Improving Marathon Performance – Why?
Beyond your first marathon, all your experiences running are going to be improving your marathon performance.
But what if you could get the improvements without needing to experience the pain?
Read on to find out these shockingly simple tweaks to improve your running out of sight…
My last official marathon, I ran with a partially torn calf muscle, and it took me 4 hours 19 minutes.
It was painful, but it was what I had expected.
I then recently ran a training marathon and I did a lot worse – my back got very sore, and I think I bonked (hit the wall) badly at about the 30 km mark, although I didn’t realise that at the time. What that did was make my back feel a lot worse than it actually was, because I was completely negative, grumpy, and in pain.
The last training marathon I did, I changed several things to help me with improving marathon performance, and experience. I ended up running an unofficial time of 3:57. An improvement of 22 minutes, from a few simple changes to strategy.
These marathon improvements were:
- Making changes from training to race
I will describe what I did, and how I believe it helped me to knock 22 minutes off my run time and make the run much more enjoyable. These tips are applicable no matter what stage of running you are at (although come into play particularly with marathon distance or possibly half marathon).
Marathon Training Advice
Previously I had done training using various apps. I’ve tried Asics, and Nike, both got the job done, but felt a bit intense. I was always running “fast”, which may have just been my fault, but it felt like a chore. Like every day, seeing the large distances, and the pace that I was supposed to run at (and usually didn’t stick to)
In all honesty, these are good to get you started, but are not going to get you into a position of improving marathon performance race after race. I’m not being mean here, these apps are great, it’s the plans that need to be more realistic.
The 4:19 marathon I trained using a Garmin plan from Garmin connect that I downloaded to my watch.
I have a Garmin Forerunner 45 GPS Running Watch, which will work with all the things I mention here.
This training plan had a lot of zone 2 training as part of it.
It was uncomfortable to do, and I was still keen to “run fast”, although I appreciated the relative ease of low heart rate training. The plan also included speed sessions, like intervals, tempo runs and the like.
I found quite harder to recover from the faster sessions, but overall was an improvement on the previous plans I used. And over all, the training plan was easier than anything before. Looking back, I was still running too hard.
The 3:57 marathon I tried to do the Maffetone method. This is a form of low heart rate training but is more about building your aerobic base fitness. Initially you don’t bother with speed work (at least not to start with). This training is great because it is about becoming fat adapted. It suits endurance events like a marathon and makes training for longer periods much more plausible than any method I have tried before.
I did a few months of this, and whilst at the time, I didn’t really notice any improvement, in the later stages of the run, I found that I had a lot more energy than I expected. I did run the race at a much higher heart rate than the MAF heart rate, but still felt like I had something left in the tank.
The only thing that I was unhappy about was the last part of the race, my legs were aching and sore. I would put this down to my endurance not being as good as it could be. I decided that I should put in more volume to my training, to build my endurance. This in addition to stretching out the long runs to larger distances. We shall see how that works out.
Bonus: Marathon Watch
I used my trusty Garmin Forerunner 45 watch. I can highly recommend the watch, although if I had the money right now, I would quite likely upgrade to a Fenix 6 Pro (turn by turn navigation, solar power, and a few extra exercise categories, and things like training effect and lactate threshold). That said, my Forerunner 45 is perfectly good for the running that I do, but if I was getting a new one, and had the money, that’s what I would get. Friends all have them, and they are awesome.
I didn’t set anything specifically for the watch, other than the final distance. I did this, so I didn’t have to remember what the final distance should be. Just run, and enjoy. When you start to struggle, you’ll thank yourself for putting the time in. One less thing to worry about. Just grind out the last bit.
If you wanted to, on a Garmin, you can also set the intensity target, which could be heart rate (if you want to keep yourself in a sensible range) It could also be a range for pace. If you know what pace you need to cover, then have a pace that is a little above and a little below that value. You do all this by setting a new workout from the connect app on your phone.
So set a run, put in the distance of the race. Set the intensity target to your desired values. Give it a name. Save.
Then there’s an icon when you view the workout, with a picture of a phone at the top. Click that.
That will sync it to your watch.
Then when you want to use the workout, hit start on the watch.
Select My Workouts.
Then pick the workout named above.
Then hit start stop when the GPS is locked and you’re ready to go.
Super easy, no stress.
