Episode 2: Training, Pyramids…. and “The Wall”

There are whole websites, blogs, books devoted to how to train for a Marathon:  this isn’t one, and I’m no coach. But what I will try to do is give you some basics so you know what your runner has read and is thinking about; give you some key jargon words to listen out for and use; to help you understand why the family calendar has to give way to the training one; and to help manage your runner’s head.

“If you’re not running, you’re either talking about the last one or stressing about the next…”

There will be times when you are sick and tired of your runner’s training plan, and their constant stressing about the number of times they are running, how many miles they have completed and how far they have managed for their longest run. Try to be patient: these things are the absolute key to how they will do on The Day, and rest assured they are only saying out loud about 10% of what is going on in their heads. Bear in mind, that the time they spend worrying and obsessing about their targets is a measure of how important this marathon is to them, and the value it will have for them afterwards; and therefore also, how much they will come to appreciate and thank you for your support.

There is a world of difference between just “going for a run”, and “Training”; and you can’t run a Marathon without training.

You can’t run 26.2 miles if you haven’t run long distances before; and if your runner does not have a structured training plan they will certainly fail on the day, or injure themselves, or both. The process of training is to prepare and teach your runner’s body to keep going for three, four, more hours. That’s done by starting from how far they can run in one go now, and building that up gradually, step-by-step.

The Long Slow Run, and building a pyramid

Your runner probably won’t run 26.2 miles before The Day, but will probably want to have run 18, 20, 22 or more miles a few times beforehand. They will look at the calendar and work back from The Day, and see how many weekends there are, and try to increase their longest run in steps as they get closer. So the Long Slow Run (LSR) is a key measure for their training plan.

But your runner can’t do nothing all week and then go out at the weekend and just run 12, 15, 18, 20 miles. So the LSR is supported by other runs during the week. These train their body to run, increase the efficiency of their heart and lungs, and build a base of endurance to increase the LSR and eventually be able to keep going for 26.2 miles. As the weeks go by, they may add extra runs, and the mileage of those will also increase, so their total weekly mileage grows.

It’s like a pyramid. Each week the LSR is at the top, with other smaller building-blocks underneath. As the weeks pass the LSRs accumulate and get higher. In the end, your runner’s marathon is the top point of all the weekly pyramids, supported by all the LSRs and other runs below.

So their training plan will have headline measures each week of the Longest Run, the Number of Runs, and the week’s Total Miles. Your runner needs a lot of each, gradually building up, to be able to be able to run 26.2 miles, and keep going for 4 hours or more.

As the weeks go by and The Day gets closer, the numbers get bigger and bigger. A marathon Training Plan becomes relentless and unforgiving, and offers precious little time to catch up if your runner gets behind… so be patient with your runner if they stress about missing a run, or don’t manage to reach the LSR they had hoped for, and expect your family calendar to fit in with theirs.

“Training Bingo”

In support of the LSR there are many variations on the “Other” runs. These will probably be either by way of recovery between the harder sessions, of different variations on speed – not necessarily because your runner wants to win, but these all help build endurance. I may come back to those other day, but in the meantime your family might like to play “Training Bingo” and listen out for

Intervals, Recovery, Fartlek (no, really, that is a thing!), Reps

Tempo, Active-Rest, Threshold, Speedwork

Oh, and check also that your runner is not also being tempted into “Junk Miles” just to build their numbers: every run (each chunk out of your time) should have a clear purpose and benefit.

The Wall

It simply is not possible for the human body to store enough energy (fuel, in the form of glycogen, mainly stored in the muscles and liver) to run 26.2 miles. Fact.

Depending on each person’s physiology and training, most bodies hit “empty” at 18 miles or so, give or take a bit. You can be running along quite happily, cruising; and then a minute later, when the fuel runs out, your body tries to protect itself and shut down, and you feel that you absolutely desperately have to stop, just stop, lie down, make it stop…. This is what marathoners call “The Wall”, because it really does feel as though you have run smack into one.

If you can overcome that sensation and keep going, your body has no choice but to find fuel elsewhere. It starts to consume itself, converting fat and other stored energy and even muscle-tissue to fuel. But with good training, your runner’s body will learn to recognise the activity and fuel-burn, and increasing run-time. Ultimately, amazingly, it will start to learn that your runner is NOT going to stop. So to preserve its glycogen stores, it will switch to dual-fuel and start burning other energy sources in parallel. With good training, your runner’s body will start to switch to dual-fuel earlier, and make the switch more gradually: the change still happens, but the Wall is smoother and more manageable. (This is even true of the likes of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe: of course their bodies have extraordinary powers… but they still need to manage The Wall.)

That is why training, the LSR, and building endurance are so important. That is why they need so much time out of your calendar.

“I’ll only be out for an hour… I promise”; the formula T=2Rt

This is an essential formula for managing family time. In my long-suffering wife’s experience,

the Total time needed for a run is two-times the actual Running time.

For a quick 20-minute top-up run it doesn’t matter much what your runner wears; they need no recovery time; and a quick shower will do.

But for the LSR it’s a different matter entirely. Before they go, they need to drink and pee to be fully hydrated beforehand; they need to stretch and warm up to prevent (or nurse) injury, and apply Vaseline to strategic bits of themselves; they will look out at the weather before they go and pick their gear accordingly, look at the sky while warming up and worry themselves, and then – just after they say they are just about to go – they will pop inside and change one of their layers or decide they do need waterproofs after all, and have a final pee. And coming back from the LSR they will need to drink, apply ice to bits of themselves, have a hot (maybe also cold)bath, maybe some self-massage or torture with a foam roller, drink some more but still not pee. The time needed after is longer than that before,  and increases proportionately to the length of the LSR.

But T = 2Rt is a fair guide.

Top Tips

Some Golden Rules to bear in mind as your runner builds their training and the number of runs, the length of the LSR and their total miles start to increase… and especially if things do not exactly go to plan and they are tempted to do too much. Perhaps you could gently slip these into a conversation or ask about them, just to help your runner sanity-check what they are doing.

The 10% rule”. If your runner does too much too soon, or increases the steps in their training too steeply, they will get injured. It is a generally-accepted guide that they should not increase any of their key measures by more than 10% in a week. That is, the length of their long-run, the number of runs, or the total weekly mileage.

The Training Plan is a guide, not set in stone. There will be times when your runner is going well and feeling confident: fine, they can slip in an extra run or add a little to the LSR. But it is equally true that some weeks they may struggle, or simply not find time for all the training they had planned. So tweek the plan.  A few miles here or there, or one week a little short, aren’t going to ruin everything. The plan does not have to be followed to the letter (or number) so long as the overall progress is about right: it is as much about your runner knowing broadly where they are in relation to 26.2 on The Day, as it is about ticking off each week’s targets. Ultimately, if they have to revise the plan a little, that’s fine: it probably means the original wasn’t realistic anyway.

Listen to your body. Your runner’s body will tell them if they are ok, or doing too much. They need to listen, and be honest with themselves. They will have aches and pains, and they will be tired (in fact they will come to relish those sensations) – but if there comes a time where your runner is ignoring injuries or stressing their bodies too much, they will know. Of course the opposite can be true: they may be surprised at what they can do and how their bodies respond to the training.

The training is as much a test of your runner’s spirits and mental endurance as it is their body.  Maybe test their spirits from time-to-time by asking: on scale 1-10, are they enjoying their training and relishing the progress and change in their body; or is it a drudge, something to be endured and got over as soon as they can?

Next week, the twin topic of Training: Injuries! Stay tuned…


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