September 29, 2017

A Marathon really is a 10k sprint to the line, with a 32k warm-up.

Yet again I was dissecting Strava splits from some of my running friends who had ran Berlin and it became apparent that most had fallen into the ‘marathon trap’ that is the norm these days. They had trained long and hard and were prepared for the first 32k of the race but had fallen away for the last 10k. This is why I believe a marathon really is a 10k race with a 32k warm-up.  These two separate races are as important as each other, if you do badly in either the end the result is normally the same.

So why does the marathon lend itself so well to these two separate distances ? The first part, the 32k warm-up, is where all your training and hard work pays dividends. If you have put in the hard yards you will be able to maintain your goal pace for the first 32k most of the time. Add in proper nutrition and a good taper and the first 32k can actually be an enjoyable experience.  Its at 32k you will first encounter every marathon runners worst nightmare, ‘the wall’.  Susan Paul from    sums up the wall in an article below :-

A runners worst nightmare….


In general, hitting the wall refers to depleting your stored glycogen and the feelings of fatigue and negativity that typically accompany it. Glycogen is carbohydrate that is stored in our muscles and liver for energy. It is the easiest and most readily available fuel source to burn when exercising, so the body prefers it. When you run low on glycogen, even your brain wants to shut down activity as a preservation method, which leads to the negative thinking that comes along with hitting the wall.

It’s important to note that you burn a blend of stored carbohydrate and fat for fuel all of the time. However, the ratio of these two fuels changes with the intensity of the activity. For example, during a speed workout you will use a higher percentage of glycogen in your fuel blend. On a long slow run, you would burn a higher percentage of fat and a lower percentage of carbohydrate.

If you do the math, it’s easy to see why many runners hit the wall around the 18- or 20-mile mark. Our bodies store about 1,800 to 2,000 calories worth of glycogen in our muscles and liver. On average, we use about 100 calories per mile when running, depending upon run pace and body mass.

However, proper training for marathon mileage gives your body and mind time to adapt to these rigors. Since you don’t use purely carbohydrate as fuel, you have the ability to continue running by accessing fat stores.

The energy issue then, is really about reaching for those fuel sources. In order to utilize your fat stores, you must have some carbohydrate present to facilitate this metabolic pathway. When you deplete your glycogen stores, it becomes difficult to access fat as a fuel source because burning fat for energy is a more complex process. Long runs help train your body to utilize the fat metabolic pathway more efficiently.

During training you should also experiment with taking nutrition on longer runs for a quick carbohydrate source. By the time you build up to 20 mile runs, you should have a pretty good idea about how much fuel you need to sustain yourself for this distance. (Here are more tips to help you avoid hitting the wall.)

Hitting the wall is not something that needs to be feared, dreaded, or avoided (unless it’s race day, of course). The old adage of “if you don’t use it, you lose it” can be applied here.

Training is more than just logging the miles. It is a total body process, and by the end of it you will be transformed into a runner that is prepared and ready to meet all the demands of the marathon. Between stored glycogen and stored fat, you actually have the ability to run many, many miles.

This is why on Strava ( If it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen!) you see the splits from 32k slowly, to start with, get longer and continue to increase until most marathon runners ‘stagger’ over the line, albeit elated to finish. This brings me to the second mini-race in any marathon, the 10k sprint to the line.

Pace the marathon right and you can switch over to ‘finish mode’ with 10k to go, if, and this is a big if, you have the experience and confidence you are not going to be visiting our friend ‘Mr.Wall’ anytime soon.  Personally , with the experience of 60 marathons and ultras on my CV, I know at 32k how the last 10k will pan-out. Mentally now I can switch over to the ‘finish mode’ and this allows me to call on my last resources available and start to think about the finish. I now look forward to the 32k mark of any marathon because I know I’ve put in the training (and you should always ‘trust in your training’.) and I am not going to hit the wall. To me the last 10k is about shaving a few minutes of my estimated finish time, a time I would have worked out way before the 32k mark. These mental arithmetic exercises also help you concentrate on something other than the constant kilometer pacing targets and when you run a marathon you’ll understand you have a lot of time on your hands; bare minimum well over 2 hours and upwards of course.

I’ve said this many times but it is always worth repeating , to quote Jon ‘the marathon runner who slows down the least wins’. So true and this is where the 10k sprint to the line comes into play. If you can hold your pace while all around you start to drop off you’ll be amazed how you will move through the field, ‘like a hot knife through butter’. (Pretty cool how I could get the old ‘hot knife through butter’ synonym to relate to running, happy with that.) Why is this possible ? This is where the part of training that is rarely touched on comes into play, the mental toughness.

Mental toughness is not something you find on trainingpeaks  ( ) or strava ( ) ,there’s no app to help you train it. Mental toughness is a state of mind and a ‘how bad do you want it’ though process that you will need to draw down on from 32k onwards. No one, not even the top Kenyans, can run their best marathon and not need to put themselves in the ‘pain box’ for the last 10k of any marathon.  Sure they can probably convince the central governor, explained briefly below, that all is good and push harder than us normal runners but trust me those Kenyans are experiencing the same pain we do, probably even more.

In short, the central governor theory is based around the premise that the brain will override your physical ability to run and “shut the body down” before you’re able to do serious or permanent damage to yourself.

Dr. Tim Noakes believes that the point in the race when you think you’ve given everything you’ve got is actually a signal or response from the brain to slow down to preserve health, rather than a physiological reality. In actuality, Noakes believes you have more to give physically when this happens.

Runners experience this during almost every race they run. At mile 8 of a half marathon, goal race pace is extremely difficult and the thought of running faster, even for just a minute, seems impossible. Yet, when you get within 400 meters of the finish, you’re somehow able to summon a kick that finds you running minutes per mile faster than goal pace.

Once your brain realizes it won’t die if you pick up the pace (because the finish line is close) it opens the biological pathways to run faster.

That’s not to say that the physiological demands of a race aren’t real. Rather, the central governor theory posits that racing is a balance between: (1) physical preparation and biological systems; (2) emotional components, such as motivation and pain tolerance; (3) and self-preservation. The exact combination of these factors is what leads to how hard you’re able to push during a race.

Another one of my favourite mentally tough runners is David Goggins ( ),  it is well worth spending some time on his site. He is one tough runner (and that’s putting it mildly, the Chuck Norris of running ?) and his running CV is impressive to say the least, as are his quotes which are recited on most of our long runs.

When you’ve as tough as DG even your shirt tears….

I seemed to have digressed for a change so to get back to the main point of this post. Training will get you to the 32k mark of the marathon, from there it becomes a games of mental toughness, you versus yourself really. It is up to you to persuade your central governor to release what limited running resources you have left to enable yourself to push on and finish the race strongly, maybe even a negative split ? I can tell you it gets easier with experience as I believe each time to run a marathon , and don’t die!, your mind learns and  is encouraged to release the governor a little bit more. This in turn enables you to attack the last 10k of your next marathon with more confidence and more energy, resulting in a better performance , which in turn persuades the mind that next time you can go even better.

So if you are preparing for your first marathon or working towards your next you really need to also work on your mental toughness because at 32k, as sure as night follows day, you are going to need to draw down on this to continue to travel at your target pace, your mind will start to play his favourite card, Mr. Fatigue, to try and protect you and this is when you need to say ‘no thanks, I’m fine, it’s time to ‘toughen up and take a ‘suck it up pill’ (Thanks DG)…..