Marathon Stretching During The Run
I started stretching on the 4:19 marathon as I became sore, and my calf muscle started to get tight. That helped. My thought was that I’d try to be a little more proactive, and stretch out my back, and legs every so often when I stopped for more fuel (or a drink).
I had thought that stretching was a training activity and would lead to my improving marathon performance, but it definitely did.
I believe this change did help as it meant that my muscles did not get as tight as quickly as they had in the past. So the experience was more comfortable.
The break and loss in time was more than made up with the faster pace I could go due to being more relaxed.
What I did was a stretch where I squatted down, but my hands behind my calf muscles and curled my head toward my butt. This stretched my back, and my legs quite well. I also did a one-legged piriformis stretch as that was bothering me but stopped after a time as it went away.
My other stretch was of my back, which I did by touching my toes, which also did my hamstrings and calves as well as relieving tightness in my back toward the latter stages of the run.
One downside to stopping during the race, is that it is very hard to get back going. I don’t like to stop generally. I prefer to keep moving, you will have to try it, see if it helps. Might be you’re aware of the stretching strategy, but keep moving unless you’re feeling tight, then it might be worthwhile to have a quick break. Make sure it is very quick though, or it will be painful when you try to get back up to speed.
Pacing for a Race
Pacing yourself is definitely something that will help you with improving marathon performance. I mean, assuming you’ve trained, and you follow the marathon performance tips in this article.
The 3:57 marathon was the only marathon that I had any pacing strategy. To be fair, I knew the pace I needed to get under 4 hours, but I didn’t actively chase it until the race.
My intent on this run was to do about a 6 min per km pace for the first half, then try to speed up.
I knew previously I had easily done that and figured I would pick up the pace in the second half.
The first two kilometres I did at that pace, then thought that I would go a little faster. If I got sore like the previous run, I would just slow down and accept that I hadn’t prepared properly.
My pace was 5:15 to 5:30 per km for most of the run. And I was comfortable doing so. If anything, I was holding back – this taught me not to be so cautious (I wasn’t sure of myself after the injury, and not confident). Really should believe in myself a little more.
My recommendations is that you do not follow this “pacing strategy”. Even if it was a little more planned than it sounds. In previous runs, my paces has been much faster for half marathons, so I expected it would be within my ability.
As this was my first run after doing MAF method I had been going slow. This meant that I wasn’t sure on how fast I could do a marathon. I had done half marathons a bit quicker than that pace, so that should be been an indication (and the half marathon pace was very easy).
My advice would be to go along with a pace in mind based on previous experience (as I actually did).
Select something you’re able to reasonably comfortably do (e.g. a half marathon pace that feels a reasonable pace but is still comfortable), and perhaps “stretch” it a little to push you harder to complete it.
If the worst comes to the worst, if your “stretch pace” is selected correctly, and to fall back to the identical pace from the previous race, hopefully that will still get you a personal best.
You could of course use a race predictor, I personally like this one, as it fits with the way that I train. I mean, I can do a really slow pace, but put in a lot of distance and expect a good race pace.
Something else you can consider is to run at slightly less that your desired pace for a portion of the race. To help increasing marathon performance, you might run the first half at a slower pace, then gradually increase pace as you go through the race. So long as you don’t leave it too long, this is a great way to run faster, but enjoy the run more.
You can split the run further if you wanted to. A better way to help improving marathon performance might be to run the first half at a comfortable pace, then the next quarter at a faster pace (so that you hit your goal) then the final part at a pace slightly higher, knowing that you’re able to maintain that pace for that final period of time.
Marathon Running Energy Gels
Marathon running energy gels, or energy intake will definitely help you improving marathon performance. The simple reason is that if you don’t get this right, you will hit the wall (or bonk). If you’ve never experienced this, it is a horrible experience where your mind and your body turn against you. Try to get you to stop running. It can also be painful, and you can hallucinate, and feel pretty bad.
When you get it right, you’ll feel good. Improving marathon performance will just be down to your training and preparation. This is a really big thing to get right.
The reason? If you’ve trained hard, done everything right. But don’t get your energy intake right, everything else you did, won’t matter. You’re likely to get a disappointing time, as your pace will drop (even though at the time you might believe you’re going the same speed)
I nearly always run my training runs fasted (no food since the evening before). Normally a lot of my training runs are not very long runs. 10-25kms daily usually. This means that I don’t need any help with extra energy.
