About to embark on a 26.2-miler? Here are some facts you may not know about athletics’ toughest event
Running a marathon entails 40,000 strides, 2800 calories and 26.2 miles of gut-busting effort. The classic distance places huge demands on the body, sapping energy and inflicting temporary damage upon muscles and mind.
In the days that follow, you will wonder how you will ever function normally again. And then most likely, you’ll decide to run another. Here are 20 things you should know about the ultimate endurance challenge to ensure you are best-prepared before, during and after the race.
1. WEIGH YOURSELF
John Brewer, professor of applied sports science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and a marathon runner himself, recommends weighing yourself before and after a few of your final long runs. “This will give an idea of how much fluid you have lost from sweating,” he says. “With 1kg of weight loss equivalent to around 1 litre of fluid you will have an idea of how much you need to drink to replace it”.
2. PREPARE TO TAPER
Decrease your mileage to 30 per cent of your average total for the final couple of weeks before race day. “The week before the race you should hardly be running at all,” says 2:54 marathon runner Nell McAndrew. “Just keep your legs ticking over with gentle jogs or marathon-paced runs over no more than three miles.”
3. EAT BREAKFAST
It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement and planning of a marathon – but don’t do so at the expense of your nutritional plan. “You will need to eat around 2-3 hours before you run,” says sports dietician Louise Sutton of Leeds Becket University. “Porridge is the preferred dish of many marathon runners, including Paula Radcliffe, but try any foods that will be quickly absorbed and leave your stomach quickly – toast and jam, banana.”
4. BEWARE “JOGGER’S NIPPLE”
It is a common problem, particularly among male marathon runners. “It’s caused by chafing, as a sweaty vest rubs directly against the body and is often worse in the morning when it’s cold,” says Matt Roberts, trainer to David Cameron. Lubricating nipples with Vaseline or a barrier cream containing zinc can help or try Ron Hill Nipguard (www.ronhill.com), that can be stuck over the nipple to prevent it from coming into contact with fabric.
5. WEATHER WARNING
Bear in mind that not everything will go to plan on race day. Even the weather can turn against you. A study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research last year showed it has a dramatic effect on marathon pace, particularly among men, who were more likely to slow down if it was warm. Researchers said “women tend to have a larger surface area-to-mass ratio than men, allowing them to dissipate a larger percentage of heat produced by running.”
6. KEEP TABS ON TECHNIQUE
Your technique can go to pot when you are tired, placing you at greater risk of injury or muscle strain, so pop a checkpoint reminder on your watch or running app to go off every few miles, suggests Grayson. “When you hear it, remind yourself to check your running posture and step rate and to relax your arms if you feel tense.” It will also help to keep you focused in the final stages.
7. LIMIT THE RISK OF CRAMP
Cramp is more likely to strike in the 18-20 mile stage of a long run or marathon. “It’s due to muscle fatigue rather than depletion of body salts through sweat,” says Sutton. “Stay hydrated. One study showed that people who took some pickle juice before a run stopped cramping faster than those who drank water as the vinegar solution seems to send a signal to the brain telling the cramping muscle to relax.”
8. STOP & STRETCH (IF NECESSARY)
Up to 39 percent of runners do experience a cramp in their calves, hamstrings or quadriceps during a long run. If you have one, stop and stretch, Professor Brewer advises. For calf muscles, step forward with your non-cramping leg, keeping your other foot flat on the ground. Slowly transfer your weight on to your front leg until you feel the stretch in your cramping calf. Hold for 20 seconds.
9. KEEP GOING
Decades of research shows that the mind can override the body when it comes to fatigue on a long run. “You will feel tired but think of fatigue as a trigger for positive thought,” Professor Brewer says. “Pessimism and negative thought rank as many runners’ top mental barrier, but they are relatively easy to change.”
10. BE PREPARED TO SHRINK
Most finishers will cross the line an average two centimetres shorter than when they started. It is, thankfully, a temporary shrinkage in height caused by fluid losses between the intervertebral discs in the spine. Height is fully restored when fluid levels are replaced, usually 24 hours or so later.
