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2 days on from the Berlin Marathon 2021 and I can still barely walk. It’s been a long time since a race has taken such a toll and it underlines how much I put my body through on Sunday. I’m mentally drained too. Never has a race build up been so elongated and fraught with difficulties.
I am absolutely delighted that I was able to record nearly a 5 minute PB of 2:49:07 but the time alone does not tell half the story. Yes it will be the first thing (maybe the only thing) people will ask about it but it is not the time that I was most proud of.
I had told a few people I was aiming for 2:45 and that was still the case on the morning of the race. If I’d been told before I would run 2:49 I think I would have been disappointed. My previous best was set 2 and a half years ago and my training had been so much better coming into this race. I don’t think 2:45 was an unrealistic aim.
But I could also see that conditions were not ideal. The sun was out with no cloud cover and forecasts of up to 25 degrees which for a northern lad is tropical. I allowed myself an ‘easy’ first mile to test the water. I could already tell it was going to be a struggle but I tried to notch the pace up a little over the next few miles.
I passed through the 5k marker a bit down on pace and I knew I’d have to pick it up again to get on track for 2:45. The second 5k was nearly in the right ballpark but I was already starting to struggle getting enough water from the cups out on the course which was concerning.
In London and Dublin water came in bottles which is much easier. It doesn’t spill and it’s easy to carry so you don’t have to down it in one go. The cups at Berlin were not full but trying to grab one at pace still meant spilling half of it. Then when you did come to drink, half of it would run down your face rather than into your mouth.
The water issue was making fuelling difficult too. My plan was always to take my fuel just before a water station so that I could wash the gel or bar down after. But eating with a dry mouth was not easy.
I got the first bar down at mile 4 but when it came to my second bar around mile 12 it left me retching and in real difficulty. I had to chuck it knowing that at that moment, lack of water was more of a problem than lack of fuel.
Soon after that I decided that if I didn’t take action now, the race was going to turn into a nightmare. I stopped at the next water station to make sure I got a full cup of water down. It turned out to be a good plan with one problem; downing a cup of water gave me a stitch soon after.
I went through halfway at 1:23:37 and I knew there was no way I’d run the 2 minute negative split required for 2:45. I quickly readjusted to try and run the remainder at 2:50 pace and also to try and manage the stitch which did go after a couple of miles.
I stopped again at the water station around mile 15, this time for a bit longer to try and avoid the stitch. Yes it took another 15/20s out of my time but I knew I needed to try and do everything to get back on track.
The next gel around 16 went down better and I was able to start taking water again on the move so that by the time I was approaching the 30km mark (18.5 miles) I felt like I was starting to pick up again. Despite not knowing the course in depth, I knew it turned back into the centre around 30km which was a real psychological boost too.
In reality, my pace wasn’t picking up but it wasn’t declining much either and I started to realise that I was going past other people frequently. To be struggling at mile 12 in a marathon is frankly alarming and I felt like I must be the only person in difficulty. By mile 19 I knew that I was now faring much better than many people around me.
That’s not to say it suddenly became easy but I’d worked my way through a really rough patch by focusing on each 5km marker and trying to put out each fire as it arose. I finally felt like I was running ‘in the zone’ where I was able to maintain a decent pace without any major issues.
The major issues came (literally) screaming back in the last 5km though this time in the form of cramp. It has been a nemesis of mine in marathons before but I’ve always managed to stave it off. It’s usually in my calves but this time it seemed to be everywhere.
I kept trying to focus on good form knowing that trying to compensate for the cramp in one place may set something off elsewhere. I hadn’t been obsessing over my splits too much as I knew that they had been close enough to the right pace but I was also aware that my watch was measuring long.
This usually happens in every marathon. The course has a blue line round which is the shortest line to take and it must be at least a marathon distance. You can never stick fully to this line with other people and water stations to contend with so you are always going to run a little long.
But more than this, GPS is not 100% accurate especially when you run past tall buildings. It becomes a dot to dot of slightly inaccurate position readings. On a very twisty course this can result in a short reading as it may cut off a corner you’ve had to run round.
In big city marathons where you run lots of long straight streets, there’s far more chance of it measuring long because the GPS tracks you slightly off the straight road and will record curves and zig zags that aren’t really there.
You really have no idea what is going on during the marathon but you can see the inaccuracy afterwards. Usually you can see how far out your watch is by comparing it with the mile markers but I had my watch in miles and the markers were in km so I hadn’t really been paying attention.
The result was that I got lured into thinking I had more in the bag to beat 2:50 than I really had in reality. I was ticking off the miles on my watch at around the right pace but the km markers weren’t coming as soon as they should. I knew I had to keep the effort level high to make it – I couldn’t ease off.