My previous marathons I had done as I do in training. I think to my detriment.
The last marathon I decided to have breakfast and a coffee an hour before the run started. I had a coconut milk yogurt with granola, and a black coffee.
I’d read that coffee has some effect that it increases your pain threshold. I didn’t want to be stopping for the toilet, so it was a shot rather than a big drink. And I had water for hydration. It was a bit worrying, as I don’t normally do this, but I figured the extra energy may be useful. I will do that again.
In my research, I had read that you don’t start to need energy until about the 2-hour mark. So, I usually took some gel about 1:45 mark, so it would be absorbing by the 2-hour mark. Made sense. Perhaps not.
So, I tried instead to fuel myself gradually – even though I’m used to running using fat as fuel. So, I took gel every hour (and had electrolyte/energy drinks that I took 30 minutes later), with the idea that it would keep me more continually fuelled.
That seemed to work better. I didn’t bonk at 20 mile (30 km) mark and felt good until we got across “the bridge of death” – a 3 km concrete bridge across the sea that goes on forever!
I felt that worked reasonably well, although I don’t like gels much – they’re too sweet and make your energy spike and make you feel awesome. Then crash (so you must be careful to keep pace and not race because the energy made you feel awesome!)
The Best Marathon Running Shoes
Marathon shoes will definitely help improving your marathon performance. Or more specifically, the wrong shoes will really make it hard to perform well in a marathon (or any other run for that matter).
Before I go on, I’m not going to be recommending particular makes, but instead alerting you to particular features within the shoes that will help you. You can then do your research, to find the latest and greatest shoes, and try them to find what best works, and will also work best with your body and running style. This in turn with definitely help you to run faster and more comfortably.
One other thing – there are shoes around that have features that will make you quicker. Be aware that these shoes are for people with a faster pace. At a slow pace they won’t work, and won’t be of benefit. At best that means a waste of money, at worst, the shoes are uncomfortable because they’re not meant for the pace that you normally run at.
I have been reading about this for a time. I find that whilst there are things to look for, the best trainers are really a personal thing.
Sorry, but yep. I mean, there are runners that people might like. But they will almost certainly have different needs to you.
As a heel striker, a bigger drop is better, if you toe strike, a smaller one probably is. Rough idea would be 10mm or more for heel striking. Toe striking maybe 5mm or less.
If you are not fully fit for marathon, more cushioning might be in order.
This is called the stack height, so its possible to have a lot of cushioning, and a small drop, or even no drop (zero drop).
It would seem like everyone would want highly cushioned shoes. The case here is if you like the feeling of so much padding between the sole of your foot and the floor. For recovery or easy runs, I can tolerate it. But generally I don’t like the feeling. I have to revert to faster more responsive ones every few days. I don’t think my feet like it much either, as they tend to ache more.
If you are a toe striker, look for runner with a thicker mid-sole (i.e. under the ball of the foot is thicker).
For endurance a rocker built into the sole to give you a “pop” off your toe might be nice, but less important until you get faster.
The runners that I used on the second marathon were “Fast” runners, with responsive soles.
What that means, is, the foam is a lot harder. I believe that took a toll on both my back, and the soles of my feet. So, if you’re like me, when your calf muscles get tired, you tend to drop onto your heel or heel strike, and they’re not good for that. Or these were not.
I can run comfortably in them for a half marathon, and they’re awesome. They’re really built to lean forward and run quickly. For that they are awesome. If you’re sitting back a bit at a calmer pace, they’re nothing special.
These runners are also a 5mm drop, which I prefer because I toe strike, and the smaller drop means that my calf muscle gets used and gets stretched as I run. Instead of tightening and causing me pain.
The last marathon, I got a pair of very cushioned runners (I don’t believe in this long term, but to get myself to progress without too much pain I chose them) They have an 8mm drop. That did seem to make it slightly easier on my body and feet. I don’t like cushioned shoes because your feet cannot work properly in them (I did barefoot running for a while [https://activehealth101.com/barefoot-running-has-someone-stolen-your-shoes/])
When training I can only do a few days with the 8mm drop before I need the 5mm drop to stretch my calf and tendon. I will ultimately get some similar cushioned soles but a 5mm drop as I get stronger.
I will also get some barefoot runners and use those for short runs to further strengthen my feet. But that’s probably going to be next year, and I will get into those during the hot part of the year where running is harder.
