Marathon: ask the experts

An extra from Made for the marathon?

Hayley Birch shares some tips and advice from the experts on nutrition, training, psychology and more. 

How do you run a decent marathon?

“There are basically three factors that are going to determine how fast you run a marathon: your maximum oxygen uptake, what percentage of that you can sustain, and then how efficiently you convert that oxygen – which you use to break down fats and carbohydrates, to release energy – into movement.”

Jo Corbett, exercise physiologist, University of Portsmouth

“Fundamentally, by going fast for a long period of time. First, you’ve got to be able to run at a reasonably quick pace to start with (which requires you to be able to generate quite a lot of force with your muscles, or have a good power-to-weight ratio). The second thing is that you’ve got to be able to do that very efficiently. If you look at the best marathon runners then they will maintain their pace throughout the whole of the race and they don’t slow down."

Polly McGuigan, biomechanics researcher, University of Bath

Do I have to eat platefuls of pasta the day before the race?

“Some really famous studies were conducted in the 1960s that started the idea of carbohydrate loading. Then in the 80s there were a load of studies that were quite extreme: really heavy training for a period of time, and then slowly tapering training and loading carbs. They were quite tough regimens to follow. What’s been shown more recently is that maintaining a high-carbohydrate diet and just easing off your training will elevate your muscle glycogen [carbohydrate], so you don’t need to be that extreme.”

Phil Watson, sports nutrition researcher, Loughborough University

How much should I drink?

“At a certain point, dehydration is likely to have a negative effect on your exercise performance, but at present we don’t know where that level is. It’s becoming apparent that lower levels of dehydration, say 2 to 4 per cent of body weight, perhaps do not have so much of an effect. It might reduce your body mass a little and give you a bit of an advantage, which is probably going to offset any decrement in performance.

“However, to stay in that range, you need to know how much fluid you’re losing and therefore how much you need to drink during your marathon. It’s easy: you do a one-hour run, weigh yourself before and after, and that’s your sweat rate in litres per hour, if you don’t drink anything. You also need to know what your sweat rate is so that you don’t over-drink.”

Lewis James, hydration researcher, Loughborough University 

What happens if I drink too much?

“[Overdrinking] could mean you collapsing, needing medical attention or not finishing the race at all. There are recorded cases of people dying during endurance races from hyponatraemia and that’s driven by drinking too much. So the potential implications... are certainly very severe and can be remedied fairly easily by having an appropriate drinking strategy.”

Lewis James, hydration researcher, Loughborough University 

When running long distances, is it better to focus on running or to try to distract yourself?

“This is one of the things that’s been written about a lot. To ‘associate’ means to continually be self-aware of how our body’s feeling, how we’re doing. If we ‘disassociate’, we try to think about something else, to take our mind off it.

“What we tend to see is that stronger runners associate, because they’re familiar with how their body should feel. For someone recreational, I think you tend to rely on your watch and try to distract yourself a little bit more. But there are certainly positives and negatives [to both approaches].”

Duncan Simpson, sports psychologist, Barry University, Florida

Should I run with a watch?

“I think racing with a GPS watch and knowing exactly what pace you’re at all the time can be a real psychological block. I think one of the things that helped me at the Frankfurt Marathon was that I went back to being an old-school racer. I wrote my 5 km split times on my forearm and I ran with a stopwatch, so I wasn’t checking every 200 m, ‘am I on pace, am I on pace?’ I was just running by feel.”

Julia Belyavin, who ran a time of 2:59 in the 2013 Frankfurt Marathon 

Is there such a thing as hitting the wall?

“The suggestion is that when you hit the wall in the marathon at about 20 miles or so, that’s due to the depletion of the body’s carbohydrate stores. As a consequence of that you have to reduce your exercise pace and get your energy from fats. We see with elite marathon runners that they’re able to maintain a very high pace throughout the marathon, so they seem to be able to regulate their pace in the appropriate manner.

“We know that through training you can learn to spare [carbohydrate], so you use more fat and less carbohydrate at a given speed. Also, athletes will carbohydrate load before the marathon and take on carbohydrate drinks or gels during the race to try and supplement those stores within the body.”

Jo Corbett, exercise physiologist, University of Portsmouth

Any other words of inspiration?

“I wasn’t sporty at school. Absolutely hated it. If there was one thing which wrecked my otherwise very good school reports it was PE. I grew up in Reading and the Reading Half Marathon route used to go past my parents’ house, so I’d always been vaguely interested. And then, I don’t know, I decided perhaps I would actually do it, and then started telling people I was going to do it and couldn’t really get out of it... I started off running for a minute, walking for a minute – I was so monstrously unfit by the age of 22 that was all I was good for!

Julia Belyavin, who ran a time of 2:59 in the 2013 Frankfurt Marathon

“Doubts are inevitable, but doubts are not always a bad thing, especially in training. You know, doubts serve to make sure that we’re not pushing ourselves too much and they can keep us motivated. So if we have a little doubt – ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can achieve this’ – it can aid with that motivation.”

Duncan Simpson, sports psychologist, Barry University, Florida

“If it’s windy, find some people to tuck in behind as a windbreak. That’s always my strategy. Find a tall man.”

Lucy MacAlister, who ran a time of 2:40 in the 2011 Brighton Marathon 

Further reading