Train Your Brain for Marathon Success

Let me give you one example that is specific to avoiding the wall in marathons. From the perspective of the new, brain-centered model of running performance, fatigue functions as a certain type of pacing strategy known as teleoanticipation.

Here's how it works: Running is almost always initiated with an anticipated endpoint in mind--either a total distance or a total duration, or both. In the case of a marathon, this endpoint usually has a dual nature: the distance of 26.2 miles and a goal finishing time. The brain uses this anticipated endpoint to calculate the maximum amount of muscle activation you can sustain from start to finish without a loss of homeostasis in the muscles or other organs. This calculation is based on fatigue set points (such as the maximum core body temperature that is allowable without organ damage), physiological feedback (such as chemical signals indicating the amount of glycogen available in the muscles), past experiences (such as explicit knowledge of past performance limits) and environmental factors (such as air temperature). Throughout exercise, the amount of muscle activation continually changes based on ongoing communication among the brain, the body and the environment.

Thanks to teleoanticipation, your brain already knows whether or not you will hit the wall from the moment the starting gun sounds. The objective of training is essentially to calibrate your teleoanticipation mechanism to ensure that your brain does not receive any red-flag feedback signals while you run at your goal pace during the marathon.

The best way to guarantee that you will avoid the wall and achieve your goal time in a marathon is a training plan that culminates in a very challenging and highly race-specific peak workout that makes the challenge of the marathon itself as familiar as possible to your brain and body when it comes.

Obviously, this peak workout can only be so challenging and specific. If you try to complete a 26.2-mile training run at your goal pace two weeks before your actual marathon event, you will barely be able to climb stairs pain-free again by the time race day rolls around.

A more appropriate peak workout format is one hour easy plus 4 x 3 kilometers on / 1K off, where the on segments are run at your goal marathon pace and the off segments are run at your goal marathon pace, plus 15 seconds per mile.

The long run that you do on the weekend preceding your peak workout--which should fall two weeks before race day--should be similar in format but a little easier. The workout before that should be a little easier still, and so forth. The rest of your training should simply provide the necessary support to gradually increase your fitness level so you can handle the increased challenge of each long run.

Here is a sequence of 11 long runs that you can use to train your brain for marathon success:

1

1-hour easy run + 10 minutes uphill @ goal marathon pace

2

30 minutes easy
10 minutes @ goal marathon pace
1 minute easy
10 minutes @ current half-marathon pace
1 minute easy
10 minutes @ half-marathon/10K pace

3

90 minutes easy + 20 minutes @ goal marathon pace

4

30 minutes easy
15 minutes @ current half-marathon pace
3 minutes easy
15 minutes @ current half-marathon pace
160 minutes easy

5

2 hours easy + 20 minutes @ goal marathon pace

6

30 minutes easy
15 minutes @ goal marathon pace
1 minute easy
15 minutes @ current half-marathon pace
1 minute easy
10 minutes @ half-marathon/10K pace
5 minutes easy

7

10K easy +
10 x 1 minute on 1 minute off
On = goal marathon pace – 10 second/mile
Off = goal marathon pace + 1 minute/mile

8

2 hours easy
20 minutes @ marathon pace + 20 seconds/mile
20 minutes @ goal marathon pace

9

10K easy +
10 x 1K on 1K off
On = goal marathon pace – 5 seconds per mile
Off = goal marathon pace + 45 seconds/mile

10

1 hour easy +
5 x 2K on 1K off
On = goal marathon pace
Off = goal marathon pace + 30 seconds/mile

11

1 hour easy +
4 x 3K on 1K off
On = goal marathon pace
Off = goal marathon pace + 15 seconds/mile


Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Brain Training For Runners . His website is www.mattfitzgerald.org.

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