The Nitty Gritties–The Taper

For a lot of people who are currently training for a marathon, now is the time that the taper is happening. You’ve done the big scary miles and you’ve just got to survive until the big day.

Tapering is basically when you cut back your total weekly mileage by 20-25% approximately three weeks out from race day (e.g. if you are running 40 miles, you’ll drop to 30-32 miles). Then two weeks out from race day you drop down another 20-25% (24ish miles). Then when you hit the week of the race you’re just ticking over on a lot lower mileage to keep your body fresh for the big day.

You usually start tapering just after you’ve done your last big run, and usually the longest run you’ll do in the entire training. For a lot of people this might be anywhere between 18-24 miles. Then the following weeks your long run will drop down, probably not going over 16 miles.

For me, my last long run was 18.6 miles (I didn’t go over this as I didn’t fancy running 20 miles or above as I know how injury prone I am). Then the week after my next long run was 16 miles (last weekend), then 13 miles and then race day. I’ve tried this previously and it’s worked well. Some people like to drop down to 10 or even eight miles the week before and this is fine, whatever works for you! The intention is that you’re just maintaining everything you’ve worked hard for and letting your body freshen up ready for the race.

During the taper, it is most important to remember this: physiological adaptations to training take a minimum of six weeks. Therefore, training hard during the final two to three weeks before your marathon is not going to improve your performance.”  Runner’s World [Source]

Tapering sounds positively delightful when you’re in the thick of your heavy mileage and tiredness. But when you actually get there it can be a bit of a shock. You suddenly seem to feel rubbish. Niggles start cropping up – does my knee twinge? Why does my hamstring feel tight? And you feel so tired. Normal runs during the week can feel hard-work. I find myself struggling to run six miles and wondering how the hell I’m going to go 20 miles further.

This is NORMAL. Your body has just been put through a rather intense amount of running and training for the past few months. It’s suddenly taking a breath and adjusting to everything it’s gone through. This does not mean you’ve suddenly lost everything. This taper madness happens to most of us!

Don’t be tempted to squeeze in some more miles because your weekly mileage suddenly looks a lot less. And don’t try and whack up the intensity to compensate for the less miles. Keep things exactly the same intensity-wise but just reduce the number of miles you’re running. Keep doing the intervals, hill training and speed sessions; just shorten them.

And whatever you do, don’t try and make up for any lost training runs you might have missed previously. There’s not much you can do about it now. It is FAR better to turn up to a marathon undertrained than over-trained, or worse, injured. Give your body the benefit of the doubt – if you’ve managed to do most of your training without a huge number of weeks of no-running you should be fine.

On race day you’ll be pumped up, adrenaline-fuelled and ready to go. You don’t want to shuffle up to the start-line tired and over-worked. Ideally you’ll feel fresh and full of pent-up energy due to your lower mileage. The marathon is the victory lap – you’ve done the hard work.

Food-wise, just keep everything the same. If you want to carb load and have some experience with it before previous races, then go for it. But if you’ve never done it before don’t start loading up on pasta for every single meal leading up to the race. You don’t want to feel bloated or cause digestion issues. You honestly don’t need to pack your body silly with carbs. Normal balanced meals are perfectly fine. Your body usually has enough glycogen in the muscles to get you through, so just make sure you eat sensibly leading up the race. Do nothing different to what you’ve done before. The night before the race have a good-sized meal that you’ve tried and tested.

And remember, DO NOT panic. You’ve done the hard part. The mind is a very powerful thing. Even if your training hasn’t been exactly what you hoped, mental determination can do absolute wonders. My first two marathon trainings were plagued with injury, but I still got through with the help of sheer determination and belief that I could do it. There will always be other people who have had worse training than you and will still finish. You CAN do this.

Have you ever suffered from taper madness?

When do you do your longest marathon training run?

Do you carb load for races? I tend to stick to normal meals all week and then have a shop-bought pizza the night before if I can

The Nitty Gritties – Gear

I thought I’d do another marathon training post, this time focused on gear you might need whether in training or for the actual race.

To catch up on previous posts in this series you can find them here:

Also if you want to request a topic, let me know!

