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How To Run a Marathon PR
Friday, August 01, 2008

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Without Getting Injured...

If you've got a few marathons under your belt and want to achieve a PR (Personal Record) then here are some tips that may be helpful. They aren't particularly scientific, but they reflect my own personal biases and experience of ten years of marathon running. The information here is for the intermediate or middle-of-the pack runner. If you're in the top 10% of marathon finishers or have already qualified for Boston, you probably don't need my help. If you're just signing up for your first or second marathon, then you'll have a PR anyways without my help. (You may like to read the article Running your First Marathon.)

Why Train for a PR?

There are lots of reasons to train for a PR, but it pretty much comes down to seeing just how far you can push yourself.  If you train for a PR you will likely become fitter than you've ever been in your life, which is a nice feeling, especially as you get older. For many runners, the idea of qualifying for Boston is an inspiration and crowning achievement. Whatever your reason, it's important to keep it in mind, because training for a marathon PR is even more demanding than running your first or second marathon. It takes a lot of physical and mental toughness to do the training. 

I've had my share of PR's over the years and I've made heaps of mistakes along the way. The sport has advanced tremendously over the last 15 years and there's much more information, equipment, and more races to help you achieve a PR.  In training for a marathon you must recognize that there are some items that are in your control and others that are not. Achieving a PR means getting as much control as possible over the items you can control in order to tip the balance in your favor. But you'll need both preparation and a bit of luck to PR.  You also need to remember that even with the best preparation and training, not every marathon is going to be a PR, but they are all victories.

Follow a Formal Training Plan

In my first few years of marathon training, I basically winged it. I looked at training schedules by  Jeff Galloway and Hal Higdon, and took some key points about building my distance and increasing my long runs. But the programs seemed too rigid for me. However, as my times improved they eventually plateaued --approaching --but not quite breaking 3:30. So I decided to become more serious on improving performance. Formal training programs are more rigid, and they do take some of the spontanaity out of running. But the discipline they provide can make a huge difference in your race day performance. They will make you stronger physically and also give you the confidence to break through when the going gets tough. Which program you use is largely personal preference, but I don't recommend mixing and matching different programs as it makes it harder to follow a routine and can lead to over-training. I have had good luck with programs from Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning, The Competitive Runner's Handbook and Furman Institute's FIRST to the Finish program. I recommend the Furman FIRST program for anyone who has suffered running injuries with high mileage programs of 50+ miles per week.  There's also the Hanson Marathon program which has a maximum long run of 16 miles. (See the Advanced Training Resources section below for more information on books and training programs.)

Set a Goal

Most intermediate and advanced training programs are based on a specific target time.  There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg phenomena here, in that you don't always know if the goal is too ambitious until you get well into the training program. Depending on your previous marathon finishes and your training, you can usually improve your time between 5-10 minutes if you are introducing speed work for the first time.  As your times improve, getting even a few minutes faster is a significant accomplishment. The key point is you need to know what your target goal and pace time are and use a program that matches the goal, whether it's just to shave a couple of minutes, break 3:30 or qualify for Boston.   

Do Some Speed Work

The most important part of a formal training program at the intermediate or advanced level is that it will introduce speed work.  For my first 4 marathons I didn't do any speed work since it didn't seem like it would be a lot of fun.  Rest assured, speed work is not fun.  But it will make you faster and more efficient.  Even after several years of more training, speed work is still intimidating.  As hard as it is to do intervals, mile repeats, or hill repeats, I know that they will reduce the suffering on race day. Most training programs will have one tough speed workout per week and one moderate workout, such as a tempo run (also known as lactate threshold training.) You may dread those workouts, especially when you are first starting. But you will be amazed at the impact they will have. While the workouts do not get easier (in most training programs the speed workouts get progressively harder and longer) you will make progress and there is a great pride you can take in completing any speed workout. If you are a casual runner, doing a speed ladder at the track will make you feel like a true athlete. Be sure to warm up before any speed work to avoid injury. If running at a track isn't your bag, get a GPS such as the Garmin Forerunner 301. Having a heart rate monitor can also be helpful. Note that a key ingredient in speed training is the rest interval, typically a minute or so between laps. You'll notice that as you do more speed work, your recovery time (that is, how long it takes your heart rate to come back down) will improve steadily. One weird side effect of speed workouts is that for me they made the long run into an easy workout, since mostly you are running at a minute or more slower than your goal pace.  One thing to consider in track work or tempo runs is to try to measure your rate of turnover, or strides per minute. Most runners assume longer strides are better, but typically overstriding is less efficient.  You should do what's natural, but there is a theoretical optimum of 180 strides per minute.  Faster turnover, rather than longer strides, can improve your speed.  