11. RUNNY NOSE
A study in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that 56% of people get a serious bout of the sniffles while running for long periods outdoors. The reason? They are suffering from runner’s hayfever or exercise-induced rhinitis. Experts say it is probably caused by the increased air-flow that you inhale as your breathing rate quickens, which sends your nose into mucus-producing overdrive. Very cool and dry air can make matters worse.
12. MAKE SURE YOU REHYDRATE
In the days following the race, rehydration is key as dehydrated cells can’t transport nutrients around the body. “For every kilogram of weight lost, you need to drink a litre of fluid during the days that follow,” says Professor Brewer. “Drink little and often until your urine runs clear and is being produced in normal volume. Being hydrated will also help your body to synthesise glycogen correctly so that you can refuel.”
13. AND EAT WELL
Your body’s carbohydrate stores will be depleted after a marathon, so the important thing is to replace them first. “Aim to consume some carbs in the two to three hours after you finish when your body is most receptive to storing glycogen,” says Professor Brewer. “There’s no harm in allowing yourself a pizza or burger and a study earlier this month confirmed that they can be adequate fuel replacers. Anyway, you deserve it.”
14. STRETCH IT OUT
Static stretching after a long run or the marathon itself can always make you feel better, says Six Physio’s running expert and injury specialist, Jonathan Grayson. “Target the main muscle groups: quads, hamstrings, calves, and adductors (groin),” he says. “Hold each stretch for at least 30-60 seconds and perform no more than a few at a time. One long, good stretch is better than 10 little ones.”
15. PUT YOUR FEET UP
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) sets in around eight hours after a marathon and could see you walking backwards downstairs for up to a week. Deal with it by taking things easy, says Professor Brewer. “If you can, elevate your feet and legs for at least an hour after the marathon and for 30 minutes a day for the next few days,” he says. “If you are extremely sore, applying an ice pack to painful parts of your legs for a few minutes at a time in the first 24 hours can help.”
16. WEAR COMPRESSION LEGGINGS AT NIGHT
Jessica Hill, a sports science researcher at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, has been looking at the effects of compression garments on recovery levels in marathon runners. She recommends wearing full-length compression leggings for 72 hours after the race. “In our trials, people who took them off only to shower during 72 hours after a marathon had a much quicker recovery time,” Hill says.
17. BOOST IRON INTAKE
Research shows that up to 40 per cent of marathon runners are deficient in iron and some studies suggest that marathon runners lose around 3mg of iron per day for up to five days after the race. “Increase your iron intake by consuming foods like lean red meat, spinach and leafy greens, pulses, kidney beans and dried as part of your post-marathon, says sports dietician Louise Sutton. “Drink orange juice or consume other rich sources of vitamin C with your meals to aid absorption.”
18. SOAK YOUR BLISTERS
If you have blisters, the best advice is to leave them alone unless they are demanding attention. Those that have burst should be soaked in warm water and an iodine solution for 15 minutes at a time. “Pat you feet dry afterwards and cover the blistered area with a sterile gauze or plaster,” says Brewer. “And be prepared to wear training shoes to work for a few days.”
19. PREPARE FOR SHARPER HEARING
Training for a marathon improves circulation to the ear, which provides a greater supply of nutrients to help preserve hearing. One study tested the hearing of 24 women and 19 men who ran long distances regularly. Scientists found a marked improvement in hearing sensitivity after they had finished running, thought to be the result of improved circulation.
20. RESIST TOO MUCH CELEBRATING
As much as you’d like to celebrate, you might want to restrict your socialising for a few days until your body is fully recovered. Studies have suggested that immune defences drop after running 26.2 miles, leaving runners more prone to catching a cold or virus. One study of London Marathon finishers a few years ago found that 47% suffered from symptoms such as sniffles and a blocked nose on at least two days in the two weeks following the event.