There is a long straight section into 40km at which point it zigzags back towards the finish just beyond the Brandenburg gate. Some people were walking or stopped altogether. Having collapsed before at mile 25 in a marathon, I was determined not to stop no matter how much I wanted to. Plenty of time for that at the finish line.
If the section to 40km seemed to go on forever then the last straight down to the Brandenburg gate and beyond was worse. I’m glad I read that the end wasn’t at the gate because it’s a good bit past it and I was ready for it, not that it made it much easier.
I know some people get emotional at this point but I was having difficulty just concentrating holding my running form together. I had been more in awe before the start of the race but now just needed to focus on getting to the end.
Making sure I smiled for the cameras (I’d no doubt been grimacing most of the way round), I crossed the line and immediately the cramp consumed my legs and feet. I could barely stand let alone walk. Someone kindly held me up whilst an electrolyte drink was brought my way.
Lots of thoughts flooded into my head having tried to block out most of it during the race. I knew I couldn’t have done more. I didn’t hit the main target I’d set but in a way I’d achieved more than just a time in the way I’d battled through.
I thought about the sacrifices Louise and the boys had made back home to allow me to get here at all. I thought about the inspiration of my Mum who introduced me to running and would have been 67 this week. I thought back to the tough training runs and weeks I had been through that had tested my mental resolve especially in the 6 weeks before.
All these things contributed to my ability to deal with the situation but I still wondered why I put myself through it. I think on reflection, it is the sense of achievement at being able to overcome a difficult challenge. It’s about testing myself and coming out the other side of it.
And it’s a truly personal experience. At the end of the day, others will applaud your achievements but there is no real context to place them in. Everyone has a different potential, different circumstances and different problems to overcome.
Time for reflection and evaluation is important too. A lot of sacrifice can go into running a marathon. Was it worth it? Which parts were enjoyable? Which were not? What would I do the same again? What could be changed next time?
I know there are certain things I’m not keen to repeat but it’s still too early to say what my next challenge will be. The dust has to settle a bit more, I need to enjoy some things outside of running for a little while. But I’ve definitely learned and reinforced a few things:
I hope everyone running Belfast and London this weekend has a great race. You’ve put all the training, planning and prep in and now it’s all about executing the race!
There are only two ways to get faster: increase your cadence or increase your stride length. Cadence is how many strides you take per minute. Stride length is the distance travelled per stride. Multiply them together and you will get the distance you cover per minute. Increase either one and the distance covered per minute (i.e. your speed) will increase.
That’s all there is to it. Simples.
Actually it is that simple, but how to do it is not necessarily as easy. The two factors are not independent so increasing one will probably affect the other either positively or negatively. Also, everyone’s build and technique differs, so how do you know which one you should try to increase?
At the two ends of the scale are the shuffler and the loper. A shuffler may have a high cadence but a small stride length due to little or no push off from the ground. Imagine sliding your feet out in front of you and doing that as fast as you can. The length of your legs is the limiting factor.
The loper uses a lot of energy to propel themselves in the air and may have a reasonably long stride length but the extra time in the air coupled with overstriding means their potential cadence is greatly reduced.
Overstriding, where the foot lands in front of the body at an angle which is not perpendicular to the ground, applies a braking force to the body (imagine running down a steep hill and actually trying to stop yourself going too fast).
This is a good way to get injured as it increases force through the ankle and knee especially. It also increases the ground contact time which reduces cadence.
The best way to see which you are is to get someone to analyse your technique or video yourself. Check that you are not overstriding by looking at the angle of your foot as it lands. It should be straight and under your body’s centre of mass.
Secondly, look at how far off the ground you push off. If you don’t get far off the ground, you may not be pushing off as much as you could. Of course too much is a waste of energy.
Finally, check your current cadence at a medium/hard effort – something you can hold for an hour. Your training should have a variety of paces included so we want to measure something that is in the middle. When you run faster or slower then cadence or stride length has to change but it’s likely to be a bit of both.
Although there is no hard and fast rule for optimum cadence, most elites are purported to run with a cadence around 180. However, runners have a big variation in cadence depending on many factors so cadences above 200 or lower than 150 are not uncommon.
The point is, the lower your cadence is now, the more room you probably have for increasing it. If you already have a very high cadence, you probably need to look more at improving your stride efficiency to get faster.
Knowing which end of the scale you are will help you to know whether you should try to increase cadence or stride length and you may actually have to decrease the other to improve in the long run.
Firstly, if you are overstriding, you should try and correct this. But the easiest way is to try and increase your cadence because, in doing so, it will likely force you to shorten your stride length.
