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Things I've learnt about running marathons

I've run five marathons (plus one unoffical 42.2km time trial after covid cancelled everything in 2020).

Some have gone well, some have not gone to plan. The highlights are running two sub 3s in Berlin 2016 and Amsterdam 2017.

Here are some of the key things I've learnt from my marathons:

So much of it is mental – I started feeling tired at around 27km, and 10km later was just hanging on. There is a hill at around 39km in Canberra, which lots of people were walking up. I was so tempted to join them, but knew if I did, I wouldn’t start running again. It was definitely mental strength that got me up it.

Simple training worked – my training for my first marathon wasn’t overly complicated, in part because I didn’t know what I was doing. Prior to the days of a GPS watch, my training usually consisted of a 10-12km run on Tuesdays, intervals on Thursdays, and sometimes a longer run (12-17km) on Sundays. When I started training for the marathon, I added parkrun on Saturdays, a few midweek 15km runs, and extended the Sunday runs. I didn’t do tempo runs, fast finish long runs or race pace training (at least not intentionally). Some of those things, I have added in since. But the thing I think I got right, was that what I needed most to prepare for a marathon was an endurance base, so lots of solid running was important (and still is today).

Sporadic training does not work – this might be the biggest lessons I have learnt. There were parts of my training for Sydney that weren’t too bad, but there were almost as many weeks around 30km as there were around 80km. The weeks where I didn’t do a lot of running hurt my training. Once I finally started to be consistent, I got the result I was after. For my second one, I simply didn’t do enough training.

Consistency is key - the above point leads into this one. The single biggest thing that helped me achieve my marathon goals was consistent training. That happened for me when I made running part of my routine and it became a habit. There was no one magic session that helped me get there, but the combination of doing my runs each week during the training block. That's not to say I never missed a session, but being as consistent as possible with your training gets results.

Races don’t replace training runs – My training for my second marathon ran from June until September. During that time, I raced the Heart of the Lake 10km and Cooks River Fun Run 10km, both in June, the Gold Coast Half Marathon and Sydney Harbour 10km in the first two weeks of July, and the city2surf in August. That meant there were five weekends where I missed long runs.

Often these events also impacted my training if I did a light taper, or had a couple of recovery days. In the week after the city2surf, I got sick and missed the long run I had planned. At the time, I was concerned that I was missing key sessions, but continued with my plans to race anyway. When I got to the start line I knew I hadn’t done as much training as I could have, but since I had been “running well”, I thought it would be okay. For an event that relies on endurance training, you definitely can’t wing it. If you’re underdone, the marathon will find you out!

Don’t spend too much time looking at your watch – In the first 10km of my third marathon, I was behind the 3 hour pace group, because it seemed like they had gone out quite fast. I could see them ahead, but instead of using that as a guide on pace, I spent a lot of time checking my watch. This led to speeding up and slowing down based on the pace I saw, which probably used a lot of energy I could have made better use of later in the race. These days, I will check my watch as a guide, but don’t react to it.

Try to reduce external stresses – Easier said than done, but as a general rule, you will respond better to a training load if you aren’t juggling a million things at once. I was quite drained during most of 2015 with a couple of life things, and didn’t run as well as I wanted to. It wasn’t the only reason, but it didn’t help. When preparing for a marathon, it’s worth making it a priority. That might mean entering a race when you aren’t too busy with work and life, or putting other things on hold for a little while. If you are running a marathon around work and family committments, it's worth thinking about how you will fit training into a busy lifestyle.

Other key things I have learnt about running marathons include committing to your training, not running too fast all the time and practicing your fuelling. I have expanded on them in my posts on things I learnt from my first, second and third marathons.

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