Train at Race Pace

While speed work is typically done at a speed faster than your marathon goal race pace (which is what makes it so hard), it is important to get used to running at your goal race pace. This is typically done in a tempo run and you should also incorporate it into your long runs on occasion. I often get bored near the end of long runs, so I will try to pick up the pace by 15-30 seconds per mile for 2 or 3 miles. It's not easy since your legs are tired, but I have found it is a great confidence booster. 

Run Some Milestone Races

There's a lot that can go wrong on marathon race day, most of which can be avoided by getting accustomed to racing. Even if you only care about your marathon time, it's good to work in a couple of 10K's and ideally a half-marathon during your training. These can typically be done instead of a speed workout, or in the case of a half-marathon, instead of a long run. (And if your long run calls for more than 13 miles that day, don't worry too much about making up the extra miles.) The point of these events is to get used to racing. You want to eliminate the race-day jitters, get familiar with drinking from aid stations, not going out too fast, watching your pace and so on. You don't need to set PRs on these races (especially if they are 4 weeks or closer to your marathon) but you want to take them seriously. Remember to taper, at least a few days before any race and allow a day off afterwards (and likely a few days after a half marathon.)

Pick a Flat, Cool Marathon

Ok, lets be clear: If you want a PR, one thing you can do to stack the odds in your favor is pick a course that is flat and has cool weather. It's nice to run famous or scenic courses like Big Sur, Boston, Marine Corps Marathon (DC)   or New York, but these are tough courses. Look at the race course elevation chart and if its got a lot of spikes or rises in elevation measuring hundreds of feet, keep it in mind for later races. No marathon is easy, but courses like Austin,  Chicago, California International (Sacramento), Houston, Las Vegas, Rock N' Roll (San Diego), Silicon Valley, make it more likely you'll PR. Picking a fall marathon not only increases your likelihood of cool weather, but it also enables you to train through the summer. Also think about whether you want to run in a "big" race with a lot of crowd support or in a smaller more intimate race. Both have their tradeoffs, but in terms of running a PR, I find that running a bigger race (more than 5,000 runners) in a major city with a lot of crowd support can be very inspiring. And if you have your name or a flag on your shirt you'll hear a lot of cheers. 

Use the Home Turf Advantage

If you have the opportunity to run a local race, that is a great way to improve your odds towards a PR.  Not only does it mean you won't have to risk jet lag or have the added stress of travel, but more importantly you can become familiar with the course during training. When training for the Silicon Valley Marathon, I was able to run nearly all my long runs on the  course which helped immensely. On race day it meant there were no surprises and I was already familiar with the turns, the hills and so on. When I trained for Boston, I was fortunate enough to travel on business a few weeks earlier, so I did my last long run on the course. Admittedly, I was lucky to be able to do that. Worst case, driving the course can help you prepare mentally. 

Watch Your Diet

When you're in training for a marathon, you'll likely be consuming more calories than usual and still lose weight. Since carbohydrates are the fuel of choice, you'll want to consciously reduce fats. If you can drop a few pounds, you will have an advantage on race day. I use my marathon training time to eliminate fried foods, ice cream and a lot of junk food. I still indulge in a small amount of chocolate (what's life without chocolate?) but otherwise, the discipline is good. In the last month of training I give up beer, but this is mostly a symbolic gesture. As you taper, remember to reduce your calorie intake so you don't feel bloated.

