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“Running is the easiest activity ever. All you need is a pair of sneakers.” Most of the time we would agree that everyone can pick up running, young and old, athlete or not.
But marathon running is different. If your strategy to run a marathon is to follow the advice of your favourite sneakers’ commercial and just do it, we’d say: “good luck and stock up on heating pads.” Marathon racing requires careful planning and preparation, especially if you want to run at your best pace. How exactly do we go about it?
Set a Pacing Plan
Don’t wait until the horn goes off at the starting line to decide how you want to run the race. Besides risking being elbowed by a mob of enthusiastic runners trying to get ahead while they can still feel their legs, you’re unlikely to run at your best when you don’t have a pacing plan in mind. There are a few ways to go about it: positive splits, negative splits or even splits.
Positive splits mean that you get to run at your maximum speed for as long as you can sustain the race. It’s a natural choice for many runners because it makes sense that you give it your all at the beginning of the race when you’re still fresh and motivated, plus the added ego boost from outrunning everyone. But this strategy means that you may run out of fuel in the later stage. Anyone who has run a marathon would know that the wall doesn’t hit you until the 20 km mark. With so little energy left at that point, you may find yourself literally dragging your feet to the finish line.
Runners opting for negative splits will run the first half of the race slower than expected and only pick up the pace in the second half. Done correctly, they will shine the brightest nearing the end of the race when the crowd has thinned out and many who are left standing (or running) start wondering why they sign up in the first place. But running experts caution against this strategy if you’re looking for optimal pacing. Runners may not be able make up for the time lost from running more slowly in the first half of the race; this may result in a slower overall timing and untapped energy reserves (read: not running your fullest).
Running even splits is the best way to utilise the glycogen storage in your body efficiently since you’re running at an even pace throughout the race. However, your body’s physiology does change during the marathon. Your muscles start to fatigue, and some of the biological processes slow down. Instead, the recommended pace is the moderated positive splits- running the first half of the race one to three minutes faster than the second half to accommodate the fatigued muscles.
Get Used to the Marathon Pace
While keeping the pacing plan as your phone wallpaper or posted on your work desk may get you pumped up and excited for the run, it’s not going to condition your body magically to the race pace (no, burning and drinking it the day before the race doesn’t do it either). Talk the talk then run the talk; that’s the only way to go.
Start easy a few months before the race by running a few kilometres at your normal pace then picking up the speed for another few kilometres, before coming back to your usual pace again. The interval run will help you to get in the groove of your race pace. When you’re ready, start running entirely at your marathon race pace.
Find a Running Partner
Calling all marathon debutantes, this may be the single most important survival tip on running your first marathon. The “I feel you” look you share with your running buddy at the critical mark in the race is the best thing that will keep you going (that, and a second pair of legs, but that option is off the table). Having a running partner will also help to keep your pace in check, making sure that you don’t run faster or slower than your pacing plan.
Look for a running partner that not only can make you a stronger, better runner but also fun one. Running a 42 km run can be mundane, so it’s great to have a buddy to talk to or share an eye-roll or two when rude runners cut you or block your path.
Be Flexible On Race Day
Runners are a disciplined bunch, so much so that we tend to hang onto our pacing plan like our life depends on it. Come rain, haze or blistering sun, the running goals are here to stay. Some determination is needed to complete the marathon, but sheer determination alone can’t keep you running for 42 km. You need to take care of your body as you go.
On a particularly hot race day, when you sweat profusely just by breathing, expect to have a slower timing since you may need to take more water breaks. When you’re not feeling fit on the day itself, slow down. Although listening to cues from your body sounds random when compared to the exact, down-to-milliseconds algorithm delivered by your GPS tracker or fancy sports watch, when it comes to running a marathon, you can and should trust your body to make judgments.
Some determination is needed to complete the marathon, but sheer determination alone can’t keep you running for 42 km. You need to take care of your body as you go.
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