Spring marathon season is upon us. As I write it’s Rome tomorrow, four weeks Paris and Rotterdam, five weeks from London and six from Manchester.
Judging by the legs and the stories of a few of my massage clients recently, people are definitely at the tricky stage of marathon training when you’re on that knife edge between being in the form of your life… and injury. Sadly, quite a few people have slipped onto the wrong side.
So what can you do to make sure you increase your chances of staying on the ‘form of your life’ side of things?
1. Listen to your body. Take an extra rest day if you need to. It won’t kill you and might do you good. You may think this is boring and predictable, but you ought to be tuned into your body well enough by now to be able to hear what it’s telling you. You probably know if you really are tired or just not feeling like running. If you really ARE tired, miss a run or two. If your body needs the rest and recuperation, it’ll bounce back stronger and all the better for the extra rest. If, on the other hand, you’re having an attack of the CBAs, the guilt or extra energy next time will make the next run a really good one. If you’re not sure which of these you’re feeling – set off for your run and if, after 15 mins it’s really not happening, call it a day. The next day you will have had a bit of extra rest so if it was just extra rest you needed – job done. If you were actually coming down with something, you’ll probably know.
2. Be intelligent about your training programme (more on listening to your body). If you run long or race on Sunday, think twice about doing a hard session on Tuesday if you’re still feeling tired. Most clubs and training plans seem to have a tough session on a Tuesday – but if you don’t feel recovered after your Sunday effort, consider having an extra rest day or easy day and delay your intervals until Wednesday. Tired muscles are much more injury-prone. And if your legs are fresher, you’ll have a better session and get more of a training benefit. If your legs are still tired, you won’t get such a good session and will have delayed your recovery. I know it means that means the rest of the week is thrown into disorganisation and you might be finding it tough to get all the runs in as it is. But sticking to a plan that was designed for a broad range of people can’t possibly be perfect for each individual all the time, so you have to be prepared to move things around and be a bit flexible. For many people, less is more. Some of my good friends run fast marathons and continue to improve on three runs a week, plus a couple of cross training sessions. It won’t work for everyone but it shows that not everyone has to do high mileage to be successful. If you’re finding it hard to recover, you might just need to consider that you’re one of those people for whom less is more. Especially if it keeps you healthy and uninjured… and therefore able to train.
3. Don’t be afraid of rest. You don’t get fitter when you train – you get fitter when you recover from training.
4. Get lots of sleep. You know how much you need (everyone’s different) – so make sure you get that much, and a little bit more if possible. During sleep we produce growth hormone, crucial for recovery and repair after training.
5. Eat really well. Make it your business to find out what a good diet is – there’s masses of advice and good websites out there. But you know the basics, I’m sure: some carbs, a portion of good protein at every meal, lots of fresh fruit and veg etc. It’s not complicated – just try to eat food as unprocessed as possible. You don’t have to go mad, but alcohol isn’t great for your body, especially when it’s under stress from a huge training load on top of loads of training for the last few months. And it can stop you sleeping properly. Drink plenty of water. Try not to eat lots of refined sugars when you’re hungry – it just gives you a sugar high, then a sugar low (ie you’re hungry again) is stressful for your body and not good for your immune system. And if you’re immune system’s compromised… you’re open to coughs, colds and all the other nasties going round.
6. Work hard on your race AND TRAINING nutrition. I’m talking in particular about making sure you get enough food before, during and immediately after your training sessions. You might be able to get through a 20 mile training run with only a bottle of water (of course you can – the body is an amazing machine) but consider how much good (or not) it’s doing your poor body while it’s trying to work so hard for you. (Whether it’s a good idea to do the odd training run with no carb intake to help your body get used to metabolising fat is a topic I’m not qualified to argue about!). But for what it’s worth, I think it’s worth being well-fuelled before your training, important to fuel during your training (especially if you’re training for over an hour) and essential to refuel straightaway after your training. That means within 20 mins of finishing you need to get some protein, carbs (protein:carbs = 1:4) and some water inside you. So, milk, chocolate milk or hot chocolate or recovery drink, or water plus tuna sandwich, a yoghurt, hummus, eggs and toast, a bowl of cereal – lots of options. Your body is many times better at replenishing muscle and liver glycogen (ie muscle fuel) straight after you train – I read somewhere that it’s 300 times better in the first 20 minutes). Try to eat a proper meal within two hours. There’s much more on recovery food/activities out there if you look.
7. Look after your immune system. That means good food, enough sleep, refuelling before, during and after training and avoiding germy places (supermarket trolley handles, PIN machines, schools, children etc!). Wash your hands a lot. Your immune system is particularly compromised in the 36-48 hours post hard session. Minimise stress as much as possible – that means at work, at home, worrying about your marathon. It’s hard to do all of this all the time, but if you do what you can to do most of it most of the time, you’re giving yourself a fighting chance.
8. Think very carefully before racing anything longer than a half marathon within five weeks of your race. We all know people who felt great four or five weeks out and ran a blinding 20 mile PB but then couldn’t recover properly and didn’t hit their marathon target. I personally would even worry about doing an all out half within five weeks because I think that might have had a bearing on my unhappy Florence marathon a few years ago. But I know I don’t recover well, so need to be cautious.
9. Don’t neglect your core strength and general strength and conditioning. Don’t neglect stretching. Five weeks away from a marathon might be too late for that race, but it’s never too late to get started for future races. Strength and conditioning is part of every elite athlete’s programme, so why would it not be important for non-professionals? It’s no good having strong arms and legs if the frame on which they depend is weak or imbalanced. We are only as strong as our weakest part. Make time for it. Weak glutes might lead to ITB problems. Tight hip flexors might lead to a hamstring strain. A foot problem might be directly related to a problem in the pelvis.
10. And last but not least, I’ve held out long enough. Get lots of massage! Shameless self promotion, but only because I know it’s important and it works. Your muscles are working hard for you and don’t get a chance to recover. Regular massage can keep niggles and tightness in muscles and tendons under control – or can get rid of them. It helps to keep your muscles in good condition. It helps you recover from one session so that you’re ready to go into the next. But apart from the good a massage can do your muscles, consider the good it can do YOU. If you’ve got a few worries or the odd niggle, it’s stressful – cue increases in cortisone levels and therefore stress – bad for your immune system. It’s awful worrying that a niggle is going to mean the end of your marathon – I know from experience! But a massage from a knowledgeable practitioner can put your mind at rest and reassure you. You may just need some muscles releasing and stretching. And they might be able to tell you what to do to avoid the same thing happening again. If you ought to see a physio, they’ll soon tell you. Obviously a massage therapist is not the same as a physio so if there is something wrong, you need to see a physio. But a good massage can get rid of all sorts of tensions and niggles and get you back training. No brainer, really.
All these things are interlinked so if you do the best you can with as many of them as you can, you should increase your chances of staying healthy. Actually I keep thinking of other things to say (about tapering, not getting greedy about your training for eg) but will stop battering your senses now because this post has become much, much longer than I thought it would.
Do check out the validity of what I say with experts. Of course there are as many theories as experts, but most people would at least agree with the most of principles I’ve covered. I’d highly recommend reading some of Matt Dixon’s material on www.purplepatchfitness.com, and in particular this article about his principles from Running Times.