The peak weeks of a marathon training programme can feel pretty intense, whatever your starting point or training load. So how do you cope with this period, get the best from your training, and avoid becoming a belligerent grump with everyone around you?
Feel like you already know all this stuff? Maybe, but try challenging yourself on what you’re actually doing! Make use of our handy self-check questions to think about what else you could do to make this part of your training a little easier on yourself (and on your family and colleagues too).
Look below for questions and thoughts around these key areas:
How well do you sleep? Some self-check questions:
- How much sleep do I get most nights? Is it enough?
- How often do I have a poor night’s sleep?
- How regularly do I wake up feeling properly rested?
- How many times do I get up in the night? Why?
- What could I do to improve my sleep?
Sleep is vital during intense training. It’s your body’s chance to repair the muscles, and to recover from the pressures you are placing it under. But it’s an area lots of us struggle with, for a multitude of reasons.
If you think your sleep could be improved, you may find it helpful to consider:
- Having a regular time and pattern for when you go to bed, allowing your brain to establish a habit of relaxing and switching off.
- Avoiding screens, or other over-stimulation, in the hour or so before going to bed.
- Reducing alcohol consumption, which can disrupt sleep quality during the night.
- Monitoring the amount you drink (of any liquid) immediately before bed, to avoid getting up in the night to empty your bladder.
- Trying relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or yoga.
This is not rocket science, and it’s probably all stuff you’ve heard before, but how well are you actually doing it?
Try asking yourself:
- How well is my diet supporting my training?
- Do I get enough protein?
- Do I get enough iron?
- Does my diet contain all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients I need for recovery?
- Do I have digestive issues when training? Is it worse depending on when or what I eat?
- Am I drinking enough?
- What could I do to improve my diet for training?
Nutrition is a complex area, and one that can excite passionate and pretty dogmatic views. I’m not going to attempt to give you an opinion on a “right” approach – in fact, I think it’s important that everyone finds what works best for them individually. It’s good to be open-minded, and perhaps to experiment with different approaches to nutrition.
It can be useful to keep a food diary for a few days, to see what you’re actually consuming, and to monitor your balance of carbs, fat and protein. There are various apps that can help with this, such as My Fitness Pal. Keeping an eye on iron levels is important, and tiredness could be an indication that you are low.
You might find you need a different diet when you’re training hard. Try challenging yourself to notice peaks and troughs in your energy levels in relation to when you eat. Do certain foods give you an energy peak followed by a trough and hunger soon afterwards?
Hydration is less controversial. You certainly need to be well-hydrated during intense training. Monitor the colour of your pee to make sure it stays as close to clear as you can manage.
If you are struggling with a dietary issue that could be holding you back in training, it’s well worth consulting a dietician. Find someone who really knows their stuff (and will think about what you need rather than their own ideologies) – there’s a list of freelance dieticians in the UK here.
This completely depends on the individual, and may vary from race-to-race and from week-to-week. Try asking yourself:
- Do I have enough energy to perform well in my key sessions every week?
- How often am I unable to run as I expect in training?
- How often do I feel injury niggles?
- How willing am I to be flexible with my training? Am I following a plan to the letter or am I adjusting according to how I feel?
- Have I built cycles into my marathon training programme?
- Am I increasing speed and mileage in training at the same time?
Some rules of thumb:
- Avoid comparing yourself with your running pals. Everyone copes differently – just because one mate is still bouncy after running 100+ miles a week and racing every weekend, and another is putting their feet up after a three mile effort, doesn’t mean that either of these patterns is right for you.
- Training relies on adaptation. This happens after you put your body through training exertion. If you do not allow your body to adapt, because you never allow it to recover, the effectiveness of your overall training will suffer.
- Differentiate between tiredness and exhaustion.
- Include complete rest days at least once a week, ideally the day after an intense training session/long run.
- Don’t blindly follow a training programme – listen to your body.
- Do what you can, challenge yourself, push hard, but know when it’s time to rest and recover.
- Be flexible. If you have a training plan, be willing to move sessions around to respond to how you are feeling. If necessary, substitute sessions for cross-training as an alternative.
Marathon training programmes vary widely, but one thing you’ll find in common between almost all programmes is that they aim for a balanced approach to enable adaptation. Basically if you try to increase both your mileage and your speed/intensity significantly at the same time, you are at a much higher risk of exhaustion or injury.
For example, in programmes which include speedwork or very intense sessions (such as long runs with marathon pace), you will find plenty of slow, easy runs thrown in to compensate. For programmes which emphasise high mileage at a steady pace, and minimise speedwork, runs will often be at a more consistently comfortable pace throughout, with less variation.
Good training programmes often follow “cycles” – for example, a three-week period in which mileage and/or effort increases week-on-week will be followed by a slightly easier fourth week. This is another great way to encourage adaptation and avoid exhaustion.
Try these self-check questions:
- What do I do after a long run or intense session? How does this help me to recover?
- What do I currently do to build my strength for running?
- What do I currently do to promote my mobility?
- Am I properly warming up and warming down? If not, why not?
- How long do I spend stretching?
Recovery is an important aspect when thinking about tiredness. The more effective your recovery, the more likely you are to feel fresher sooner, and more ready for your next training session.
Topics such as warm-ups, warm-downs, stretches, mobility exercises and strength exercises are huge areas in themselves, and we explore some of these in separate articles. But crucially, all of these areas combine to help you run better and stay strong, which in turn promote quicker recovery and leave you feeling less exhausted.
Rest is also an essential part of a training programme. Top elites take their rest time very seriously, often literally doing nothing between training sessions. For the rest of us, getting on with everyday life, it’s at least important to be aware that we need to find time to rest properly.
Recovery doesn’t mean being immobile. After intense sessions it’s good to keep moving gently, to avoid muscles getting too tight. Gentle exercise such as pilates or yoga, or simply walking, are hugely beneficial and can help your mind to relax as well as keeping your body in good shape.
Most of us deal with some level of stress in our lives, but how well are we able to manage it? Try asking yourself:
- Am I taking on unnecessary stress?
- Can I avoid some of this stress during my marathon training period?
- What can I do to manage the impact of stress on how I’m feeling?
- How can I help myself to feel calmer?
Certain types of stress are very difficult to avoid – work, personal or family issues, and much more. But identify which elements are within your control and do something about those. For example, try not to take on lots of extra activities during your marathon training period, or perhaps share the burden for certain responsibilities for a couple of months. Be creative, exchange favours with friends and family that you can repay after your race, and try to avoid saying “yes” to everything that comes your way just for the next few weeks.
Mindfulness is a wonderful approach to help cope with the stresses of life, and can be valuable in all sorts of ways including psychology during running. There are plenty of great books and websites on the subject.
Remember: your first challenge is to get to the start line in one piece. If you can deal with tiredness effectively, you’ve got a greater chance of making it to the race start, as well as getting the most from your training for a quicker finish time.