Loads of non-runners I speak to (yes, I do socialise with them occasionally Winking smile ) just think that all you need for running are trainers. And any old trainers at that. Runners, however, are wryly well aware that you need a lot more than that. And “just” trainers can cost quite a chunk of money anyway. But what do you really need for running a marathon? Is it any different to just normal running or running something like a 10k?

Hydration

Well, it really depends firstly on which marathon you’re doing. If it’s a big marathon, like London, Manchester or Berlin for example (to name but a few), then water and carbohydrate water (like PowerAde or Lucozade) are going to be readily available. In the Paris marathon there was water and PowerAde every 5km. At London I think it’s every mile. You really don’t need to carry water with you – unless you want to.

Bare in mind it can be stressful and difficult to get to the water stations in busy marathons. If you’re concerned that you will need water regularly and don’t want to keep making a dive into the water area (it can be a crazy area where people randomly slow down, stop or change direction without warning) then carrying your own might be a good idea. Personally I don’t tend to drink a lot during races unless it’s very warm so for Boston I won’t carry anything as I know I can grab some if I need it and risk the mayhem.

Hydration preparation

For my trail marathon last year at Cheddar Gorge it was a really small race (less than 100 people) and there were only three aid stations if I remember rightly. It took place in mid-August so I knew I’d need to carry water with me. I used my iFitness Hydration Belt and at the aid stations and made sure I topped up the bottles as well.

Fuel

Similar to hydration, some marathons will offer gels or food at the aid stations. Check where the fuel will be, what it will be and how many of them will be available during the race. If you want to use gels and your marathon is offering them, test out those gels in training. Never try them for the first time during the race – they might not agree with your stomach. The Cheddar Gorge marathon offered sweets, biscuits and fruit – but I’d never trained with that sort of thing so I took my own fuel with me.

MuleBarGels

My stomach’s generally quite good with gels so I don’t really have an issue with different ones, though I know I prefer it if they have caffeine in them. For me, I tend to have a breakfast of porridge, a black coffee and then three gels (at least one of those being a caffeine one) during the race. But you don’t have to use gels. You could try things like chopped up cereal bars, dried fruit, salted cooked potato chunks (an ultra marathon favourite apparently), jam, and even baby food (like fruit purees). Basically what you ideally want is an easy source of carbs so your body can use it quickly. Just make sure you trial it during one of your long runs.

But you don’t have to use any sort of fuel during the marathon if you don’t want to. If you know you can last an entire marathon without fuel then there’s nothing to say that you have to have anything! Some people can last on a good meal the night before and a good carb-based breakfast on the day of the race. Though if you’re new to marathon training I’d probably advise against this.

Running belts/bags

If you do decide to take fuel or hydration with you you need to find a way to carry it with you. I actually don’t mind holding gels in my hand and I’ve also been quite lucky to have had my dad at three of my marathons handing me gels (he told me where he’d be at what mile). Obviously at a very busy marathon like London this would be nearly impossible.

IMG_5023I love this photo as it literally shows my dad handing me a gel at the Bournemouth marathon

Some people use belts that you can attach gels to or running belts like the Flipbelt. Again, you just need to get used to wearing something like that for a long period of time. Some belts bounce or ride up, or even chafe. Be careful with your selection. I recommend the Flipbelt – minimal riding up issues and no bouncing. It can also hold a phone, gels and keys.

For liquids, you could consider whether you want a full-on rucksack like a Camelbak or a belt like I’ve shown above. Or whether you fancy carrying a bottle for the race (I don’t recommend this, it could give you an imbalance while you run – and 26.2 miles is a long way to hold a bottle for!)

MP3 Players

Does your marathon allow MP3 players? Some smaller marathons could disqualify you for wearing headphones because it’s a safety hazard if the roads haven’t been closed. The worst thing that could happen is you get a DQ at your marathon for something as silly as wearing headphones, so do check! If your marathon doesn’t allow headphones then make sure you’ve done a lot of training without music or podcasts. If you depend on that sort of stimulus it could be a shock to suddenly have to entertain yourself for several hours.

