Marathon training not going to plan? All is not lost! Adjusting your goals, and incorpating a few new strategies, may help you get back on track.
The marathon is seen by many runners as the ultimate challenge. Steeped in ancient history, as well as being the fundamental event of our modern Olympics, it requires both physical and mental training, endurance and agility.
The boom in running that happened in the 1970s had the marathon at its heart, with the World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City) quickly becoming the dream events that runners around the globe aspired to be a part of.
A long training plan is key to marathon success. The standard 16-week programme can take complete beginners to marathon success in one season. If you have a spring marathon in your sights, there’s a good chance you are a good way through your training, with hopefully, the end in sight. You’ll be counting down the weeks until the final three-week taper, when you ease off on your weekly volume of miles, while maintaining speed work and beginning to prepare mentally for race day.
What if your training hasn’t gone to plan, though? The marathon journey wouldn’t be so life-changing (and life-absorbing) if it went completely smoothly. It’s in the challenges that our marathon training throws at us, that we truly discover our own inner strength and determination.
If, as you’ve slowly increased the mileage of your weekly long run, pushing your body to untested limits, you’ve incurred injury or illness, or a life event has reduced the time you’ve been able to run, will your dream of finishing your marathon be thrown aside, like the thousands of water bottles in every 26.2 race?
Whatever obstacle you may be facing, there’s still hope you can become a marathoner. If circumstances have forced you to stop running for a while, or seriously reduce your number of weekly runs, don’t give up hope. Maintaining two or three runs every week, including one longer one, while at the same time adjusting your initial goals to a new ‘Plan B’ may get you to your start line. The key factor is not to expect to run at the pace that you had first hoped; match your race pace to the training you have done, not the training you had hoped to.
If you have to take two, three or even four weeks out of training, again, you may have to adjust your initial goals to completion on the day. Many of us start our training believing we can get a PB, until the rollercoaster of marathon training means we’d be happy to turn up on race day.
Many runners find that after months of building up to their long runs, injury hits in the last month of training. This is incredibly common. As well as incredibly frustrating. Again, you may need to adjust your goals. You can still complete a marathon, even if you didn’t hit the golden ’20-mile’ distance in training. A run/walk strategy can be effective for anyone who didn’t quite achieve their long runs, and many runners will set off from the start of a marathon using this method. Be realistic about your fitness and plan to jog one mile, then power walk one. You may find that this more sensible approach allows you to run far more than you expected in the second half of the race.
When all goes wrong, cross train
Crucial to whether your experience feels like a success or failure is how you perceive your performance. If you allow your emotional brain to take over and get angry at the obstacles you are facing, you’ll feel disappointed before you start. Instead, engage your logical brain. Ask: “If I have to stop running can I cross train?” I’ve done two-hour ‘runs’ using a flotation belt in my local pool when I’ve succumbed to injury. Even though these may not ‘feel’ the same as running on the roads, they can allow you to train without impact. And mentally, they help you to believe you’ve still got a chance.
Also ask: “If I haven’t trained as much as I had hoped, can I adjust my expectations?” Focusing, from the moment the gun goes off, only on the mile you are running, rather than the whole race, will stop your mind from creating a catastrophic outcome, where you fail. When you feel you’re struggling, break this down even more in to four 400m sections, and focus on achieving each one. Work out how many steps you take for 400m, and count these over and over to keep you in the present moment. It’s surprising how distance can melt away using this method. Don’t forget your mantras as well; repeating the same word, or sequence of words, when your mind begins to struggle with fatigue is a great distraction technique. ‘Strong’, ‘fast’, ‘stick’, ‘finish’, ‘believe’ can be said alone or linked to create a rhythmic sentence to focus on. Also, try not to look down at the road. Look up.
Create a new goal
Hopefully you will get to the finish line. Remember, walking in a marathon doesn’t represent failure; along with thousands of others, I’ve had to walk in the last six miles of lots of marathons, due to a recurring hip injury. The first time hurts your pride, but you have still completed the distance.
If your race experience doesn’t go to plan, the best way to cope with the post-marathon blues is to create a new goal. Learn from your marathon journey. Work out what works for you, and tweak your next plan so that it suits your lifestyle. I find my body copes better with doing a long, slow run, every 10-14 days. All I need to do is plan these in from the start.
Every marathon is different, and brings its own lessons, especially during the training plan where weekly mileage peaks. Have an A, B, C, even Z plan for race day. Be kind to yourself, whatever happens and draw on each training cycle to come back a better marathon runner. Even for the elites, it takes many years to master this distance.
If you’re looking for motivation and ideas to improve your running, every week Tina posts a new session to try in her Strava group, @shewhodaresruns.