Give yourself enough time to prepare for the race. Preparing for a marathon in one to two months may not be the best idea, especially if you are new to running. Training in a healthy way for a long road race consists of different stages of training. Start with base training stage – a period of easy pace running, to improve overall endurance and running skills, which usually lasts four to eight weeks (if you only have this amount of time to prepare, focusing solely on base training period is likely the best choice). More physically challenging weeks usually follow, aiming to improve your cardiovascular capacity (i.e. your “engine”). Another eight weeks is appropriate for this stage. Before the road race, two or three weeks of reduced training volume and intensity (the taper for the race), will solidify all adaptations you put through hard training, and will allow you to run at your full potential.
Consistency is key. To make good progress in running you need to increase your weekly or monthly training volume and /or intensity. However, in order to increase the volume of training, we have to make sure that you were training in the previous weeks as well. Therefore, consistency is one of the key principles of progression. 10-15% increase in weekly training volume is a safe margin. Be aware that if you want to add several high-intensity sessions to your weekly training, I would suggest withholding the increase in volume. The combination of high training volume and intensity brings a risk of overtraining and injury. It is also wise to schedule one recovery week for every two or three weeks of hard training. This allows the body to recover, and absorb all good training adaptations.
Expand your running skills with track sessions. Good road runners spend a significant amount of training on the track, and the reason is that track is great for all hard interval training sessions. It is flat and without distractions. Track running can teach you valuable pacing skills. Standard sessions on the track are speed workouts (usually 400m or one-lap repetitions) or longer intervals aiming to improve physical capacity (2 -10min or even longer intervals). Usually, track workouts are physically hard sessions, therefore it is best to find a running club or running friends and complete them together.
Participate in shorter races. Shorter races are a great opportunity to test your road racing skills: pacing, ability to run hard, and getting used to running in events. Running with hundreds of other people is an entirely different experience, compared to most of your lonely training runs. There are plenty of shorter races around Auckland, and each major park has a parkrun on Saturday morning. If you are training for a marathon it is valuable to have practice races in 5k, 10k and half marathon distances.
Invest time in strength exercises. It is a two-way exchange: running will make you fitter and stronger, but strength and conditioning in the gym or at home are important to allow you to stay injury free and keep running. Look at it as regular body maintenance. Training months or weeks when you accumulate most of your easy running volume are the best time to invest more time in strength exercises.
Train hard on some days and easy on others. Training hard every day is not the best idea. Runners have to appreciate the benefits of recovery days or easy training days, as these days are important to build general fitness and allow muscles to recover after harder training sessions. Use the 80-20 rule as a rough guideline: i.e. spend ~80% of your training time exercising at a low intensity and ~20% of your training time challenging yourself with high-intensity workouts.
Practice marathon pace (or pace of any road running distance you are training). If you want to run faster, you need to practice running fast. Surrounded by so many runners in road races we tend to run faster, and it is often that runners find themselves in an unknown, trying to run for a prolonged duration at a pace they never practiced before. The easiest way to practice faster running is to incorporate faster-running intervals into your easy runs: after a good warm-up (15-20mins of easy pace running), increase your running pace to a somewhat uncomfortable zone for another 20min or so. Your breathing will be faster, as you will notice that it is more challenging to maintain your running form. Try to complete this interval (or even several of them) as evenly as possible and finish your session with another 10-20min of easy running to calm the body.
Train for efficiency. Running a marathon is a hard task itself. But at some point in the race, both amateurs and elite runners struggle to maintain a running technique that felt more efficient at the beginning of the race. Solid running skill fundamentals help overcome this drop in efficiency. If you asked me what one single thing would help runners to maintain efficiency in races (or training sessions), I would say: higher step frequency (or cadence). Using higher cadence when we run faster (or run uphill) conserves more energy. Practice making smaller steps when you feel fatigued or run uphill and see if you notice the difference!
Don’t sabotage your training with poor race nutrition choices. Energy demands of running a race are much higher compared to easy long training runs. As we relay mostly a mix of fat and carbohydrate fuel during longer and slower runs, the preference towards carbohydrates (which are stored in muscles as a glycogen) increases as the race intensity goes up. We have enough energy stored in muscles for approximately 80-min race, so if you are thinking to run a marathon – empty glycogen stores in the second half of your run might leave you depleted and most likely your pace will drop considerably. Regular energy intake in the form of carbohydrate drinks or energy gels will supply muscles with extra energy for the race. Each road race has regular aid stations on the course – use them to refuel!
Three sessions that will make you faster in a marathon. These are my favourite running workouts (very simple, but very effective). Keep in mind, that it is necessary to do a proper warm up before each speed session, and avoid higher intensity workouts if you feel sick or injured.
Speed training workout: 10 x 1min (or 400m if on the track) at a fast pace, with 2min recovery between each interval.
Aerobic capacity workout: 6 or 8 x 3 min at your hard pace, with 3min recovery between each interval.
Endurance workout: 3 x 10min (or 3k) at uncomfortable (or your 10k or half-marathon pace), with 2-3min recovery.