Jeff Gaudette—Simply running 26.2 miles is a daunting task, so the thought of trying to race a full marathon as fast as you can seems almost impossible—and probably a little crazy. It’s no surprise then that training for a marathon is as much a mental battle as it as a physical one.
During each workout and long run, most runners can’t help but think to themselves, “there’s no way I could continue running this pace for 26.2 miles.” Many beginners think this is a fear unique to their inexperience, but take it from someone who’s logged upwards of 140 miles per week: If your goal is to race hard and push your limits, marathon pace for 26.2 miles is hard to wrap your head around.
The secret is that you should almost never feel like you could run a full marathon at goal pace in training. If you do, it’s likely your goal is far too easy.
In this article, we’ll delve into exactly why you shouldn’t feel like you could maintain goal pace for 26 miles in training. Hopefully, understanding some of the science and physiological principles behind this fact will give you confidence and help you train intelligently.
One of the most important concepts to remember about training is that an individual run or workout does not occur in a vacuum. The stress and tiredness from your previous workouts impacts your performance on a particular day. This accumulation of stress and tiredness is what coaches call accumulative fatigue.
Accumulative fatigue is a critical component of proper marathon training, so it’s not a bad thing. Accumulative fatigue enables you to practice running with low glycogen levels and simulate running on tired legs. In fact, a solid marathon training plan will often specifically try to make you tired before your important workouts and long runs.
The problem many runners face during marathon training is that it’s difficult to quantify accumulative fatigue. Unless you’re extremely sore or tired heading into a workout, it’s something that is easy to forget. Just because you feel fresh heading into a run doesn’t mean your previous training runs have no impact on your upcoming workout. By design, you should be tired.
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However, on race day you’ll be fully tapered and rested. Unlike your long runs and workouts, you won’t have a 40-90 mile week in your legs and you won’t have tired yourself out from a killer, long workout just a few days before. While this rested feeling can’t be quantified, it is very significant to how you’ll perform on race day compared to regular workouts.
A helpful trick to help you factor in accumulative fatigue is to think of your workouts and long runs starting at the distance you left off at the previous day. For example, if you ran a total of eight miles on Saturday, with a portion of that being at steady or marathon pace, you’d be starting Sunday’s long run at mile 8. Therefore, the last miles of your 18-mile long run on Sunday would actually be miles 8 through 26.
Related to accumulative fatigue is that training for a marathon continuously depletes your glycogen stores, which means you won’t start every workout or long run fully fueled. As a result, you’re likely to experience the effects of running on low glycogen, which results in decreased physical and mental performance (yes, your brain needs glycogen too).
For example, when your body starts to run low on carbohydrates, it will attempt to use fat as a fuel source. This is good in training, as it will improve your ability to burn fat as a fuel source during the race. From a performance perspective, you can expect to see about 15-percent decrease in performance when running at your aerobic threshold (roughly marathon pace) when burning fat as opposed to glycogen. Obviously, this 15-percent reduction in performance is going to make your workouts harder than they would feel on race day.
On race day, you’ll be fully fueled and your glycogen stores will be at capacity. Not only will you have reduced training in the three to five days before the race, but you’ll have consciously topped off your glycogen stores.
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In addition, you’ll have ample opportunities to refuel during the race. Very few runners take in as many calories during training as they do races. This is mainly due to availability, since you can only carry or stash so much fluid and snacks. Regardless, you’ll likely be taking in more calories during a race than any single training session, thus delaying glycogen depletion.
Adrenaline and Support
Finally, it’s important to recognize the positive impact that adrenaline and competition have on performance. You probably realize that it’s nearly impossible to run a 5k or 1-mile PR in practice (if you have strong PRs at these distances). When racing, you’re able to take your performance to a level that’s impossible to reach on your own. While you can’t put a number on it, adrenaline and competition will make the race distance feel two-thirds of what it really is.
The next time you start thinking about how you couldn’t possibly run another 10 miles at marathon pace during a workout or long run, remember these important concepts of marathon training and relax. Marathon training is supposed to feel this way and if it doesn’t, you’re not preparing yourself properly!