My current preferred method for a marathon is have nothing for the first 10 miles as the atmosphere is all go-go-go and the crowds cheer you along, then for the next 10 miles I’ll put on a podcast as I find these the hardest miles. The atmosphere has died down a bit and mentally it’s the toughest part for me as I’ve still got so far to go but have run a fair way already. Listening to a podcast helps take my mind off of things.

Then for the final 10k I’ll switch to some high tempo music and go for it. I don’t have it on really loud as I like to have the atmosphere of the crowds and other runners but just loud enough so I can feed off of it. I also make sure that the “Final 10k marathon playlist” is a playlist I never touch any other time. I won’t listen to any of those songs at any other point so to maximise their effectiveness and magic.

Tissues, tablets, plasters

Small but some may say potentially essential items. Tissues are a very handy item for the obvious nasal-related reasons. But also if there are portable loos on the course they may not always be adequately stocked with loo roll…

Ibuprofen tablets might be handy to have just in case. Worst-case scenario, a niggle crops up. My advice is to evaluate whether it’s going to become something so much worse or something you could potentially run through. I’m not advocating running using painkillers, but we all know that if we’ve trained for a marathon for 12 or more weeks we’re bloody well going to try and finish it. Come what may.

Plasters in case a blister occurs and you really need to sort it out. The likelihood of actually stopping, taking off your sock and trainer to sort it out is probably slim but a plaster weighs next to nothing and for me it’s more to settle my mind than actual use.

And like everything, the most important thing is to try nothing new on race day. Test things out, have a dress rehearsal at a half marathon race or a long training run. And set things out the night before so in the morning you’re not stressed running around the place trying to find what you need.

What gear do you usually take with you during a marathon?

Do you use gels? Which ones and how many?

Do you listen to anything during a marathon or race?

The Nitty Gritties–The Long Run

This is another post in my marathon training series…hope it’s useful!

One of the key parts of marathon training is the long run. It’s pretty much what differentiates marathon training from other more conventional races, like half marathons and 10ks (I say more conventional races as there are some crazy races like ultras and obstacle races as a whole different ball game when it comes to training of which I have next to no experience with).

**Again, I will stress that all the below is my own opinion. I have no qualifications in this area, just my own experience and what works well for me.**

The Distance

With half marathons you don’t really need to go above 12 miles during training, some plans don’t even go above 10. If you’re quite experienced you might go over the distance, say 14 miles, but higher than that isn’t really necessary. But for marathons you’re looking at 16 miles becoming a medium run and potentially 24 miles as your longest. Personally I’m happy if I can hit 18 miles three times. I might venture up to 20 or above if I’ve got a race I can use but I wouldn’t ordinarily just go out on my own for 20 miles.

It’s really your personal preference. If your new to marathons and you’re scared you won’t make it, then doing a 20 miler might help squash some doubts and give you confidence. If, like me, you’re a bit injury-prone, then doing many 18 miles and above long runs might be tempting fate a bit too much. I would always recommend doing your last and longest run three weeks before your marathon – just before you taper. That way you give your body three weeks to recover from that run and become nice and fresh for the race.

In those three weeks you’re not dropping the ball though and doing nothing. Your mileage should decrease but the intensity should remain fairly similar. For example, if you always do an interval session on a Tuesday night, just because you’re tapering doesn’t mean you can’t still do it. During tapering your runs shouldn’t all be easy plods of minimal distance. For me I find doing a long run of 14-16 miles two weeks out and then 10-12 the week before the race works nicely. It keeps my body ticking over but not exhausting it. My other runs during the week stay the same.

Obviously when you begin marathon training you don’t suddenly bash out an 18 miler though, it’ll take a fair few weeks. And you may find you run 14 miles and wonder how the hell you could possibly run further. But you will, you’re body adapts as you increase the mileage slowly. Next week you might do 15 and it feels similar, but you’ve just run one more mile than last week.

Planning

I still get nervous the night before a long run. It’s silly because it’s just running. But there is something quite nerve racking about running a long way, especially if you’re venturing into a distance you’ve never run before. A way to help reduce those nerves is to plan well. Get your route sorted, organise what clothes you’re going to wear (what’s the weather going to be like?), make sure you’ve had enough to eat and enough sleep the night before, sort your fuel out (are you taking gels? Are you having breakfast?) and hydrate well the day before. To calm myself I tend to run the route in my head. For some reason it helps chill me out.

