Page - How to Run the AF Marathon
How to Run the AF Marathon (or any Endurance Race)
As you enter the week priors to the Air Force Marathon here are a few visualizations to help you set your plan. Running your best marathon is part art, science, guts, faith in what you can do, and a little luck. Running your best 10k is mostly about fitness.
I’ve had the pleasure of running the first 2 Air Force Marathons in the 1990’s, had a break due to work duties , and now have a string now of 10 consecutive. I’ve had fun and success here, finishing 2nd in the inaugural event and winning in 2006 and in 2011. At 46 years old now it is never too late to learn new things and share with others.
As you enter the week prior to the race here are a few strategies to help you set your plan. Running your best marathon is part art, science, guts, faith in what you can do, and a little luck. Running your best 10k is mostly about fitness. The best analogy I can think of is this: if you have trained your body properly with the right mix of aerobic level training and some up tempo stuff in recent weeks, you have built your efficient hybrid engine ready to race the marathon. Many of you have driven in a Prius and watched the subtle shifts between gas and electric on the screen. You do not perceive these shifts. Your engine(muscles) runs on a mixture of gas and electric, and how much of each depends on the effort. This is why slow aerobic training is critical for marathon success, you build a massive electric engine.
You are starting the race with one gallon in the tank- assuming you have eaten a nice meal the night before with a breakfast top off.
- If you are in all gas mode, your engine will run about 1.5 hours at a strong pace….then you are out of gas.
- If you are mostly electric you can run all day, but maybe not so quickly.
- If you are using the proper mix you will go quick and efficient for duration of your event, and you can even do some topping off along the way.
The glucose utilizing pathway is the gas. This is your stored liver/muscle glycogen and blood glucose (pasta meal and breakfast) – easy to access for ready energy. The fat utilizing pathway is the electric. In marathons you must be in hybrid the entire race. Hybrid is where your energy (ATP) is coming from both sources.
Many runners are in great “10K shape” (an all-gas event), then run their marathon in the gas mode and usually crash. Glycogen sparing strategy need not apply in races of less than an hour as long as you had a good pre-event meal to fill the tank. In marathons and ultras, top end fitness matters little and can only be applied very near the finish. Glucose gives 36 ATP per molecule with a limited supply, fat over 200 ATP per molecule and an unlimited supply. You must tap into the fat burning tank. Now you know how a bird can migrate 7000 miles without a gel pack. It’s all about the pace.
So how do you know you are running in your best hybrid mode?
This is difficult because the sense at this level (Aerobic Threshold) is not as profound as Lactate Threshold (or Anaerobic Threshold). A slight increase from your optimal pace will switch you from hybrid to all gas without you realizing it, and the effects are felt miles later. Charging up hills early will tap your gas quickly. If you want to speed up early….DON’T. Relax and maintain effort, not speed. You should feel easy in the early stages, it is a marathon.
You must rehearse a bit in training. I focus on relaxation and breathing. If I’m breathing one cycle to 5 steps, then I’m hybrid. If I’m breathing faster I’m using mostly glucose as fuel. Belly breathe- allow lower belly to blow up like a beach ball on inhalation and pull your belly button back to your spine on exhalation. Then you will fill the lower lung areas where oxygen exchange occurs. Notice the breathing efforts of those around you and many are rapid breathing- they tend to suffer somewhere past half way. Rehearse complete relaxation from the top down- eyes, jaw, shoulders, allow your legs to relax and extend behind you, relax and soften your knees and ankles. Find you own cue for this. If you use the Heart Rate Monitor in training strongly consider one during the event.
In a marathon, the last 3-4 miles you will be mostly gas to maintain the same speed as fatigue sets in and heart rate rises. The breathing is usually on a 3 to 4 steps per breath cycle- that is OK. Still stay relaxed and use the cues that you have rehearsed to keep your form. Speed up only when you can “smell the barn”, this occurs somewhere around 5k to go.