Don't Get Sick

While you'll never have complete control over this, you can take some steps to decrease the likelihood of getting a last-minute cold or flu.  I may be slightly neurotic, but I try to eliminate business travel, trade shows and late night meetings the last few weeks before a marathon.  And if you really want to know, I also avoid shaking hands with people in the week before a marathon.  If I must, I try to wash my hands immediately afterwards.  Call me paranoid, but I just don't want to get a cold the week before a marathon.

Fueling Up

In order to run a PR you'll need to pay attention to your pre-race diet and race-day carbs. I like to get familiar with whatever sports drink is going to be used on race day, whether it's Gatorade (too sweet), Accelerade (awesome) or something else. If you plan on using gels such as Gu on race day, it's important to try them out on long runs. As a rule of thumb, you don't want to try anything new on race day. Typically, I will alternate between water and sports drink at the aid stations. Too much sports drink can leave you feeling nauseous.

Tapering

Tapering is my favourite part of marathon training. I typically cut my mileage in half 2-3 weeks before race day, and then again by half in each remaining week. It's very unlikely that training is going to do much good in the last couple of weeks and the risk is far higher of being over-trained rather than under-trained at that point. The key to staying fit during the tapering period is to maintain intensity of the workouts, but dramatically shorten the duration. So you might do a speed workout or a tempo run, but keep it short, under 30-40 minutes. I usually do some workouts at my target race pace, just to get my body used to the speed I'll want to maintain. In the final week, I front load my workouts so I can have 3-4 days rest before race day.  In the last 2 days, I make sure I'm staying off my feet, getting a lot of sleep, eating light (mostly carbs) and staying hydrated.

The Day Before

One technique I learned at a race expo from running guru and coach Matt Fitzgerald is called the Western Australia carbo loading method and it's a way to encourage your body to absorb extra glycogen without having to do any kind of weird carbo depletion. The idea is that the morning before your race, after a brief warm up, run or cycle for 2 1/2 minutes very fast and then add a 30 second all-out sprint. I usually do this on a stationary cycle so I don't get injured. Then immediately pile on the carbs: a bagel, yogurt, chocolate milk, whatever. Your body will load up and absorb more carbs than it would otherwise since it feels starved from the intensity of your workout. Maybe it's just voodoo, but if it works for you, great. (Ok, it's probably best to try this on a half marathon first.)

I will usually go to the race expo in the morning the day before the race, but I limit my time to a couple of hours. For large races, like Boston or Chicago, you can spend hours on your feet and get a little bit antsy in the process. I pick in advance if there are any lectures I want to attend, buy my souvenirs and get out of there. Dinner the night before is always pasta for me and if the race has an organized dinner, I like to go to that. I've seen speakers like Jeff Galloway, Dick Beardsly and others, and I always find it inspiring to hear from some of the running greats. 

Mental Rehearsal

This may be weird to some folks, but bare with me. I have found that mentally rehearsing a race is extremely valuable.  I usually have a hard time sleeping at night, so when in training for a marathon, I mentally rehearse the course. Many of my PRs have been on the Silicon Valley Marathon and I have run the course often enough that I can run the entire race in my mind. So at night, when I'm trying to sleep, I just start reviewing exactly how it will feel on race day. I imagine the other runners, watching my pace, the crowds (ok, there aren't many on this course!), and note each mile as I go. In my rehearsal I am focused and confident and I maintain an even pace. Admittedly, I usually fall asleep before I get even 10 miles into it, so sometimes I try to rehearse the second half of the course. This technique can make race day feel familiar, even if its a new course you've never done before. 

The other technique I have used in the week before a race is to write down all the reasons why I will have a PR. I make note of my training, what I've learned from earlier races, what corrective actions I've taken and why it will all work out. I don't try to be balanced, but instead just make sure I am positive in my thoughts. This positive thinking can help you when you're out on the course suffering and your mind may otherwise drift towards negative thoughts. 

