11 Major Marathon Mistakes

3. Too many marathon runners try to carry out a long run every weekend. After all, they rationalize, the marathon is a very long race, and so isn't it necessary to practice running long on a weekly basis? One problem with this is that most of the long runs are conducted at slower-than-goal pace, so they have little positive effect on marathon readiness (see mistake #2).

The key problem, though, is that long runs cast a shadow over subsequent training, making it difficult to carry out high-quality training on Monday through Saturday (the days in between the standard, Sunday, long run). With a long run every weekend, the leg muscles are always trying to recover from the impacts and abuses of Sunday's effort at the same time they're being asked to carry out Tuesday's high-speed interval workout and Thursday's red-hot hill session. That just doesn't work!

It's small wonder that weekly long runs increase the risk of injury for marathon trainees; the muscles are simply never given enough chance to recover from the prolonged exertions of the weekend. A far better strategy would be to carry out the long run every other weekend--or even every three weeks. This would still allow a marathoner to learn how to run long, and it would permit much higher-quality training during the weeks that don't have a muscle-numbing long run on the prior Sunday.

4. Most marathoners fail to use sports drinks properly during the race. Consuming sports drinks shouldn't be "saved" for late stages of the race, when significant fatigue is beginning to set in. At that point, sports-drink consumption actually has little effect on performance, since the carbohydrate in the beverage must make its way past the stomach, into the small intestine, across the wall of the gastrointestinal tract, and through the blood to the muscles, all of which take a lot of time (in fact, so much time that the runner may be across the finish line before the first drops of carbs actually reach the sinews).

The most-important quaffing of sports drink actually takes place 10 minutes before the race begins, when eight to 10 ounces should be consumed. After that, five to six ounces should be imbibed every two miles or so during the race. Incidentally, one ounce is considered to be a normal, regular swallow of fluid. Don't forget to utilize this sports-drink-intake pattern during your long training runs, too.

5. Most marathon runners mix sports drinks with other things during the race. This is very bad. For example, if you consume a sports drink and water during a marathon, you'll end up with a very dilute solution in your gastrointestinal system; this will slow absorption of carbohydrate and leave you short of energy in the late stages of the race.

At the other extreme, if you consume a sports drink and gel during the race, you'll end up with a stomach full of molasses, which will empty into your small intestine slowly, retard absorption of carbohydrate, and increase your chances of ultimately developing a massive case of diarrhea. You should consume a sports drink--and nothing else--during the race.

It may be comforting to know that sports drinks can ward off dehydration just as effectively as water does, and that the sports drinks will leave you less likely to become hyponatremic.

6. Many marathoners fail to standardize their pre-race meal. On race day, you don't want anything exotic in your stomach. That means no Szechuan chicken, no sushi, no blackened salmon, and nothing that will create even the slightest cries of protest from your gut.

For your pre-marathon breakfast, you should choose only comfort foods--eat foods that your system can digest easily. It doesn't matter what these foods are (of course, they shouldn't be laden with fat or grease); it just matters that they add to the carbohydrate stockpiles in your liver, blood and muscles, and that they furnish enough sustenance to fuel your prolonged effort.

Your pre-race meal should also be consumed before your long training runs--with the same amount of "lead time" you will be using on marathon day.

For example, if your marathon starts at 10 a.m. and you plan to eat at 7 a.m. on race day, make sure you have the identical pre-race breakfast three hours before your long runs during training, too. That way, you'll be sure that you can run the marathon comfortably with the breakfast you've chosen; it will be neither too much nor too little, and it will be so comfortable that you can concentrate completely on the race itself, not on your belly.

7. Too many marathoners try something new on race weekend. Several years ago, a runner I was coaching bought a bottle of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) at a marathon expo the day before her race. The salesman told her that the MCTs would enhance endurance, and she reasoned that endurance was a good thing for the marathon and subsequently quaffed much of the bottle's contents during the hours leading up to the race.

As a result, even though she was mentally and physically ready to run a PR, her digestive system wouldn't let her. She felt sluggish, bloated, and unable to run at an intense pace--except when a Port-a-Potty came into view. The lesson is that the weekend of the marathon isn't a time for experimentation. Meals should be the same, water consumption the same, shoes the same, etc. As mentioned, the marathon is intolerant of even very slight changes in procedure.

8. Marathon runners don't taper properly before the race. It takes about four weeks to recover from a long run of 18 to 20 miles or so. This means, obviously, that no runs of 18 miles or longer should be conducted during the month leading up to a marathon.

Unfortunately, many runners try to squeeze in one--or even two--long runs during the four weeks before the big race. The emphasis should actually be placed on recovery, not prolonged running, during the 28 days preceding a marathon. Recovery, of course, isn't consistent with high-volume training. Rather, it's fostered by a gradual reduction in training, i. e., a tapering period. Four-week tapers work well for the marathon, and weekly mileage during these four weeks can be 80 percent, 60 percent, 40 percent, and then 25 percent of usual levels.

9. Too many marathoners emphasize volume of training over quality. Come on, people--when you get ready for a marathon, you're not training to run across the Sahara Desert. Seventy-mile-plus weeks might be great preparation for a multi-day race in which at least 10 miles must be traversed every day, but the idea in the marathon is to cover 26 miles, in a single dose of running, as quickly as possible.

For many runners, a 35-mile week can be far better preparation for the marathon than a 70-mile week, because the former can more effectively foster the completion of higher-quality training.

Contrary to popular belief, a 70-mile week isn't necessarily specific preparation for the marathon; after all, one could run seven miles 10 times during the week, and this would not imply better preparation than 35 miles of higher-quality effort.

Once again, it's what happens on the race course that matters, not the big numbers written in a log book. It's more effective to build up to a 20-mile long run, with about 10 miles at goal pace, than it is to accumulate tons of miles at slower-than-goal speed.

10. Too many marathoners forget that fitness is the ultimate predictor of marathon success. If your VO2max, lactate threshold, economy, running strength, power and marathon-specific preparations are all in order, you'll have your best-possible race. If you don't work on each of these variables during training, you won't have a great race. Preparing for a marathon is all about optimizing these variables; it's not about pounding away with long runs and then hoping for the best.

11. Some marathoners actually think that walking during the race will improve their times. If we suggested to these same people that running more slowly during the event would upgrade their performances, they would laugh in our faces, but somehow they buy the walking concept lock, stock and barrel! No one needs to walk during the marathon; we can all learn to run the entire distance -- our times will not improve if we train to amble slowly during specific portions of the race.

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Owen Anderson, Ph.D., is a coach and exercise scientist who edits Running Research News and is the author of three books on running: Great Workouts for Popular Races, Lactate Lift-Off, and Aurora. For more information about Owen's unique training techniques, visit http://www.lansingmarathon.com or e-mail him at owen@lansingmarathon.com.

Copyright 2006

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