Britain’s second quickest female marathoner in history, Mara Yamauchi, urges runners not to overcomplicate their training
Endurance runners are often impatient for success. We always want to improve and find that extra something which will make us run faster. And in that quest to be a better athlete we like to think that we leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of the best training methods and the best performances. This attitude is all good – or is it?
Of course you have to pursue a high level of performance, otherwise you won’t come near it. But in my experience as an athlete, and now as a coach and mentor, I’ve come to believe that keeping things simple is actually often the best approach. Furthermore, getting the basics right is often overlooked.
Runners waste so much time, energy and effort pursuing what they believe is the edge that will bring them success, while neglecting to carry out basic tasks properly. In the elite sporting world of today, you probably have to do both – get the basics right and do all the additional extras – to succeed. But be sure you are not obsessing too much on the latter, at the expense of the former. Make sure you bake a delicious, nutritious cake to a good recipe, before you think about the icing!
“In my experience as an athlete, and now as a coach and mentor, I’ve come to believe that keeping things simple is actually often the best approach”
I believe the main cause of this phenomenon is the internet and social media. We live in an age where any and all information is freely available, and every ‘expert’ or manufacturer wants you to follow their advice or buy their product. I think all this information reduces how much people really think for themselves and figure out what will work for them. Let me run you through a few particular areas to illustrate. I have to say that I have been or am guilty of some of what I write here – I am not claiming to be the master of any of this!
Humans have evolved to eat food – naturally-grown fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, pulses, nuts, seeds, etc. This is what we’ve been eating for millennia and has resulted in the human body that we find in existence today. Therefore, to live healthy, active and productive lives, this is what we should eat. And yet, all around us are examples of eating habits which clearly go against this, and runners who believe that what they are doing is helping them.
UNDER-EATING: Not eating enough, to me, makes training a pointless activity. Your body needs fuel and energy to adapt to training and repair itself. So many or all the potential benefits of training are simply wasted by an inadequate diet. I appreciate that eating disorders are serious mental health conditions which may require professional help to resolve, but purely from a fuelling training perspective, this is the most basic thing to get right. Temporary weight loss, for example, for a race, may be good reason to reduce dietary intake, but in general adequate dietary intake is an absolutely fundamental thing that all runners should be doing properly.
SUPPLEMENTS AS AN INSURANCE POLICY: I once trained with a semi-elite athlete who claimed he didn’t need to eat fruit and vegetables because he took an array of supplements. This logic ignores issues such as the nutritional balance you get from a varied diet, and the fibre and water content that real food provides.
VARIETY: We are all told, for good reason, to eat a varied, balanced diet, but many of us eat restricted diets (in other words, cutting out altogether certain foods due to disliking them or for some other reason). And as creatures of habit, it’s easy to eat the same things every day, with a very limited range of foodstuffs in any one meal, or across the same meal from day to day. How are you going to get all the nutrients a hard-training body needs, if the range of foods you eat is very limited?
Training is not actually what makes you fitter – what makes you fitter is the adaptation your body undergoes after it has experienced the stimulus of training. And naturally, resting is a good state from which your body should undergo this adaptation. Yes, we all know rest and recovery are important, but are we getting enough of them?
SLEEP: Sleep, like food, is a fundamental part of our lives and we know that poor or insufficient sleep has negative effects. Sleep also provides top-quality rest and recovery time, which is critical for your body’s adaptation after training. So if you haven’t already, try doing a ‘sleep audit’ of your bedroom and bedtime routine, and make sure you are doing all you can to enable a good night’s sleep.
HYDRATION: It’s stating the obvious to say that rehydration is important after training or racing, but it’s extraordinary how many runners don’t drink enough water or other suitable rehydrating drinks such as sports drinks, or head straight for the beers after training or racing! A good way of checking your hydration is to weigh yourself before and after training, and then aim to drink one and a half times the amount you have lost in sweat.
RAPID REFUELLING: A good rule of thumb is to eat or drink something (for example, a recovery drink, a milk drink, a banana) within 20 minutes of finishing a hard training session or race. This can be followed up later with a proper meal. If you’re not sure you’re doing this, try setting a stopwatch the next time you finish hard training, and see how much time goes by before you drink or eat something.
THINK AND PLAN AHEAD: I know of world-beating athletes, who will remain nameless, who have missed the bus to the start of an Olympic race and found themselves at the start of an Olympic final without their racing shoes. Turning up at an important race on time and with the correct shoes are surely the most basic of things that need to be done properly. I confess I have missed the start of two races in my career so I hold my hands up on this one! Simply running through in your head in advance everything you will do at a competition from the moment you wake up on race day to getting home that evening, will help to get all the basics right.
DON’T OVER-THINK: Obsessing about and over-thinking races are common traps to fall into. At the end of the day, you’re getting from A to B as fast as you can, and beating everyone else! Of course, a certain level of strategy, tactics, and planning needs to go into every race. But spending too much time and energy on this does have a cost in wasted mental energy.
KNOW YOUR RACE: Doing a recce of something is a very basic form of preparation and is used in all walks of life. So why not in running? If you have a race coming up, try running the course in advance – believe me, it will make a huge difference on race day. If it is really impossible to do this, then have a good look on Google Earth or look at the course map and course profile, etc.
TECHNOLOGY DOESN’T MAKE YOU RUN FAST: GPS watches, apps, heart-rate monitors and other gadgets are ubiquitous in running now. In some ways they are helpful for measuring and monitoring training. But the technology itself does not make you run fast! This may sound obvious but I’ve been amazed by meeting runners who do little hard training and then can’t understand why they can’t run at a certain pace on their GPS watch. The technology is distracting runners from what does make you run fast – training and recovery.
STRENGTH TRAINING: The human body is a remarkable but also, in some ways, quite simple creature. A basic knowledge of human anatomy and how we function will tell you that certain basic features – for example, glutes firing properly, strong calf muscles, and a core which is solid and therefore supports your moving limbs, are fundamental to good running. It’s as simple as that.
SHOES: Running is a simple sport but the one crucial piece of technology we can’t easily do without is shoes. Again this is an area which is often over-complicated. For example, if you find a pair of shoes that work very well for you, then buy 2-3 pairs and keep them for future use. If you have an injury, a new or different pair of shoes is one of the first places to look to for finding a cause, before you commit to MRI scans or expensive therapy.
These are just a few examples which I hope illustrate that we often complicate running unnecessarily. But by adopting a straight-forward, common sense approach, you really can improve and feel good about your running.
Always aiming for the latest technology or scientific approach might be helpful, but make sure you don’t neglect the basics along the way.
» Mara Yamauchi clocked 2:23:12 for second in the 2009 London Marathon to rank behind only Paula Radcliffe among Britons for the distance. She was sixth at the 2008 Olympics, equalling the best by a British female over 26 miles at the Games. She retired in 2013 and now coaches all levels of distance runners