“Fast” is a relative term. Unless you’re Paula Radcliffe, there will always be someone faster than you. For an average Joe, I’m pretty fast. Now put me in a room with some elites and I’d never keep up. After I ran a 3:13 in St. George a couple weeks ago, I received a lot of questions about my training and how I got faster, so I thought it might be helpful to put together a list of what worked for me and what got me to that 3:13.
All of these tips are based off of my personal experience and training and obviously won’t work for everyone. All I can say is when I do the following, I usually find success at the marathon distance.
1 | Strengthen your mental muscle.
This one is first on the list for a reason. I truly believe that more often than not, the reason many people don’t reach their goals has a lot more to do with mental strength than it does with lack of training. I’ve watched plenty of people run dramatically slower races than me after training longer, harder and faster. The marathon requires as much, if not more, mental stamina than physical. It is critical for a person to accept and acknowledge pain without allowing it to slow them down or stop them. (i.e. Running with bloody feet in every single race. That would be me.)
Mental toughness is an absolute necessity and you should train your brain to be stronger. It needs to be worked like any other muscle. If you haven’t pushed yourself time and time again, of course you’ll fall apart when things get really hard and painful. Like they say, “if marathons were easy, everyone would do them.” So push yourself in an effort to prove to yourself you can do hard things. Then believe it with every ounce of your being.
2 | Run slow to get fast.
This one sounds incredibly counter-intuitive and it is – yet, it works! When learning about the 80/20 way of running, I realized I was already doing it. The 80/20 theory suggests that the biggest gains come when runners complete 80% of their runs at an easy effort and 20% at moderate to high intensity. 80% of my runs are done at an easy-for-me, conversational pace. I wouldn’t say they are necessarily “slow” but I can carry on a full conversation for 80% of my runs (and you know I’m long winded). Only once a week do I do any harder and faster running and I usually alternate between tempo runs and mile repeats each week. I never complete two hard workouts in one week and unintentionally this works out to be exactly 20% of my running. This doesn’t work for everybody but Matt Fitzgerald swears by it and a lot of research supports this theory. I buy it. Heck, I’m proof that this can work!
3 | Rest, rest & rest a little more.
In order for all of the magic of your training and hard work to take effect, you must REST. This is so difficult for those Type-A runners but it’s essential. I take a cut-back week every few weeks and on my rest days, I fully rest. I typically give myself two rest days a week and I use those days to basically be lazy. For higher level runners, one day tends to be sufficient.
Why do I have these “lazy” days? Because I want the benefits of those other days to sink in. Too much stress on the body only holds the body back. You might think doing more is better but it can have the opposite effect. Embrace lazy days. Cut yourself some slack. Let the magic happen.
On the same note, taper is a must and should be taken seriously. Don’t simply cut down mileage in the weeks leading up to race day; cut out cross training as well. If you feel like a lazy slob, especially the week before your race, it means you’re doing it right. Don’t try to sneak in spin classes and hot yoga sculpt because you’re jonesing for some sweat. Just let it go. That spin class is not going to help you get to the finish line any faster. It will just tire your legs out when you’re really counting on them. Embrace the lethargy and the taper puff. It will pay off in the end. Just chill.
4 | Eat your heart out before race day
We now know that there are a ton of diets that are effective in fueling endurance athletes. We have Scott Jurek who kills it on a vegan diet and Timothy Olsen who wins ultras on a Paleo diet. It’s all about finding what works for you and using it to your advantage.
Marathon training is not free rein to bathe in pizza and doughnuts (I wish) but the week of your race, you should definitely chow down. I know what you’re thinking: I already feel fat and lazy from taper, how can I possibly eat a lot too? I hear you and you should still eat healthy, just be sure you’re eating enough. And P.S. vanity won’t get you a BQ.
I’m old school and carbs are king for me. Carb loading is all about upping the amount of glycogen (or stored glucose) in the body to avoid hitting the wall which is essentially the point when carbohydrate reserves are so depleted that you start to fall apart. In every race, I watch people drop like flies around the 20 mile mark and beyond. It looks pretty brutal and I’m sure it’s incredibly frustrating. I’d hate for that to happen so my theory is, better safe than sorry. I have a very difficult time fueling during the race so I better have a ton of glycogen stored and ready to go so I can finish strong. Now hand over the carbs!
I hope some of these ideas will help or maybe validate what you already do. As I finish up my run coach certification, I feel even more confident in all of these tips because there is truth to them. These are all based off my personal marathoning experience but there is evidence and science to explain why these things are all so effective. As I highlight away in my texts, I find myself saying “YES! I knew it!” because so much of how I train is based off intuition and experience so it’s nice to see some confirmation that I’m doing the right thing.
Now let’s hear from you! I’m so curious to know what works for YOU.
What has been the most effective thing in your training?