Race Day Focus

The most important thing on race day is to make sure you don't do anything new. No new foods, no new clothes, no new last minute workout gear. As much as possible you want to treat the race much like your long runs, but at a faster pace. If your race starts at 7:00 am, make sure you've done long runs at that time. And whatever you do, do not got out too fast; stick to your goal pace. If you find yourself more than 10 seconds per mile faster than your goal pace any time in the first half of the marathon, cut back immediately to goal pace. It can be hard for a competitive runner to let people pass you, but you need to run your own race and let it happen. In my experience, running too fast in the early part of your race doesn't put "time in the bank" towards reaching your goal. It has the exact opposite effect and is more like writing checks on an empty account. And then if you start to slow down, it can be very discouraging. If your first mile is too slow that's usually ok.  It means you'll have stored up some energy that you can tap into in later miles. So don't spend a lot of energy bobbing and weaving through the crowds in your first mile or two.

I have found the best way to be successful in a marathon is to run an even pace.  If you do, you will pass dozens or even hundreds on the second half of the race, which can be a good psycholigical boost.  (Just don't rub it in!)  If the race has pace groups, these can be very helpful to maintain consistency and help make the miles pass by quickly without a lot of mental stress. Otherwise, you can use a GPS watch so you can focus only on pace and not have to worry about doing any race time computations. On long runs, you typically lose the ability to compute your projected finish time or pace requirements, so don't even bother. I just set my watch to tell me my pace and distance and don't even think about the total elapsed time until I'm in the last couple of miles and want to know if I'm cutting it close. 

The most important thing on race day is to maintain the mental focus and not fall prey to negative thinking. Many runners will have a mantra or phrase that they will repeat to themselves on occasion to make sure they stay focused.  For me, I just count off my paces 1-2-3-4 and then start again. It puts me into a meditative state of mind that lets me stay focused on running and not get distracted. I also sometimes write a couple of key reminders on my hands, whether it's my goal or an important person in my life. 

Caffeine can be a useful stimulant on race day. (And those who think caffeine is not a drug simply have not had enough!) Studies have shown that caffeine helps reduce the perceived level of excertion in endurance sports like running. You shouldn't experiment with mega-doses on race day, especially if you are particularly sensitive to caffeine, or have not used it on long runs, but I have found it very helpful. Ideally, you reduce your caffeine consumption the week before the marathon. Then have about a strong cup of joe on race morning. (This can also be helpful to activate your bowels, another important thing on race day.)  I like to use caffeinated Gu about every five miles during a race, but you need to make sure you're getting water with it (and not sports drink.)  I sometimes have also chewed a couple of pieces of Jolt Caffeinated gum in the the last few miles of a marathon. Frankly, it could strictly be a placebo affect at that point, but I found I was able to maintain my pace and qualify for Boston as a result.  Staying focused is extremely difficult in the last miles of a marathon, so whatever you can do will pay off.

When Things Go Wrong

Ok, no matter what preparation and training you've done, running a fast marathon is hard work. It's really not a question of if things will go wrong, but more of when they will go wrong, or at least become very challenging. The important thing is to be able to focus back on what is within your control. My personal experience is the first mile or two are tough and my legs are strangely tired. Then I get into cruise mode, and I feel great for 10-15 miles, elated even. I'm doing it!  And then somewhere between mile 17 and 20, things get progressively harder.  You may go through a completely different set of ups and downs on your marathon, but recognize that it's normal. As I've said before, just try to run steady. Use your race mantra or other techniques to stay focused on the running. If you start to panic, especially in the last six miles, just bring it back to the basics. Focus on your footfall, your breathing, your posture. Repeat to yourself: Run tall, breath easy, one step after another.  If you're on city streets, run on the white line of the road if you can. If you're encountering hills, keep your head up and maintain even effort. If you're on downhills, for god's sake, don't run fast as you will regret it later! (This is a common mistake at Boston!)  It's natural that your legs will be tired toward the end of the marathon. Be careful that you are not tensing up, especially your shoulders and arms. You want to run relaxed.

