Coach's Cornerby: Caroline Bailey, PhD
In the last seven years I have gone from being an occasional jogger, running a few k’s two or three times a week, to becoming a fully-fledged marathon runner, with weekly mileage totals pushing triple figures. In the process of building my training program from 5km to 10km to half marathon and finally the big M, I’ve also had to make a number of changes to when and how I run, eat, sleep and even dress, which have largely evolved through trial-and-error. Whilst I found it easy to find information about the training required to get me over a 10km, half marathon or marathon finishing line, very little is written about how stepping up to a longer distance will impact upon so many other areas of my life. So whilst this is not meant to be the definitive article (it’s a case study of one!), if you are thinking of embarking upon training for a longer distance, these are some of the things that I wish I knew before I started.
On a 5km and 10km program, my longest weekly run was typically around 16km. However, working towards a half-marathon, my weekly long run often became over 20km. At this point, I found it essential to have others to run with, for motivation, conversation and safety. You do not need to have exactly the same time- or distance goals as your running buddies (my group varies between 5km speedsters, to marathon and ultra-marathon trail runners), but a large part of training for longer distance requires aerobic conditioning that’s simply ‘time on your feet’, whatever the pace. Having someone (or several people) to chat to, as you clock up the kilometres has turned otherwise dull, soul-sapping efforts, into a great social occasion. Having people to meet for a run has also kept me committed to my program, when otherwise I might have rolled over and gone back to sleep.
Perhaps most importantly though is the safety issue. In training for a marathon, for a few weeks the long run will become a three hour effort . Unless you are prepared to do repeated laps of the same route, you can soon find yourself in pretty remote or unfamiliar areas. Whilst roads and fields of cows may appear safe, there is no guarantee that your run will always go to plan. Even with google maps on hand, it is possible to miss turnings and get lost. Whilst tracking back across electric fences and fields of cows (or are they bulls?) is funny as a group, Daisy can take on a very menacing demeanour when you have to do it on your own! What’s more, I still have nightmares of one terrible solo run, where 23kms into the target 35, I ran out of water and gels. In increasing heat, I struggled to maintain pace for the remaining 12km. Feeling fatigued, I lost concentration and ran into a pothole, rolling an ankle. One teary phonecall to my husband, and I was rescued – but it made me realise how vulnerable I was when running alone.
I am lucky to have found a great group of girls through other Mums at my kids’ school, various running websites forums, talking to people after local fun runs and friends of friends. If none of those avenues are open to you, alternatives might be through work, your local running club (look on for local club listings) or asking around at your local gym.
When I used to run just 5km, I would often sweat it out in the nearest thing to hand (board shorts, cotton singlets, and ‘normal’ underwear). However, as the distances have increased I’ve found that what I thought might be a fantastic singlet, suddenly turns into an armpit-chafing, sagging, heavy irritating piece of clothing. Similarly, I would often just change my top over my normal underwired bra, and head out the door. Somewhere around the 17-18km long run mark, I have begun to appreciate why sports bras and technical shirts are more expensive – because the level of design, and quality of materials and finishes used ensure you can sweat freely and wobble gently in certain areas without fear of chafing. There is nothing worse than suffering a run, having to stick one arm out at a funny angle for 13kms to avoid abrasion of your bingo wings! You will find it is money well spent.
From the age of 13, I’ve been a fish-eating vegetarian. With a healthy mix of veges, fruit, nuts, dairy and fish two to three times a week, my body has coped with the demands of pregnancy, nursing and moderate training. However, once my weekly mileage crossed the 75km mark, with a 20km long run, things began to change. My Garmin said I was burning up to 800 calories (around a third of my normal daily energy needs) in one run. Despite eating full balanced meals three times a day, I began waking a lot at night. On the advice of a sports dietician, I increased my protein intake (to 1.5g for every kg of bodyweight), to promote muscle recovery, and production of hormones that trigger sleep. I did this by adding protein powder to my morning banana smoothie, and ensuring I had a serve of protein in every meal (including breakfast). To cope with additional energy needs, I began having extra food between meals, with mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks of dried fruit and nuts, yoghurt with fresh berries, or cheese with crackers. I now appreciate food much more as fuel; there is a finite amount to how much you want to comfortably eat in a day. So whilst I’ve always had a pretty healthy diet (and very healthy appetite), I try to avoid wasting any of my appetite filling up on junk, as it bears a direct relationship to how much energy I have for the next hard run.
I’ve also learned how important nutrition is both pre-run and once you cross the magic one hour mark of continuous running, when blood glycogen levels are at zero. I no longer attempt to have curry, garlic or alcohol the night before a big run (something your running buddies will thank you for too!). For a long while I resisted taking water or gels on runs, thinking a water bottle would weigh me down and/or annoy me, and gels were only for serious runners. But you only need to suffer even mild dehydration and muscle cramps once, to realise it’s part of being responsible as a runner.
Now if I’m planning to run more than 75 minutes, I always take water or electrolytes (coconut water is great if you don’t like the various powders available) and a supply of gels or chomps. Whilst I haven’t yet mastered running holding a full plate of pasta (as rumoured possible, by some hardened ultra-runners) I can now at least swallow a couple of chomps or half a banana whilst on the go, and wash it down with a few mouthfuls of water. All this munching whilst you eat requires practice that you shouldn’t leave to race day. Just as you wouldn’t expect your car to run without fuel – similarly you can’t expect the best performance from your body when it’s empty.
Finally, it’s worth doing some research into post-run nutrition. After really long runs I found I was unable to eat for up to an hour afterwards – missing the critical carbohydrate refuel window. To get round this, I now have a chocolate milk waiting in the fridge, or make a smoothie the night before. You will also need to replenish minerals such as magnesium which are lost through sweat (and are essential for effective muscle function). Check the ingredients list of ‘recovery’ drinks, as not all are created equal!
By nature I am a 5km runner. I love the short sharp intensity of this distance, and the quick 24-hour recovery following a race. I have learned the hard way that running longer distances, in training and racing demands longer recovery. If you do not allow sufficient recovery time between your long run and other hard workouts, the quality of your remaining training for the week will suffer. What’s more, over time you predispose yourself to injury through muscle fatigue and overtraining (and serious big physio bills). This means having a structured program alternating hard-easy-hard runs, and allowing at least seven days between your longest run. Finally make time for sleep. As a parent of young children I still find this one can be hard (if not impossible). It may be that you have to temporarily shelve plans for ‘the big race’. But there’s always another race, another season, when you will be able to enjoy your training, and the great day will come when you cross that finish line, and conquer that distance.
About the author
Caroline Bailey is a level 2 Athletics Australia middle-long distance coach. She has a professional background in Psychology, with a doctorate in performance management. Now a mum of two, she returned to running after having children, and is finally beginning to accept that she is a running addict.