Land softly, especially on the early downhills. I run with a forefoot/midfoot landing harnessing elastic recoil. Focus on posture and hip extension. Use a slight forward lean from the ankles (think “face forward” and look ahead). I’m never sore after marathons now and feel I can keep doing them until I enter the retirement home. With good form it is “No pain…thank you”.
Have a course specific plan. Relax and find a nice rhythm. There are no distractions, just peace in the moment. You get it now….the art of a marathon is to relax and be in the moment. Rehearse relaxing head to toe and use the belly breathing.
Save energy for the later stages of the race, this is where things can get tough. Remember, if you feel really good in the early stages and feel like you want to speed up….DON’T. It is a marathon and you should feel good in the early miles. Speed up only when you can “smell the barn”, this occurs maybe at mile 22.
Your shoes matter too. Make strong consideration to not running in minimalist racers unless you have trained substantially in them and adapted your structure to a natural barefoot style gait. I advocate gradually adapting all of your training into more minimal and level shoes. If you relax your lower legs and load the springy tendons in your feet and Achilles, these shoes with no heel elevation put you in perfect position to allow natural elastic recoil of plantar fascia, Achilles, calf muscles, and hip flexors. New research and runner’s experience is now making the case for running with a more efficient stride and questions modern running footwear. The evolving world of modern sports medicine is going back to the future too and rediscovering what evolution has taught us.
Have a course specific plan. For the Air Force Marathon this is pretty simple. Relax on the first uphill section, relax on the slightly rolling ups and downs from miles 2-6. Relax and enjoy the tour through the spirited Fairborn. Relax and find a nice rhythm on the peaceful stretch around the flight line and through the woods on the back side. This is actually my favorite part of the race. There are no distractions, just peace in the moment. You get it now….the art of a marathon is to relax and be in the moment. Rehearse relaxing head to toe and use the belly breathing. You blend with other runners in the late stages and for many this is good to have the company. If you feel really good 5 miles out only then is it time to take some chances and charge.
- Now a few extra ways to get from start to finish quicker on the same gallon.If you can add a little gas along the way then you can go more into gas mode. This works a little at best. If running too fast you shunt all blood to working muscles and nothing digests. If you are in hybrid in the early going you can continually add fuel- the key is not only the correct fuel, but the right pace. A Powergel every 25 minutes is easy to digest and tops off the tank. Carry a couple with you at the start. The weight is nothing compared to the benefit you will get. If you do the gels then you can drink water instead of the energy drinks which are often less predictable on the run.
- Maintain effort on uphill. Your pace will slow. You can easily use all your gas here if your effort increases. Shorten your stride, relax, and use your arms. Then allow gravity to take you down. The first hills in Arlington and Georgetown can feel “easy” but if run too hard can drain your gas quickly….go easy up them.
- If it is windy get behind a group. This can save lots of physical and mental energy.
- If you are having a “bad patch” – try to refocus on relaxing, fuel a bit (sometimes a blood glucose drop triggers the sense of doom), and have faith in your training and race plan. Another nice trick is when you hit mile 21 it is not 5 miles to go, it is 4 and change. Mile 22 is 3 and change to go. Just run to the next mile marker and count them down one by one. Smile and enjoy the cheering spectators.
- Do not over drink water. This can lead to a dangerous condition called hypontremia.
- If it is going to be hot, read this article I wrote after the steamy 2012 Boston Marathon which was published in the American Medical Athletic Association Journal
The fun of the marathon is that we are always learning and enjoying the adventure of it. I’ve done over 80 marathons now with a couple under 2:25 in my younger years. We learn from experience, taking chances, and occasional failures. My first marathon was the 1988 Marine Corps was 2:34, when I could run about 30 minutes for 10 k. 24 years later I hope to get near this time again and my current 10k is about 35 minutes. I’ve learned a few things in 25 plus years on how to train and race efficiently and economically, but still there are uncertainties every time you line up. So relax, taper up, and seize the day.
I’d like to especially thank all the Armed Forces Members around the world who sacrifice daily in the service of their country and for all the volunteers who make running events a celebration. May the wind be at your back!