If you can, draw energy from others. If you've got friends or family on the course, that will help a lot. When you get to a water station, thank the volunteers, even if you have no energy left. If your plan was to walk through the aid stations, then do so, but be careful not to dawdle. If you're running along side another runner, pace with them. If you're running an even pace, you'll pass people. Reel them in and give them encouragement as you go by. 

I like to break a marathon race into four 5 mile segments and then a 10K.  It makes it a little less daunting rather than thinking about the entire race ahead of me, I just focus on the miles to go in each segment. When I get to mile 20, I count down the miles remaining, rather than count up. I will usually put on an iPod with some of my favorite fast-paced rock songs (U2, Boston, Allman Brothers, The Cars, The Clash, Talking Heads etc), on the second half of a marathon. I find that breaks things up for me and the music always helps me pick up my pace.

While it is not easy to speed up in a marathon, I usually try to give a final kick towards the end. Sometimes that's the last 2 miles, or the last mile or sometimes just the last half a mile. If you've rehearsed running fast towards the end of your long runs or shorter races, this can be fun. But if you haven't, reserve your sprinting until you get near the 26 mile mark. Your legs will hurt like heck already but they likely won't feel any worse if you speed up and there's something to be said for varrying the pace. Towards the end you can usually get some cheering from the crowd which helps a lot. Also, be sure to run through the finish line and don't stop your watch until you are in the chute. Otherwise your race photo will look dorky.

Plan B

Ok, not every race finishes as planned. In particular, if the weather is warm or rainy, if you get sick, if you get injured or nauseous, you won't PR, but you can still finish. Be prepared to reset your goal on the fly in the event of any abnormal problem. But remember, being tired or sore is normal, so just don't even worry about that!

If the temperature hits 70 F, forget about a PR and just focus on finishing, even if your pace per mile is a minute or two slower than you planned. I've seen guys collpase on a course and be carried off on stretchers due to heat exhaustion. If you see bodies dropping, it's a good sign that you should slow down and not regret it!  Similarly, while a bit of rain can keep a race comfortable, a steady drizzle for 20 or more miles can lead to a lot of discomfort and through you off your game. Remember, discomfort is temporary, but I admit, I haven't been able to PR in such conditions.

If you have dull aches or pains, you can get through it, but if you get a sharp pain, especially in your achilles or calf, you should to stop immediately. Walk for a bit, try resuming and if it's still sharp, run slowly (or walk) the rest of the course.  I've never had to drop out of a marathon, but I have made conscious decisions on occasion to slow down rather than risk a DNF. 

Advanced Training Resources

Once you're serious about training and get beyond your first two or three marathons, look into these books. But be warned, they are not for first time marathoners and the workouts (and the jargon) can be pretty intimidating.

How to Train and Run Your Best Marathon, Gordon Backoulis Bloch
A great book for breaking through with a faster time. Very easy to read.  But the workouts are pretty serious.

The Competitive Runner's Handbook, Bob Glover
This is a great book for intermediate and advanced runners. Includes detailed discussion of speed work and running physiology. You'll learn everything about Lactate Thresholds, Tempo Runs, Intervals, Fartleks and more. Covers everything from 10Ks to marathons.  Very comprehensive, if a bit snooty. 

Advanced Marathoning, Pete Pfitzinger
May advanced runners swear by the "Pfitz" training programs.  This book is focused on just one thing: competing for a fast marathon time. You need to be very dedicated to use this book and be willing to train hard for a PR.  But it's a no-nonsense approach and easier to read and more focused than the Competitive Runner's Handbook. Written by a world-class marathon runner and a Running Times editor. 