Secondly, if your technique is not obviously at either extreme, try to increase your cadence very gradually but maintain your form. Adding strides to some of your sessions will give you practice at running with a higher cadence.
Increasing cadence is the easier way to get faster but it isn’t the most suitable for everyone. If you know that your cadence is high already and you observe little to no push off the ground, try some running drills like A-skips and bounds to improve your push off. This will help you increase your stride length.
Your cadence may actually drop a little at first as you put more energy into each stride but this will give you more headroom to increase your cadence again later.
If you make any changes to your technique, do it very gradually! Running in an unfamiliar way will put stress on places that aren’t used to it so only do this in small bits.
Most running watches will provide data for both cadence and stride length. Monitor these on a monthly basis on a similar type run to check for any noticeable changes. Try to video yourself monthly too.
The more you watch yourself, the more you are likely to notice anything out of place. If you’re unsure of what you are looking for then ask a coach or send me an email – I’d be more than happy to help.
Which type of runner are you? What is your cadence? How will you get faster?
Do you ever find your breathing is out of control on a run? Do you find yourself running faster than you can manage? Do you need to stop just to get your breath back? If so, following this simple technique can help eliminate your breathing problems on a run and help you run and train more efficiently.
Have you ever thought about how you breathe on a run? Quite possibly not, why would we? We don’t think about breathing the rest of the time, it’s something that just happens.
Most of us just run without thinking much about what we’re doing at all. If we do think about anything it is likely to be focusing on how fast we’re going or some aspect of our form, maybe foot strike, swinging arms or running tall.
However, it goes without saying that breathing is critical when running. Breathing is what gets oxygen to your muscles to give you energy to run. You need enough oxygen to sustain the effort you are putting in.
The worst thing that can happen is if you start to panic that you are not getting enough air. This is when you start breathing uncontrollably to get more air in and will most likely have to stop to recover.
The key is to moderate your pace and breathing together so that they are in sync with each other. i.e. the faster you go, the faster you need to breathe. However, if your breathing becomes too fast you can reduce it but only by reducing your pace at the same time.
To do this, you take the same number of strides for every breath in or out. The number of strides will be dictated by the intensity of the workout and also your average cadence (how many strides you take per minute).
The numbers below are my suggestion but you may want to add 1 to some if you have a particularly high cadence (200+).
Interval pace (more than 90% effort) – 1 stride per breath in or out
Tempo pace (80-90% effort) – 2 strides per breath in or out
Marathon pace (70-80% effort) – 3 strides per breath in or out
Long run pace (60-70% effort) – 4 strides per breath in or out
Easy pace (less than 60%) – 5 strides per breath in or out
Taking marathon pace as an example, you would start breathing in when your left foot touches the ground. You would keep breathing in while your right and left touch the ground again.
Start breathing out when your right hits the ground for the second time. Continue to breathe out as your left and right touch the ground again. The cycle starts again when your left foot hits the ground for the fourth time and you start breathing in again.
If you’re having difficult getting the rhythm right simply start by counting rather than breathing. Count as your feet hit the ground, replacing ‘One’ with ‘In’ or ‘Out’ depending which way you are breathing – ‘In, two, three, out, two three’.
If you’ve got the rhythm but finding you need more breath then try breathing a bit more deeply. You can practice breathing more deeply without running just by sitting and trying to breath in counting up to ten and out counting up to ten.
If you’re still having problems and need to breathe faster then try dropping your pace slightly to make it easier. It may seem counterintuitive to take fewer breaths when running at an easier pace but because you are not working as hard you won’t need to breathe as fast.
You should be able to reach a point where you can take three strides per breath but you cannot run any faster. This is fine – your breathing is now limiting your pace not the other way round. Breathing is the most important thing, pace comes second.
Now that you’ve mastered the trick, you can run faster by changing your breathing pattern. If you want to run at tempo pace, just take two strides per breath instead of three. You can even change it mid run if you’re doing a session with variable pace in it.
There are three great benefits to this. Firstly, your breathing is now controlled. Secondly, your pace is now controlled. The third benefit is more subtle.
You may think you have no issues with breathing and always feel comfortable. But it may be that you always have the same stride to breath pattern and it may be inefficient. If you are only taking two strides per breath even on long or easy runs, the chances are those breaths are quite shallow so you are not practising the deep breathing you’ll need when pushing yourself.
You may also be running those long or easy runs faster than you mean to. Following this technique and taking 4 or 5 strides per breath will really limit the pace you can manage. However, it should still feel easy because your breathing is slow, deep and controlled.
Try following the breathing maximisation technique next time you’re out for a run and let your core control your legs not the other way round!