The Route

I will always plan my route for a long run. I hate going out and not knowing where I’m going or only having a vague sense of the mileage. I like to set off on a predefined route and shut my mind off from it, let my legs do the running and just relax into it.

I tend to use RunKeeper to plan out a route. There are lots of other sites and apps you can use (MapMyRun for example) but I like RunKeeper.

 

I click ‘Create your own’ and just plan it out from there.

 

You can follow the roads easily by clicking on them and it’ll tot up the distance for you as you go. The advantage of MapMyRun is that you can have a look at the elevation whereas RunKeeper doesn’t. But for most of my long runs I run them around the same area so I’m familiar with the hills.

Company

I’m very lucky in that I love running on my own. I have no issues with running all my long runs solo. The advantage for that is at the end of the day I will be running my own marathon. I won’t have someone to chat to or help battle through the miles with on the big day. I’ll be running with other people in the race but that’s different. I also have full control over the pace I want to run, where I want to go and what time I leave.

I do of course enjoy running with other people but for most of my long runs I like to be in control. If I stop it’s because I need to stop, not because someone else does. It’s highly selfish I know but at the end of the day I run marathons for me and no one else and being so injury-prone (and a self-confessed paranoid runner) it helps me relax a lot more to know it’s only me I’m letting down if for some reason I can’t carry on the run or that the pace isn’t right.

That said, so many people in my club run on a Sunday together for their long runs and love it. And the long runs I’ve been on with other people have been a lot of fun with good banter and the miles fly by. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with running with others if you find it helps you. But for me personally when I have a marathon I really want to do I know I need to be sensible and keep my head in my own game. I also need to ride that pain train on my own, because on marathon day I’ll be on my own and I need to know I can cope.

This is different though when I decide to run a race as part of a long run. Not necessarily to race it but to help break the monotony of solo long runs and to also have a nice catered long run (aid stations and cheering are always welcome!). And you get a medal… Last year I ran 12 miles and then finished it with a local 10k race, I also ran 5 miles to a half marathon. It does require a fair bit of time management to get it right though!

The Pace

It’s advised that the pace you should run your long runs should be a minute to a minute and a half slower than your goal marathon pace. This is to avoid knackering your body out, especially if that pace is quite a tricky pace to maintain. As you continue training that pace will become easier, but initially you need to slow it down. It’s about time on your feet, not how quickly you can do it.

I struggle a little with this (and when I say a little I mean I kind of don’t follow it at all). I think this is mainly because my marathon pace is generally a pace I can readily achieve in normal life anyway. When I’m running regularly my marathon pace tends to be an easy pace for me (it’s anywhere from 7.45min/miles to 8.30min/miles depending on what shape I’m in). On long runs I don’t look at my watch that often and just run how I feel. Perhaps I should force myself to slow down but so far it’s worked fine. For getting my PB last year at Liverpool I ran most of my long runs around 8 min/miles and then ran the marathon around 7.45min/miles. The marathon itself was comfortable for 80%, where the last 20% was tough but doable.

I would hate to run all my long runs at 9min/miles and then suddenly expect my body to hit 8min/miles on the day. But that’s just ME. I don’t run a huge amount of miles during the week (30ish) and I don’t do a whole lot of speed work. It just works for me. You need to work out what works for you. If you find you’re absolutely broken and exhausted for the following week after a long run then perhaps you do need to slow it down. But if you feel comfortable fatigued (that lovely post-long run haziness that doesn’t hugely impact your day-to-day) then you’re fine.

The Nutrition

Like I said in a previous post, it’s not rocket science but you do need to think about it. I became a little reckless and carefree last year the night before a trail marathon and had an Indian curry that I’ve never had before. I’ve had Indian food before long runs quite a lot but this was a spicy curry I wasn’t familiar with and I thought I would be absolutely fine. “Stomach of steel” I laughed as I chowed down my second portion.

