Working towards a spring marathon? Now is the time to make sure that the experience will be a good one and Dr Jason Karp offers 10 simple strategies to help you on your way

Running a successful marathon takes knowledge, planning, execution and a little courage. When you train smartly and effectively and develop and execute your race plan, you’ll achieve your potential and run a great race that you can be proud of.

Here are 10 strategies and tips to help you to do just that.

1 Run more

Training for a marathon isn’t just about one long run each week. It’s about the total amount of running you do. Although you don’t have to run more than 100 miles per week like the best marathon runners in the world, you nevertheless have to run more than you probably are doing presently.

Many novice runners don’t run enough miles during the week to support the long run on the weekend. You don’t want to run four or five miles for two or three days during the week and then shock your legs with a 15-mile run on a Sunday. You may be able to get away with that once or twice, but do that week after week and you’re setting yourself up to get hurt. In addition to your long run, do a mid-week, medium-long run that’s about 65 to 75% of the length (or duration) of your long run.

2 Do long tempo runs

Long tempo runs (and their sister workout, marathon-pace runs) are among the most important workouts of your marathon preparation. Too many runners, especially beginners training for their first marathon, focus too much on just the long run. If nothing else, complementing your long run each week with a long tempo run at a little slower than your normal tempo pace or at marathon race pace goes a long way toward preparing physically and mentally for the marathon. Don’t neglect the power of the long tempo, which trains you for sustained, faster-paced aerobic running and helps you to hold a solid aerobic pace for a long time.

3 Work with a knowledgeable coach

A knowledgeable coach is perhaps the greatest asset you can have as a runner. A coach designs a training programme for you, monitors what you’re doing, and motivates and inspires you to do things that you never thought possible. You may see much better results with a coach than you do training on your own.

4 Pace yourself

Proper pacing is paramount for the marathon. If you start at a pace that’s too ambitious, it will come back to haunt you later in the race, as you run out of precious fuel. I’ve seen too many runners run a strong first half, only to crash and burn in the second half, being relegated to walking and even stopping to stretch and hydrate. The most physiologically efficient way to run a marathon is to run the first and second halves in the same time (or run the second half slightly faster than the first), with as little fluctuation in pace as possible throughout the race.

5 Consume carbs during the race

During the marathon, your muscles use carbohydrate at a faster rate than you can replenish blood glucose, but the trick is to try to delay running out of glucose for as long as possible. How you do it is a little bit science and a little bit art. Here are some guidelines:

» Consume carbohydrate that’s quickly digestible and easy on your stomach, like gels and liquid.

» Begin ingesting carbohydrate about 30 minutes before you start to feel fatigued, about an hour or so after starting the race, so that you can absorb it into your blood and use it for energy. Ingest about 100 to 120 calories (25 to 30gm) of carbohydrate every 20-30 minutes or so to maintain blood glucose levels.

» Instead of consuming a whole energy gel packet at once, which is a lot for your stomach to process, consume half at a time and chase it with water to speed digestion. You want to create a steady stream of carbohydrate coming into your blood to delay fatigue.

6 Water

Dehydration can become a big problem in the marathon. You lose water by sweating much faster than you can replace it by drinking, so you want to do whatever you can to delay dehydration.

Your performance begins to decline with just a 2-3% loss of bodyweight from fluid loss. As you lose water, your cooling mechanism also starts to fail, increasing your body temperature. If you want to run a better marathon, you must stay properly hydrated. Running slows the absorption of fluid from your stomach, so begin drinking early so that the fluid is available later. Drink fluids with sodium because it helps you retain water. As a general rule, try to consume 5-6 ounces every two miles. If it’s hot or you tend to sweat heavily, drink more.

7 Don’t do anything new in the race

One of the biggest mistakes you can make on race day is to wear brand new shoes. Even if your new shoes are the same type of shoes you’ve been wearing, don’t wear them in the race. Although running shoes are your most important item, don’t wear anything new in the marathon and don’t eat anything different on the morning of the race. Practice wearing your clothes and gear well before the race on your long runs and practise different pre-race meals so that you get comfortable with everything.

8 Always eat breakfast

Unlike shorter races, the marathon challenges your fuel reserves. When you wake up on race morning, your blood glucose is low because it’s been about 9-12 hours since you’ve eaten. Because carbohydrate is your muscles’ primary fuel when you run, you want to go to the starting line as full of carbohydrate as possible. One to two hours before the race, eat 300-400 calories of easily digestible carbohydrate and protein, such as a nutrition bar, eggs, and toast with jam. Avoid fibre and fat.

9 Divide

Thinking of running 26.2 miles all at once can be overwhelming, so divide the race into smaller, more manageable segments, like each mile or each 5km, and focus on one segment at a time. If you’re familiar with the marathon course, you can divide the race into sections based on landmarks, neighbourhoods, or areas of the course.

Don’t let your head get ahead of you. You can’t do anything about mile 24 of a marathon when you’re only at mile three. Focus on getting to a certain checkpoint and don’t think beyond that until you’ve reached it.

10 Be positive and confident

One of the keys to running a marathon successfully, no matter what level of runner you are, is to focus on the task at hand and execute your race plan. It’s often easy to let other things or outside or selfimposed pressures become distractions or let your mind wander during a race. If you don’t allow those things to become distractions and instead focus on your performance to the exclusion of everything else, you will perform at your highest level. Remaining positive when things don’t go as planned before or during your race keeps you calm and helps you run well. At the starting line and when you’re in the middle of the race, remove all the negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

» Dr Jason Karp holds a PhD in exercise physiology, writes for running and fitness magazines and has authored a number of books

» This feature was first published in AW magazine in January 2013