first marathon, it can take a long process to recover and often you’ll feel stiff and sore for up to a week after the race. Light exercise in that week after is a great way to make you feel better. It doesn’t repair the damage, but it does increase blood flow around the body, especially to the muscles, which will help aid them in their recovery. Exercises like swimming or cycling, which is non-weight bearing are great forms of gentle exercise that would be good the week after the marathon.

After running a marathon the body’s immune system is weakened, resulting in an increased risk of illness. Fruit, such as satsumas or grapes provide protective antioxidants and vitamin C, which can help boost your immune system.

Your muscles will be aching, to help them recover, take on protein and carbohydrates. You can do this by eating a snack such as hap, egg or tuna sandwich. Carbohydrate, protein and electrolytes are all included in different combinations in those foods, and they will encourage repair and regeneration of the damaged muscle fibres.

Do try and avoid sitting down or remaining in the same position for long periods of time after the race. Continuing movement will help prevent you body from stiffening up.