For the moment, I have been walking around the house in just socks. My feet get stretched and feel better by doing this. Haven’t noticed any big difference, but I’m not getting injured, so can’t be a bad thing.
Marathon Running Gear Tips
Running gear other than a hydration pack or belt probably won’t help improving marathon performance, but will definitely help with comfort levels and enjoyment. Stop blisters, chafing, being too cold.
When running any distance, your comfort is important.
Therefore, it is important to get your running gear right.
Do you normally suffer from chafing, on long runs?
If the chafing is between the legs, get shorts with inbuilt tights, or compression pants. When chafing is under the arms, then a top with short sleeves, or at least not a singlet.
When you can’t get any of that, then you can get silicon anti-chafing sticks to apply to the areas that get affected. I’ve tried vaseline and creams, which don’t work for long distances.
Silicon works because it doesn’t get washed away by sweat, and doesn’t get rubbed away by the chafing. A little tip – if you can get the ones with moisturised in them, I would recommend them (not matter what gender they’re intended to be for!)
Get socks that are comfortable. That they prevent rubbing, at the heel, or behind the eyelets in your runners. Also make sure that they’re cool when they’re on. I have favourite that are synthetic, for my race events.
If you’re running in the warm, go for lighter tops, white if possible. It will make you a lot cooler. If you don’t like seat in your eyes, get a visor or cap. White again if its it hot. Think wicking and cool if you can do, and rolls up easily so that you can put it away if you want to.
Hydration pack – get something that is comfortable – I have an ultimate direction one, if has 2 500ml bottles at the front and a 2 litre bladder at the back. Also has storage for an extra t-shirt, which I take just in case I get uncomfortable.
Belt – if you don’t have a hydration pack, or you want to put something in easy reach and you don’t had a spot for it in the pack, get a belt. I have a flip belt. Absolutely awesome. Forget you’re wearing it. I don’t tend to wear this on a long run, as I have my pack instead.
Keeping warm – take layers that you can take off and tie around your waist. Or wear the minimal amount you can get away with to stay warm. But please, make sure you wear clothes!
If it’s warm, I like to wear a singlet – even though I’m very cold when I take off my fleece. The warmup will get you warm enough.
Making Changes from Training to Racing
Changes between training and racing are going to help you improving marathon performance, although some will be comfort. That comfort will lead to an easier run, and therefore potentially a faster run.
I mentioned previously about the energy, and shoes, and the adjustments I made.
Generally, advice is not to change what you do in training when you race.
I’d be a little clearer on this – make sure that you make any changes with plenty of time during training and use the same when racing.
A lot of the changes, the first time you do the race distance after making changes you will have to learn from the experience that. These may help in improving marathon performance, or comfort.
You need to try these out in training, and having got used to them, also do them during the race. Work out what is comfortable, what makes your runs more enjoyable, what motivates you to do the next one? What can you do to improve all those aspects, as I’m sure for most people, you can improve.
When running lately, I take headphones with me, but prefer to talk to mates (this keeps the pace at the right level).
It’s great to listen to birds tweeting, say hello to people, or have brief conversations on the way.
I do put on a few tracks from my “beast mode” playlist when I’m mentally struggling, to reset me, and get me back on form.
When you run, you need to listen to your body, and do what you need to do to make it easier on yourself. And the run more enjoyable. If that is listening to music, do that, but do try running a few times without. It might really surprise you.
I regularly do training marathons along the ocean front all the way there and back. It is beautiful, watching the sun rise over the ocean, and being back in time for breakfast. And the more I learn, the more I look forward to doing it. That’s important if you want to continue to do this for many years.
Marathon Race Day Tips
These race day tips will help improving marathon performance. They are quite simple tips to set yourself up to succeed, and be able to run the best race that you can do.
The day before a marathon, get plenty of sleep. Relax.
Put your fitness watch, your phone, your headphones on charge the night before!
Don’t eat a massive meal – if you’re into it, you can carb load a few days before, but just increase complex carbs rather than eating a lot. You want to be like a smoothly oiled machine on race day.
If you can handle it, do not eat meat or have dairy, your body will feel better for it. Mine does anyway. This is scientifically known to allow your vessels to better dilate and provide your muscles with more oxygen. If you can’t handle that, and steak is your go to pre-race meal, then do that. When you train one day try veggies only, just see if you feel any different?
