Let’s face it: Sometimes it hurts to run and sometimes it hurts a lot to race. Anyone who says a marathon is easy has never run a marathon. Anyone who has run one will tell you at some point during the race, the going can get very tough. With aching muscles in the depth of glycogen depletion and a confused, wandering mind, just getting to the next mile marker can be a struggle.
But that’s what a marathon is all about—accepting the unique challenges and trying to overcome them.
Somewhere along the way, you will have to dig deep and push yourself through the physical aches and pains and the mental battles. You have to be able to will yourself to go beyond what ordinarily you might not be capable of doing. It’s amazing what you will be able to do—if you prepare properly.
Fortunately, there are some physical and mental techniques you can employ to get you through some of the rough patches of training and racing.
That’s what distance running is all about: having the patience and maturity to hold back so you have something left in reserve for the final miles. Everyone has a finite amount of energy. That’s what endurance training does. It extends the boundaries of that energy so you can run longer and longer. But your reserves must be carefully rationed out during the course of any run or race. Expend too much too early by running over your head and you’ll be running on empty way much too soon.
In any race of any length, you see the less experienced runners burst off the starting line in apparent disregard for the distance. Meanwhile, the experienced runners hold back in the first few miles, knowing they’ll need all the energy they can muster in the final stages. They also know that once you get tired, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain speed and concentration.
But how do you know what’s too fast too soon? Experience is one way, but certainly if you start a race at a pace faster than you can comfortably run in training, you’ll get in trouble very quickly.
You must start any run or race (longer than a 5 or 10-K) at least one or two minutes slower than your best minute-per-mile pace and only gradually pick up the pace. Ideally, your last mile should be the fastest. If you can accomplish that, chances are you’ll run well.
The clearest early warning sign that you went out too fast is labored breathing. If you’re breathing heavily in the first mile or two of a race longer than five kilometers, you went out too fast and must ease up. Calm down, bring your breathing back to normal and get back to your goal pace.
If you can do that, you still should be able to have enough run in you for the final few miles. If not, you’ll be in trouble and certain to encounter painful episodes along the way.
The savviest runners save about 40 percent of their energy for the last third of the race. That way, they can pass hordes of runners (most of whom went out too fast) and finish strongly.
Learning to hold back in a race and conserve your energy also means learning how to relax. The overly excited, nervous racer is the one most likely to bolt off the starting line much too fast. The calm, experienced runner allows the overly ambitious to rush off, while sticking to his game plan of running a steady pace that can be maintained the entire way.
You can’t win a race in the first few miles (or even win your age group), but you sure can lose it that way. So relax, take a chill pill and allow everyone else to rush off the starting line.
Sit back, run easily and take a quick inventory of how you feel and how you are running. Check out your surroundings, make sure you don’t trip over anyone and just get into a steady rhythm. Check the clocks to see that you’re near your goal pace. If you’re a little slow, pick it up a notch. If you’re too fast, back off.
Relax your jaw, eyes and shoulders. Don’t worry about anything at this stage. It’s way too early. Relaxation is the key.
Back off Bubba.
In any race and just about every long run, you will encounter some patch of trouble along the way. But recognize it for what it is—a temporary hurt–and allow it to pass. The best way to step aside and allow it to pass is to ease up on the throttle. This doesn’t mean quitting or giving into the pain. Instead, it’s smart running to simply slow down a bit and allow yourself a few moments to recover.
Everyone will struggle during some part of most races. When that happens to you, it’s time to regroup, recover and get it back together. Then, you can push on again.
The better trained you are, the quicker you’ll recover. This is one of the benefits of long runs: training your body to overcome these bad patches by slowing down to recover and then forging ahead when you feel better.
If you are struggling in a race, it also makes sense to make a small change. That is, alter your stride (usually shorten it), change your arm carriage or your breathing pattern. Drink more, throw a cup of water over your head, take some energy gels or even high-five a spectator along the way—anything to make a physical or emotional change.
The one thing you don’t want to do when going through a bad patch is tense up and try to fight it by becoming more aggressive. Instead, allow the pain to come…and go. Again, relax and back off the pace a bit.