During the marathon I had to stop twice for an upset tummy. It wasn’t pleasant and I learnt my lesson in a big way. Always respect the marathon. Marathon training is hard work and you do have to sacrifice things (going out for dinner or a late night at pub before an 18 miler isn’t always a great idea). Don’t suddenly try something different the night before a long run. Obviously you do need to test different things out but don’t be silly about it. If you know pizza works nicely, eat pizza. I generally have an Indian takeaway most Saturday nights before a long run. I adore Indian food and I love getting a takeaway as I cook all week. It’s a nice treat I budget in for and fits my lifestyle (sad, lonely woman – joke!). But I know exactly what to have from my Indian – mainly chicken, no thick sauces, poppadums and salad. Nothing crazy but I love it and I run well on it.

And you need to work out if you need to take fuel with you on the run – whether that’s gels, sweets or ‘real’ food like dried fruit or cereal bars (questionably ‘real’ food). I don’t take anything with me but I generally have three gels during a marathon (that way I get the maximum boost on race day as my body has trained without them). I already know what gels work with my system so I don’t need to test them out on a long run, but if you’re unsure you should always try before the big day. Some people’s stomachs can’t handle gels. And also you need to work out how you’re going to carry them: in a belt, in your hands, have someone pass them to you or depend on what the marathon has to offer. Most marathons will state if they’re providing fuel and what that fuel will be so you can train accordingly.

Lastly…

Don’t fret and panic. Long runs are a dress rehearsal not the main event. If you struggle and have problems during these runs than that’s ideal as you can solve them before the big day. Better to get your problems and worries done early so the actual marathon is just a celebration of the hard work you’ve put into it. And if you miss a long run because of illness, injury or holiday, you’re not going to fail. It’s not an exact science and as long as you’ve gotten in some solid mileage during the entire process you’ll be fine to miss a few runs here or there. No training cycle is perfect.

How do you prepare for your long runs?

Do you pre-plan your route?

What meal do you have the night before a long run?

The Nitty Gritties–Food

As I’m plodding my way through my training for my sixth marathon I thought I’d do a mini series on some bits and bobs (“the nitty gritty”) to do with my training that might either be interesting (who knows!) or helpful to other people. Obviously I’m no expert and this is only my experience, which isn’t huge, and everyone is an individual. What works for me might not work for you, but you might find something that helps! I have a few other topics in mind but if people find this a) boring or b) have a request, please let me know Smile

First topic surrounds one of my favourite things (other than running): FOOD. When it comes to food and marathon training I think it can get over-complicated and confused. To be quite honest, if you’re a regular runner or do regular exercise then really not a huge amount needs to change straight off the bat. You don’t suddenly need to be eating pizza every night and gulping down a protein shake to get through the day.

Ideally as you gradually increase the miles each week then you should also gradually increase your calories/fuel as well. This is especially true if you’re trying to lose weight (I’m not, don’t worry!). Just because you added an extra few miles onto your usual run at the weekend doesn’t mean it’s time for a second lunch. That being said, as the miles do get substantially bigger and you suddenly find the day after a long run you are rungry ALL THE TIME then sensible snacking can help immensely.

Protein

As you probably know I’m a huge fan of protein. Personally I think a snack that’s high in protein is fantastic because not only is it quite satiating but it’s also great to help towards muscle repair. Running takes a lot out of the body and protein can really help build back up the muscles.

  • Cottage cheese – this might sound a bit odd but cottage cheese is a fantastic, tasty snack. It’s high in protein and low in fat and sugar. It’s a good source of calcium and selenium (a good antioxidant). Have it plain or add in some berries and some seeds and suddenly you have quite a well-rounded snack with protein, carbs and fat. I take a little Tupperware box with me to work and eat it like a yogurt in the afternoon.
  • Nuts – pistachio nuts are a regular snack for me at work. I prefer them to other nuts as they’re a bit harder to eat as you have to de-shell them. This means I’m less likely to mindlessly power through a bag of them. Nuts are high in calories but they’re a fantastic source of protein and ‘healthy’ fats. If you have more self-control than I do, other nuts are also just as good.   IMG_8275
  • Meat jerky/biltong – OK not exactly a ‘normal’ runner’s snack but I love these. Just make sure you get good quality that’s not full of sugar and strange chemicals. It’s super high in protein, while low in carbs and fats.IMG_8276
  • Icelandic-style yogurts – they taste just like normal yogurt though they’re a lot thicker. They’re low in fat and sugars but really high in protein (something like 11g per 100g) and contain all the good probiotic magic too. There are flavoured ones too but they’re usually full of sugar so I’d recommend just throwing in whole fruit instead.

