So in one week I will take part in the Stirling marathon, or as its been branded this year the Great Stirling Run. The event is now in its 3rd year and it's a scenic marathon starting and finishing in the City of Stirling while taking in the surrounding rolling countryside to the north of the city, passing through small towns such as Doune, Dunblane and Bridge of Allan where the locals come out in force to support the runners.
Now let me be honest from the beginning, I am no running expert, while I was actively fit playing football at a reasonably competitive youth level up until my late teens, for the next 16-17 years I let myself go, fed up with sport, giving no thought to exercising or what I was eating, I was just being consumed with work and business and as my business developed and grew and I became more office based instead of doing physical work my weight ballooned.
The wake up call for me was at the end of 2012 when a very loveable business colleague passed away after a sudden and short fight against cancer at the young age of 39. Something inside of me got triggered by that tragic event and from the first week in January of 2013 I embarked on a charity fund-raising year in aid of cancer charities including Cancer Research where I ran a number of 5k and 10k races throughout the whole year. My motivation at that time was two fold. To help raise awareness and support for cancer charities as well as give a kick up the backside to my own fitness and health.
I enjoyed the running and healthier lifestyle so much that I lost around 3 and half stone (about 50 pounds) that year most of it within the first 4 months.
My first marathon encounter was the Edinburgh Marathon in 2016. For the past previous years I had only run the shorter distances and had not even ran at an organised half marathon event up until then so my jump from a 10k distance to marathon distance in 2016 was a running jump into the unknown.
Reaching the age of 40 that year had obviously some affect as that was my main driving force behind my decision to tackle the 26.2 miles for the first time - It must have been a wine fuelled Saturday night decision as for years previous while running 10k distances I remember telling myself during the runs that I don’t ever want to tackle the longer distance half marathon never mind a full marathon.
Despite a number of leg cramp episodes I managed my first marathon in a time of of 4 hours 28 minutes - a time I was happy with. The following year which was the first Stirling Marathon event I took 30 minutes off the previous year, running in 3 hours 58 minutes in what was a hillier course than Edinburgh. And last year in 2018 in my 3rd marathon and 2nd Stirling one I managed to achieve a new marathon PB of 3 hours 49 minutes. My goal in the upcoming Stirling event is to achieve a sub 3 hours 45 minute time.
So that gives a little context to where my running experience comes from and as you can see I am not an expert, I don’t pretend to be and I am can't go deep into the science into a lot of the tips and advice I’m going to give, while I have actively explored and become more knowledgable in training for marathons its been for my own physical and mental benefit to give myself the best possible chance of finishing and enjoying the marathon run. So most of the tips are from my own experiences and are aimed at normal runners not athletes, I would say probably runners aiming to run longer than 3 hours 30 minutes
So let's look at a few pointers that I have gained in the past few years.
Preparation and training - we are all different and the time and intensity in preparation will depend on your time target for the race and more importantly your physical health. I run marathons for my overall health and fitness and having a goal to run a marathon helps me keep motivated to be as fit as I can. throughout the year.
But let’s get one thing clear - you cannot just turn up and expect to run a marathon - no matter who you are, you must put in weeks and months of training beforehand. Now depending on your fitness level and your goal time for the marathon there are many many training schedule tips and advice out there on the internet, that it's difficult for me to give specific advice - You must train hard, you must think about food and preparation leading up to the event, so my advice is decide what your fitness goal is, decide what your marathon time goal is and look to design a training and food plan to begin about 4 months / 16 weeks before the event. Do online research, get involved with running clubs or online forums, follow fellow runners on social media and put in the hours and hours of running time required in the months leading up to the event.
Respect the distance - there is no doubt that running a marathon will have an effect on your body. Most people prepping to run a marathon will have heard of the expression ‘hitting the wall’, my own experience would suggest that the human body can only run about 17-20 miles before the body just wants you to seriously stop running. It’s at this mileage that we need to help the body by applying some of the other tips in this blog post.
So let's start with Pace - at distances over 10k / 6.22miles - pace becomes an important factor, I feel more out of breath running a 10k than I do by running an entire marathon and that’s all because of pace.
Your pace during longer running distances needs to become more tactical, for the first half of a marathon you must not let the adrenalin and the buzz of the event get the better of you, your mind will be telling you to run faster right from the start.
In the first 10 miles or so you will have people run past you at a pace that you know you are more than capable of running at and your mind is telling you to speed up and join then at that pace, but for me that is the worst thing you can do. You must keep those energy levels for the 2nd part of the race.
A tip I have and it depends on how big the event is, but if the event has official pacers then if you have a time in mind then running alongside a specific timed pacer not only keeps your pace consistent but also helps with motivation along the way as I always find there's a good buzz within the group running alongside a pacer.
If there are no timed pacers then that’s when you have to to use your experience gained from your long training runs to gauge what pace you can manage those longer distances at - bearing in mind your long training runs are usually about 6-10 miles shorter than the marathon distance so you have to factor in those final few miles where your body will be suffering.