Train for pain.
Running through pain during a race is obviously very difficult, but if you have experienced this type of discomfort before in training you will at least be familiar with it and recognize it as temporary.
Best ways to train for pain? Hard speed workouts or tempo runs that simulate race pace and race conditions and tough long runs that also simulate the depletion and psychological difficulties of a marathon.
Typically, many marathoners do 400 or 800-meter repeats for their speed drills after a short warmup. That’s fine for working on your speed, but it doesn’t do much for simulating the conditions of a long race when you’re fried and still need to maintain your goal pace. Instead, of short intervals, many experienced marathoners do something called cruise intervals or tempo runs.
That is, they run easily for as long as 45 minutes. Then, they will run two or three times 15 or 20 minutes at their 10-K race pace with a five-minute recovery time between each interval. Or two times 15 minutes at 10-K race pace with five minutes of jog recovery. Another good one is to go out 45 minutes on a relatively flat course, turn around and come back in 40 minutes covering the same distance. None of these are easy, but aren’t supposed to be. If you do them properly, it will probably hurt. But it’s a good hurt that will prepare you for some tough racing.
Same way on long runs. Every marathoner does long runs, but most run a steady, very easy pace. No problem there. But experienced marathoners vary the pace on at least some of the long runs so, at some point, they are running faster than their expected marathon goal pace.
For example, in the middle of a two-hour run, run 30 to 45 minutes at marathon goal pace or faster. Or in another two-hour run, run the second hour about five minutes faster. Or in another long run, do 4 times 10 minutes at half-marathon pace. There are all sorts of variation, but the goal is the same: To simulate the physical and mental demands of racing.
If you can do this in training, you’ll be better prepared for any difficulties you encounter during the race. If you’ve experienced the painful episodes before in training, when they crop up in a race, you’ll recognize the feeling and have the confidence you can battle back and still finish the race strongly.
Segment the race.
Breaking your race down into palatable chunks definitely helps. The longer the race is, the greater the benefit. Especially a marathon.
The marathon is so long you simply can’t think of it as 26.2-mile race. Mentally it’s very tough. Instead, smart runners break it up into more manageable, smaller segments.
For example, 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Samuelson once told me she used to think of a marathon as an easy 16-mile run on her favorite course in Maine, followed by a 10-mile race that she always knew she could complete. All she worried about was the last 10 miles.
Some runners break it down into even smaller chunks, possibly back-to-back 10-mile runs, followed by a 10-K. By envisioning the 10-K as a race they have done numerous times or as a training run, they find it easier to get through that last challenging portion of the marathon.
When the going gets really tough in the latter stages, some marathoners just focus on going from aid station to aid station or mile marker to mile marker. After you’ve passed one, you know you can make it to the next one. And so forth. Pretty soon, the finish line is in sight.
When your running becomes difficult near the end of a race, concentrate on maintaining good running form. Focus on maintaining an efficient stride (though it may be shorter than when you started) with arms moving straight forward and back. Hold your head high and straight and try not to tense up your shoulders. Relax (that word again) and drive forward to the finish.
One of the by products of being tired is your body will bark back and your form will suffer. But if you focus on maintaining it, you will be better able to keep up your running speed. You might feel like you’re slowing down substantially, but if you can hold your form together you probably won’t slow down as much as you think.
Pain is part of the game.
If running a race, much less a marathon, was easy, everyone would do it. The difficulty of running a race as long a marathon is oddly enough, one of its attractions. There is a major obstacle to overcome—everyone has one in a marathon—and successfully confronting that obstacle is where the satisfaction comes in.
That’s the challenge.
But recognize that pain is just part of the game. Somewhere along the way it will get a little ugly. Pay attention to it. But allow it to pass as it most definitely will.
With practice and doing the right workouts, you can build up your strength and mental tenacity as well as develop great reserves that you can tap into in the latter stages when the going gets tough.
Preparing for the difficult patches and then dealing with them in a positive way, is one of the challenges that makes running so rewarding.