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What Does it Take to Run a Marathon?

What does it take to run a marathon? This, or a variation of it, is one of the most common questions I get asked by my running patients and recently, by quite a few people at track. Naturally, the answer to this question varies widely depending on a whole host of factors, such as your running experience, how much time you have available to train, your current level of fitness and what injuries you have already had to overcome.


Usually, my answer focuses on 5 main factors which are mostly about reducing injury risk as well as performance:

  1. Building up mileage gradually, both in terms of distance and intensity. The most common cause of running injuries are runners going too far, too fast, too soon.

  2. Cross-training: Incorporate other forms of exercise into your routine, to improve overall fitness and reduce the risk of injury by strengthening muscles not always used in running.

  3. Rest: listening to your body and take rest days when needed and make sure you get enough sleep. Overtraining can lead to fatigue, injuries, and burnout. Rest days allow the body to recover and prevent injuries from worsening or becoming chronic. I have personal experience of ignoring warning signs and tearing my calf 7 weeks before the London Marathon in 2021 – I had to walk the last 8 miles in quite a lot of pain (Not recommended!)

  4. Proper form/running technique is crucial for marathon runners as poor form can lead to injuries and may also affect performance, as it can waste energy and slow you down.

  5. Nutrition: Runners need to consume adequate amounts of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats to fuel their bodies and promote recovery. Staying hydrated is also crucial, as even mild dehydration can affect performance and increase the risk of injury.

However, running marathons is not just about getting through it without getting injured. Its about the joy of running 26.2 miles and what better group of people to ask about that, than the wonderful QPH members. Below is my compilation of the responses from the 29 people who replied to the questionnaire about what they felt were the most important factors in achieving their fastest marathon times.


I would like to emphasise that many of the people who replied to this questionnaire have completed many, many more marathons since their fastest time and they do so for a multitude of different reasons. What constitutes your favourite/best/most important/ most meaningful race will often have nothing to do with the time that you achieve. With that said, please enjoy the combined wisdom of your fellow QPH club members and remember, don’t be afraid to ask experienced runners for advice – as you can see, they are usually very happy to share.


QPH Marathon Runners Facts


If you were worrying that your age might be an impediment to running your fastest marathon think again. As you can see in table 1 below many people are still achieving PBs in their 50s or taking on their first marathon into their 70s.


Table 1: About the participants

Age ranges

People achieving marathon PBs

Average marathons completed prior to achieving PB

Average finishing time for age group

20-29

6

2

03:17:38

30-39

14

3.6

03:20:49

40-49

5

3.8

03:47:46

50-59

3

2.3

04:18:05

60-69

-

-

-

70+

1

1

06:53:01

Of the 29 people who responded 23 had run a marathon before they did their best time and of these, 14 had run 3 or more. This suggests that, not surprisingly, you get better with practice.


Marathon Venues


There was a wide range of marathons represented. London was most popular with 6 people achieving their best time there. Valencia was next with 3; followed by Manchester, Paris and Vienna all with 2. Then a whole host of other UK based marathons were mentioned as well as a few overseas races including Buenos Aires, Chicago, Amsterdam and the rather brilliantly named Sparkasse 3-Länder which takes you from Germany to Austria via Switzerland.



Next I asked people to select all the factors which were most important in helping them achieve their best results. The respondents could choose as many as they felt were relevant to them, but the most popular answer by far was a good training block, though fuelling and drinking during the marathon were also considered very important.


Table 2: What factors would you say were most important to your result?

Reason given

Number

Percentage

A good training block

24

86%

Fuelling during the marathon

12

43%

Drinking fluids during the marathon

10

36%

Shoes you were wearing

8

29%

Carb loading in the days/week leading up to the marathon

6

21%

Strength training

6

21%

Other reasons included: “A calm mental state and having no pre-perceived outcomes”, “running with mates”, “sensible pacing” and “going for another marathon 5 months after feeling disappointed in the outcome of the first one”.


The following section was about how people felt during the marathon both at the halfway point and in the final 5km and what their pacing strategy was. What comes out very clearly is that the vast majority of people either felt they were putting in an easy (17.2%) or Moderate (69%) effort at the halfway mark. It’s also clear that in the final 5km 69% of runners are either working at a hard or maximum effort. In other words, if you want to have a successful marathon, don’t go off too quickly - you will pay for it later!


In terms of pacing: The most popular approach (44.8%) was to try and do even splits throughout. However, nearly a quarter of people didn’t have a pacing strategy at all and just went by feel. The “holy grail” of marathon running is often felt to be achieving a negative split, where you go faster in the 2nd half than the first half. This was the approach of 17.2% of responders but is pretty hard to do, especially if you have never done a marathon before.


NB: I also asked some data questions about heart rate during the marathon, maximum HR, VO2 max and lactate threshold, but fewer than half of respondents had this information and of those that did, several were not confident about the data so I have not included it here.


Pie Chart 1:

Pie Chart 2:

Pie Chart 3:

I was also interested in how people overcame any negative experiences that they might have had during their marathon. The responses were many and varied and really serve as a reminder that almost anything can happen during a 26.2mile race.


Table 3: Did you have any negative experiences during this marathon and if so how did you overcome them?

No (x7)

Pushed a little hard at 36km but wound it back in

Not enough training by a long way. Very hot weather, so took a running backpack with extra water which was vital

Sporadic cramping in quads in last 2 miles - Slowed up so didn't totally cramp up

Yes, ran out of steam at 23 miles. Just had to settle for finishing - knowing it would still be a PB even if I had to walk the rest!

It was really busy so wasn’t as easy to stick to pace as I thought

I took a glucose tablet at mile 22 which was a new flavour and it made me wretch and feel very sick​

If you want a good time you have to be prepared to hurt in the final 5km.

A man in front of me had poo'ed himself which was unpleasant. I overcame this by speeding up

I mistimed my first snack and so ended up having to rely on bananas provided by the marathon organisers - luckily there were loads and it's now my favourite running snack!

Got stuck cramped 100m before the finish line. Finished in 1 leg or so…

Wondering if I would hit the wall - I mentally broke the marathon down into 4 x 10km runs, made it easier

Ye, a dip at 14km in and then another at 32km. Just tried to take my mind off it and remember when I'd felt good earlier in the run.

Blisters. Nasty blisters. Overcame them with sheer grit.

Pain in the hip/back about half way around the course. Resorted to some brisk walking & jogging rather than stopping.

Exhaustion, almost an out of body feeling. Overcame by determination to finish

Terrible weather conditions (heavy rain) throughout for racing. Had to mentally prepare that it's just going to be part of the race and remember that it was going to eventually stop at some point during the race.

In summary, here are the key lessons that I took from our marathon running friends at QPH:

  1. You can do a marathon at any age.

  2. Your fastest marathon is probably not going to be your first one.

  3. A good training block is the most important factor, but fuelling, drinking fluids and a few other elements are also important to having a good marathon.

  4. Make sure you pace your marathon conservatively – don’t go out too hard!

  5. If you want to have a pacing strategy aim for even splits or even a negative split. Alternatively go by feel (although this might be a bit risky, especially for first timers).

  6. Something will probably go wrong on the day. Prepare as best you can and accept that you may experience some challenges along the way.


Everyone taking part in marathons this year, good luck, I hope you found this helpful and that you achieve all of your running goals.



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