By Bryan D.
Inspired by the book Running With the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham, the son of the Tibetan lama who founded Naropa and an accomplished runner, I started to more intentionally integrate mindfulness practice into my running in 2009, when I started a 366-day running streak and completed my first marathon. Using techniques from sitting meditation of following my breath, and from walking meditation of focusing on my foot strike, I started to understand more deeply how the simple act of bringing awareness back to the body again and again on a run can help improve form and pace and reduce injury. (That might seem obvious to long-time runners, but the understanding doesn’t come naturally for everyone.)
Over the last ten years I’ve continued to experiment with combining meditation practice with my running, and have seen success in achieving my goals – qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon, hitting new PRs in 5ks, and branching out into ultras with a 50k and 50 mile race in 2018. The results I’ve had are what led me to get my coaching certification from the Road Runners Club of America and launch Dharma Running. I’m excited to do what I can to inspire others to run, to practice mindfulness, and to find and spread joy!
The energy demands on the body during a marathon make taking in calories and fluids absolutely essential. If you have trained with a specific pace you are targeting as your goal marathon pace, this pace should roughly correlate to your aerobic threshold, which is how fast the body can run while using fat as the main fuel source. Once twenty miles are covered at this pace, the body will hit the dreaded “wall” unless proper fueling is utilized. Some sort of gel, whether GU, Honey Stinger, Powerbar, or any other brand, with some slow burning calories and amino acids should do the trick. Practicing taking a gel every few miles in training will help you find a strategy that makes you feel adequately fueled and energized.
Additionally, taking in fluids is very important no matter if it is a cold or hot day. Do not make the mistake, however, of loading up on water like a camel! We cannot store that much water without having to use the restroom, so to avoid cramping and discomfort on race day, practice a strategy on your long runs that leaves you hydrated going in to the race, but ready to take in some sips of water, Nuun, or Gatorade every few miles. If you have trouble taking gels, you can try practicing with electrolyte blends that you simply mix in water which supply you with a similar level of electrolytes, carbohydrates, and calories as gels, but you can sip instead of suck down!
Now that you have found a fueling strategy that works for you and are ready to optimize your race day with proper nutrition, do not forget that proper pacing cannot be stressed enough! To circle back for a minute and revisit the topic about having 20 miles worth of energy at marathon pace stored in our bodies, that corresponds to our aerobic threshold. If we take the beginning of the race too fast, our bodies burn through that energy storage too quickly, and it is very tough to recover from! The most efficient way to run a marathon is evenly paced, which means every mile is very similar in pace. This pace will feel rather easy in the beginning stages and becoming increasingly difficult with every passing mile. Even pacing is not the only positive option, and many runners, including myself, prefer negative splits. Negative splitting races will leave you feeling better for longer, and although you may feel like you are holding back too much in the early stages, at mile 20 you will thank yourself! Every world record over the one mile distance has been set with a negative split pacing strategy, so coming back faster seems to be a good strategy based on the history of the sport!
The marathon is a tricky task, because worrying about gu gel’s, bathroom stops, not missing your mouth at Gatorade stations, and not hitting “the wall” does not prove to be so important in shorter races. Sure, taking the first two miles of your 5k way too fast is not a great idea, but having just over a mile to pay for your fast start is nothing compared to setting a 5k pr your first 5k of the marathon, and having 23 miles to go! Be smart, practice what you will do on race day, and nail your strategy beforehand so race day goes as smoothly as possible.
It is generally agreed upon that your longest and fastest long run will take place three weeks out from your goal race, give or take. If you have been working up to a 22 miler, for example, and your race was on the 4th Sunday of the month, you would run that 22 miler on the 1st Sunday of the month. That will lead you right into your first week of the taper. That first taper week, the mileage should cut back volume about 10% from your highest weeks. This reduction will come from a mixture of your easy days and your long run. The goal is to allow the body to begin to absorb the training, but because the marathon is almost 100 percent aerobic, you don’t want to strip too much of your mileage when you are not racing for another few weeks.
The second week of the taper, the mileage will cut another 10%, so if you had been holding 40 miles per week, your first taper week would be about 36 and your second taper week would be about 32. Additionally, this week is when you want to strip some intensity from your workouts. If your go to sessions have been marathon paced tempos and you were hanging around 8 miles at marathon pace for your workouts, try two sets of four miles at marathon pace, or maybe even two sets of 3 miles at marathon pace, and one set of two miles at marathon pace. Make sure the workouts are still focusing on marathon pace, though, as you do not want to run some fast 400 repeats at 5k pace to “feel quick.” This is a common mistake runners make. The goal is to feel quick and get some turnover work in, but ideally an athlete will focus on just marathon pace for the weeks leading up to a marathon and running at 5k pace will tap into a completely different energy system your body hasn’t used for a while. Remember when I said you are not going to be making any new adaptations these last few weeks? Running at 5k pace is a new stressor that you don’t want to try too close to the race!
That third taper week, starting the Monday of your marathon, strip mileage by another 20%. Going off our 40 miles per week scenario, this week would be 24 miles. Make sure to also “front load” your week, where you run most of your mileage the first few days of the week and are just doing some easy jogs the days before the race. Your last workout should be three or four days out from the race and should just be a workout to have the body feel good and stay in a rhythm. You might ask why you would even do a workout this week, and I understand that thought process. However, the body has been in a rhythm for months and our bodies crave that consistency. Something like 3 to 4 miles at marathon pace should feel very easy and do the trick!
The last three weeks are essentially just going through the motions and trying not to get sick or injured. We don’t want to do to little and lose fitness while also having our metabolic system thrown off from a drastic reduction of activity, but we are not trying to create more fitness. The best things you can do for yourself are to sleep well, eat well, wash your hands, think good thoughts, and enjoy the ending of a long and rewarding process.
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