30 April 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: part XII

So after running a marathon you get really lazy. Too lazy to do the washing up, or walk down the stairs at your flat to put the recycling out, or change out of your pyjamas before the postman arrives... Your kitchen sink slowly disappears under a pile of unwashed mugs used to eat chocolate gateau out of and you have to force your way through mountains of unrecycled cardboard to get to the bathroom. When you can be bothered. So, yeah, definitely too lazy to write blog posts.

I'm exaggerating a teeny bit. Something like that happened for a couple of days and then, lo and behold, the SUN came out! And I had my trainers back on in a flash. The mental recovery was probably harder - my brain went into a flap for about a week afterwards, wondering what it was supposed to focus on after all the training and menu plans came to an end, and all the niggles and sniffles that threatened to ruin the race magically disappeared. Then there was the Boston Marathon thing, which felt strange and horrible while I still had my own marathon in my legs.

Anyway, here's a picture of me running a marathon:



I know! I even look like I'm enjoying it!

I won't bore you with the details of the race. Suffice to say it was rather hillier than expected - a two-lap course that inflicted some severe psychological torture between 20-30k, when all the hills from the first lap reared their ugly heads for the second time around. On reflection, a time of 4:02 was respectable and, hey, I have this nice picture that will no doubt lead me to remember it as being all lovely and smiley and even repeatable in the not-too-distant future...

So what have I learnt? Has SCIENCE taught me anything about running a marathon? Did it help?

I guess I should really have run a marathon *without* the SCIENCE first... as a control. But that would have made for an equally poor experiment. I think you learn so much by doing all the training and running the marathon, that a second marathon will always be easier anyway, no matter how much expertise you throw at it. For example, next time (ha!) I would be much more careful about my tapering - not just cutting down on the mileage for the couple of weeks before the race, but avoiding *anything* untested. (I stupidly had a go at some 100m relay reps the Wednesday before - "it's so short it couldn't possibly hurt!" - not thinking anything of it until I woke up the next day, three days before race day, with some very tired thighs). There was also a lot of trial and error that went into planning my pre-race meals. Not particularly scientific either, just seeing what would get me up in the morning feeling energised rather than sluggish. (Brown rice rather than pasta, if anyone's interested, but that's just me.)

On the subject of nutrition though, I do think that reading some of the literature on carbohydrate storage and "the wall" helped. Otherwise, I think I would have been pretty skeptical about using energy gels. Sports drinks, I've concluded, are largely useless in the context that they are used by most people. But a marathon is a special case. You simply can't run on empty. So I spent a long time researching energy gels and tried out everything I intended to use on training runs before the race. As a result, I never hit the wall... and managed to avoid throwing up on a grass verge as I saw several runners doing.

High intensity interval training at the track has also helped me increase my pace. As coaches keep telling me, there's plenty of evidence for this type of training improving your speed endurance, but I'm not sure whether the effect has been largely physiological or psychological. (I *believe* I can run faster, so I do?) And I reckon the major benefit has been over 5k and 10k rather than longer distances. Still, who knows? It might have taken me 10 hours to finish the thing without all that HIIT.

There were other aspects of endurance running and training that were not particularly well studied. I remain unconvinced by evidence on yoga, cross-training and stretching, for example. The problem is that there are just so many variables... Every study tries something different - different exercises, at different frequencies, with people of differing abilities. It becomes impossible to make comparisons. And most studies are small. With runners so stuck in their ways, convincing more to take part in scientific studies is a challenge because it means messing with their precious training regimes.

I think there's an important lesson to be learned from all this. You can't rely on science to tell you what to do. It doesn't have an answer for everything - well, not yet. People have been running marathons for a long time. People who run them and people who train other people to run them know what it takes, even if they haven't tested it on hundreds of people and published it in a scientific journal. And everyone is different. What worked for me almost certainly won't work for everyone else trying to run a marathon. On the other hand, you can save yourself a lot of money and wasted energy by being skeptical and looking up the evidence that is available (or not available, in many cases). If someone tells you to wrap your feet in newspaper and stand on your head for half an hour every morning to cure your plantar fasciitis, try putting it into PubMed before you do it.

Oh dear - look what happened over that second lot of hills!

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