I recommend you eat before your run, even if it is coffee and a banana. I believe something with a slower releasing energy source would be ideal, if you think you can handle it. The bigger the meal, the more time you need to digest it before the race starts. That often means getting up at some insane hour. That means you sleep less.
Make sure that everything is prepared the night before. Get your running gear, belt, runners, headphones, phone, watch, hydration pack and everything you can ready. Or leave yourself a note with the pile of everything, for example to get dates or cold-water bladder from the fridge.
Prepare your minimal running gear – so when you start, you’re quite cool, and need to warm up before you start. This will mean you’re cooler during the run, which means your heart rate should be lower. A lower heart rate means less stress on your body.
I like to run with a hydration pack on, just in case the taps don’t work at water fountains. On an official course, there are stations, if you can deal with those, you can miss the hydration pack part out. As a backup, you could take a handheld bottle, or a bottle in your running belt, or the hydration pack with only a bit of water?
If you suffer from it, get the silicon cream for chafing. No point in being uncomfortable. I use compression pants but do use cream for my nipples. That is the most painful thing you don’t want to happen during your race!
Make sure that you get to the race start line 15 to 30 minutes before the start, so that you can warm up without rushing. You can give yourself a pep talk, do last minute checks, stretch, check that your shoelaces are double tied. Take energy gel if that is how you roll. I don’t, but that’s just me.
If you do not have access to a storage locker, go to an op-shop and buy a second-hand tracksuit, or fleece to keep you warm. Once you’re warmed up, take it off, and either donate it to the clothes bins, or leave it somewhere to pick up later. You should keep yourself warm until right before the race.
Smile. Really. If you’re feeling pain, or if you’re not, smile, enjoy it. Your body will be much more positive, and it will be easier if you do go through some tough spots to come out the other side and put in a good performance.
If, as you’re running, you’re struggling, just chat to somebody. Another runner. High-five a spectator or get them to cheer for you. It really lifts your spirits, just trust me on this. It’s also a great way to meet random strangers!
When you’re running, relax. When your shoulders are tight, that will get worse as the race goes along. If you clench your fists, you’ll tire a lot quicker (it uses up energy). When you lean forward a little from the waist, you will really feel that by the end of the run (your back will likely become very sore).
Try to remember to run upright, but relaxed, especially if running starts to become hard. Keep your head up, your back nice and straight, and smile.
If you’ve tapered, which you should have, you will probably feel awesome. Try to avoid going off too fast at the start of the race. You will probably pay for it dearly toward the end of the race when you need the energy. Instead do it the other way around, hold back, keep that energy “in the tank” and if you get toward the end and feel the energy is still there. Use it. Improving marathon performance is often about not starting out too fast at the beginning of the race, but instead holding back, so you can go quicker later.
Notice what is happening to you, how you feel, what you enjoy, what you do not. In this way, you can do something like I’m suggesting here, but based on what you like, your own experiences, and your own preferences. I’m sure I will write many more of these, as I find new ideas.
Bonus: Marathon Recovery
Recovery will not help improving marathon performance, other than that you’re likely to be able to start training quicker, and run the risk of less injuries for the next run. Don’t under-estimate the power of being able to continue running after something like a marathon.
Straight after the run, I had peanut butter sandwiches on fancy seeded bread. I also had dates, and a few litres of water. I drank that down in a way that would not suggest that I had already had 3 litres during the run. So I very obviously needed that.
I also walked about a kilometre directly after finishing the run. Nice easy pace walk, which got rid of a lot of the tightness in my muscles.
The next day, I rested.
The day after, I did a 10-kilometre recovery run / wobble. That was extremely helpful.
After that, I was completely back to normal. I resumed my normal training routine.
Small improvements can really help improving marathon performance (or a half marathon, and running generally). Many of these tips will work for anyone. There will be parts of this that you will just have to try out. You need to find where your own personal “sweet spot”.
Make sure that you try all this out during your training runs in the lead up to the race. Then go along to the run confident that you’re as prepared as you could be. Enjoy the run, but be aware of what is happening to you, how you feel, when you feel it, why you think you feel as you do.
These things can always help you to improve. Finishing a marathon is a massive achievement. Even if you don’t run the best run you believe you could, try to improve. And go back into the race knowing that you have ideas on how to improve. Be better next time as well. If you get a personal best, fantastic. It’s still time to do better.
Enjoy your race!