Fat

Fat, like protein, is very satiating and shouldn’t be feared. It’s an important source of nutrition for our body, helping contribute to healthy hair, skin and nails and also hormonal function and reducing inflammation. Just avoid trans fats as they’re the nasties that can mess around with your system.

  • Hummus – pair with some vegetable crudités or some wholemeal crackers and you’re good to go. A great source of fat from the chickpeas and olive oil.
  • Avocados – the star of Instagram posts all over the world, mash onto a rice cracker (preferably a wholegrain one to bump up the fibre and satiety factor). It’s a great source of potassium (more than bananas!) and monounsaturated fat.
  • Nut butters – again, spread on rice crackers, toast or eat by the spoonful. Fairly calorific so a good choice if you’re in a rush and need to get in some nutrients fast. Personally I’m not a fan of nut butters. It’s alright but I don’t get the craze for it…
  • Cheese – avoid processed rubbish (though I’m always partial to Babybells as they’re in such handy little packages). Try and get some good quality cheese that will be more tasty, more nutrient rich and just generally better for you. Cube up some feta and throw in some cherry tomatoes or olives and that’s quite a nutritious and filling snack.

Carbs

Carbs are a necessary requirement for running. When training for a marathon, a low carb diet is probably not the best approach unless your body is really used to this way of exercising. Your body needs fuel and carbs are the easiest and simplest fuel for your body to use. You do want your body to tap into your fat reserves as well but within reason.

I’d avoid crisps purely because they’re not that filling and they’re likely to spike your sugar levels and leave you wanting more. Aim for low GI (more complex) carbs that will digest slowly and leave you feeling full and satisfied.

  • Fruit (banana is obviously a great choice here but obviously I’m going to say apples are the best).  
  • Vegetables, such as carrots. I don’t need to convince you veg is good for you.
  • Pretzels – a nice salty snack that’s more filling than crisps and really moreish.
  • Popcorn – a great snack as long as you avoid the sugary ones. A great source of fibre as well which is key for a good working gut and digestive system.
  • Toast – a slice of wholemeal toast can be exactly what the body needs. Add some jam and have before a run and you’ve got a great source of fast and slow releasing energy. Or peanut butter for a more sustaining snack.

Little bits of what you fancy…

Life is too short to not enjoy food! Have that slice of cake or bar of chocolate, just don’t have it every day “because I’m training”. I will always have a naughty snack/cheat meal/whatever the hell you want to call it at the weekend because though my body might not need it, my mind and soul does.IMG_6459

My ethos is that I generally try and save a big treat until the weekend so I can fully enjoy it rather than some shop-bought cakes or biscuits someone from work has that I eat because I’m bored. I want to go out to a nice restaurant and eat a nice meal with people I enjoy being around. I make it into something that can be fully immersed into and enjoyed. Like afternoon tea or enjoying some home-baked cake from my friend.

If you’re feeling tired and worn out, generally it can be one of two things: you’re not getting enough quality sleep or you’re not eating enough. Your body needs fuel and recovery. Sleep and food are two very simple easy ways to make running easier (IN THEORY – busy mums all over the world don’t shoot me!). If you’re not looking to gain weight, eat as much as you possibly can to maintain your weight with your training. Don’t skimp on calories, dive into those bad boys. And if you start gaining weight? Drop it your calories down a bit. Better to gain a little weight in the process of good running than burn out because you’re not eating enough. I’m not saying to suddenly count your calories and become obsessed over it, but just be mindful of what you’re putting in to get the best out.

Just my personal thoughts!

What are your favourite snacks?

Do you lose weight or gain weight when training for a marathon?

Do you graze through the day or stick to bigger meals?