Talking about the closing miles, in the last 6 or so miles you have to have a strong mental attitude - from mile 20, listen to your body, adjust your pace, you need to make sure you continue to hydrate along with energy food intake, one thing I have observed in my own past experiences, is although I am aware of the crowd and you need to look towards them for support to keep going but if I engage with them, for example high five them, then it seriously affects my energy and my cramp risk increases during those final miles. So I would say that although we need to use the presence of the crowds for support and energy, engaging with them becomes much more difficult in the latter miles and I would say don’t engage but be aware of them and use their vocal support to push you on during those final miles.
Get to know the course - your pace and race strategy can also depend on the course, study the course and especially the elevation map, you dont want to be caught out by not knowing about those inclines in the 2nd part of the race.
Don’t be silly and push yourself too hard and fast - although this tip can also relate to pace its worth mentioning - if your race day is not meant to be your day and you’re just not running as efficiently and effectively and your run is just not going to plan then accept it, don’t punish yourself physically and mentally when things are not working out, the quicker you accept that you will not meet your target time or any other race goal, then my advice would be to adjust to a slower pace and especially change your mindset and try to enjoy the rest of the run without suffering.
At the end of the day the amount of people in the world who have completed a marathon is tiny, so if you can finish without doing your body any long term damage then that is one helluva achievement to be proud of.
At the points in the run when things are not going well, if you’re running for a cause or a family member or just running for your own goal, then when the going gets tough focus on why you are running. Its those times you need to pull on the inner strength of your motivation of why you are running that will push you a little further towards the end. A little suggestion is think about one of your motivational causes for every mile during the closing 10 miles. A family member, a friend, a charity.
Weather - If it’s too hot and sunny the chances of a personal best time will reduce dramatically. Personally my favourite condition is cloudy or drizzle and certainly no sun or wind. Hot and sunny conditions just gives you an added problem to deal with hydration and quicker exhaustion, while for me running into anything more than a breeze affects me mentally. I just hate running in windy conditions.
I tend to run for large parts of a marathon holding a bottle of water and will occasionally use that to pour water over my head to cool down and if there’s any showers on the route I tend to use them to cool my body.
If it's sunny, do not underestimate how much the sun and reasonably warm conditions can affect your body - as the miles tick by, your energy levels will deplete much quicker and heat exhaustion can suddenly affect you and can be dangerous. I take in water early and frequently throughout the whole race. Not too much, just sips every mile from around mile 4 onwards and I feel this benefits me.
Salt/Electrolytes/Carbohydrates - for the first few years I knew nothing about food and hydration for long distance running - and even now this is my weakest area in terms of knowledge for preparation and during the run. Because there are so much advice and articles online regarding this, some even contradicting advice, you must read up and become more knowledgable on hydration, food and mineral intake before, during and even after running marathons.
For me, I’m still experimenting getting the balance correct between water intake, electrolyte drinks, energy gels, energy food bars and caffeine chews plus how much jelly babies and beer I can consume during the run. That last part about beer is not a joke - although I have never taken a sip of beer during a run, last year during the Great North Run half marathon there were spectators at the side of the road handing out small cups of beer which I am sure would have been welcomed by some runners, I just waited until the end of the run before I consumed a few pints of beer.
So you need to become more knowledgable on running food and hydration, but just one more point on food and drink for races - experiment beforehand not on race day. Do not consume energy gels or energy drinks for the first time on race day as you never know how the body will react to some of these supplements.
Running Shoes and clothes - they really matter - again it comes down to not running in new trainers or clothes on race day, you must run in your event day items during your training runs.
Do you know how to tie your running shoes properly to help dramatically reduce the chance of blisters ? - I didn’t during my early marathons and training runs and had many blisters and I even lost a toe nail. But again after some online research I found an article on how to tie up your laces using the two upper close together holes on your shoes to create a loop in the lace and this when tied correctly has resulted in me never ever having another running blister. The same with shorts and shirts you need to make sure you don’t suffer too much chaffing on your legs and chest to name a few clean areas of the body where chaffing can occur. Do you need to buy a pot of Vaseline?
And that leads me on to Nipple plasters - woh wait a minute Scott, what did you just say - well after my first marathon I was in pain showering in places I didn’t think I should be feeling pain and let me tell you that I’ve never ran a half or full marathon since without now wearing nipple plasters. Yes even for us blokes, we need to protect certain personal parts. Mind you pulling the plaster off when you have a hairy chest is just as painful. Seeing blood marks on my running top after my 2nd marathon meant it was straight onto the internet afterwards to buy nipple plasters.
Now I’ve listed just a few of my own tips and advice all from my own marathon experiences to add to thousands of articles you will find online offering similar and more indepth marathon tips. To an extent a lot of the tips that I have given are in the negative format about suffering, pain, exhaustion and in a way thats deliberate because if you and I know about the areas that may affect our marathon run before event day then we can take steps to minimise the effects of running 26.2 miles.
But believe me, even though there will be some discomfort along the way, the feeling, the emotion, the motivation along the route, the blood, the sweat, and yes the tears will all combine to make it one of the best experiences in a personal challenge you will ever feel as you run up to and cross that finish line.
Afterwards you will be so proud and rightly so as you will have just achieved and completed a distance that the human body is not really meant to run.
So let's get training, let's become more knowledgable and let's run a marathon.
If you have any comments about the advice and tips I have given or would like to add some of your own please feel free to comment on any of my social media accounts, weblinks for them, including my blog can be found over on my website www.scottmclean.scot
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