The Lore of Running, Tim Noakes, MD
This is a heavy-duty book written by leading sports-science and world-class marathon and ultra-marathon runner Tim Noakes.  Although the book is hard to find, it is considered the bible of running from a sports medicine perspective and has a focus on well-documented scientific research.  At over 900 pages it is not light reading and if you are not interested in the physiology or science of running, it is likely not going to be your cup of tea.  I bought it to understand more than local doctors on how to recover from achilles tendonosis.  The book has the most detailed eight pages on the subject that one could ever hope for and the techniques helped me get over an injury that plagued me for over a year.  So even if I never read the other 900 pages, it was worth it to me.

Runners World
Runners World has a range of excellent articles on marathon training, good workouts and practical tips towards achieving a PR.

Running Times
Runners Times is definitely a more advanced magazine than Runner's World and it focuses a lot on technical articles to improve performance as well as competitive track and field reporting. I don't find it as helpful as Runner's World, but if you find Runner's World articles too mainstream, then you may enjoy it. Pete Pitzinger and Bill Rodgers are regular contributors.

Furman Institute
Furman Institute's marathon training programs first came to widespread attention after the article in Runners World called "The Less is More Marathon Plan".  Their  marathon training program is based on three running workouts a week, all of which are pretty challenging.  For runners prone to over-training injuries or for masters runners whose high-mileage days are over, I heartily recommend this program. I can't say whether it will work for everyone, but it worked for me with a PR at the Silicon Valley Marathon and no injuries!  A book from Rodale press is forthcoming. 

The Ultimate Guide To Marathons, Craythorn & Hanna
This is a great "arm chair" guide to races around the country. Includes elevation profiles and ratings of course difficulty. There's also an international edition.

And here are a few additional useful resources: 

Results

I've been running marathons since 1996 finally breaking my goal of 3:30 in 2001.  I sat out the 2003 marathon season due to an ongoing problem with achilles tendonosis, but in 2005 I managed two marathons and qualified for Boston.  The Boston Marathon was a hoot!  I've never felt like such a rock star the way the crowds cheered for everyone.  Definitely a fun event. 

If you want to set an ambitious goal, I can't think of anything more challenging and rewarding than to run Boston.  It takes a lot of training and a lot of perseverence, but it is a great experience.

Lately, my focus has been more on half marathons which are half the distance but twice as much fun.  They're also great for training under race conditions.   It's been fun to post a few PRs in shorter races, but I miss the focus of the marathon.


2008 Santa Cruz Half                 1:34  -- A PR by 15 seconds; not bad for an old guy!
2007 Santa Cruz Half                 1:36  -- My second best half on a beautiful course.
2006 Silicon Valley Half              1:39  -- A nice local race, with a small crowd.
2006 San Jose Half                    1:43  -- Nowhere near a PR, but a big race with lots of music .
2006 Boston Marathon              3:39  --  The most fun ever; with photos to prove it!
2005 Silicon Valley Marathon     3:18  -- Great weather and good luck got me a PR and BQ!
2005 Nappa Valley Marathon    3:25 -- Good time on a course with nice rolling hills.
2005 Austin Half                        1:37 -- A fast course with some nice downhills.
2004 Silicon Valley Half              1:34 -- a PR for a fast 7:13 pace on the half marathon.
2001 Silicon Valley Marathon     3:24  -- Finally broke 3:30!  A cool day, flat course and a PR!
2000 Avenue of the Giants        3:33  -- Gosh darn rain!  A small scenic race without frills. 
1999 Silicon Valley Marathon     3:31  -- I went out fast but it was hot. I got a PR but missed my goal.
1998 Rock 'n Roll Marathon       3:38  -- Inaugural race; it sucked!  But I got a picture with Elvis.
1997 Chicago Marathon            3:36  -- A flat course, cool weather and PR pacing with Jeff Galloway!
1996 California International    3:49  -- Not as fast as hoped, but a PR. I asked my wife to marry me.
1996 Big Sur Marathon             3:57  -- A tough course, not recommended for a first marathon.


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