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Marathon Race Strategy

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Nov 27, 2007


With five days remaining before my next marathon, I have race strategy on the brain, so I thought I would share a few quick thoughts on the topic.



When aiming for an aggressive goal time, I believe it's important to hold oneself back in the early miles, but without running so slowly as to necessitate a dramatic increase in pace later in the race. My goal is to finish the race with an average pace of 6:01-6:05 per mile. I plan to run the first mile in 6:05 to 6:10 and to run no faster than 6:02 for any single mile in the first half of the race. If I do this and find myself feeling very strong at the half-marathon mark, I could pick up my pace to 5:57 per mile and still finish with with an average pace of 6:01.



I have done a lot of running in this pace range within the past few weeks. Although I have been able to run long distances at this pace, even in a pre-fatigued state, it has felt alarmingly fast to me even on my best days. Recently I realized that it feels fast because it is fast, and I should not be alarmed. My mindset has been caught back in the days when my marathon pace was 6:20 per mile, a pace that always felt easy in the beginning. So I've tacitly expected 6:00/mile pace to start feeling easy too. But now I see that I have moved so close to my ultimate performance limits that this just isn't going to happen. The marathon is now truly a race for me rather than a game of survival. Therefore I should expect to feel as though I'm racing as soon as the gun goes off. The fact that I feel the strain of my goal pace even within the first mile does not indicate that I cannot sustain the pace for 26.2 miles. (I'm quite sure that Haile Gebrselassie felt the strain of running 4:45/mile in the first mile of his recent 2:04:26 marathon!) This shift in mindset has taken a lot of fear out of me and will help me race more relaxed.



It's going to be very cold when the race starts at 7 am. I remember being painfully cold in the first miles of the California International Marathon when I ran it back in '99. So this time I'm going to start with a cheap fleece sweatshirt over my shortsleeve running top, and an old pair of running gloves. When I feel warm enough I will take them off and hand them to a volunteer at a fluid station.



Speaking of fluid, here's my nutrition plan. I will have my usual pre-race breakfast of a banana and a can of Boost. I will also drink a little water, but not much. Runners often overestimate how much fluid they need to drink on the morning of a marathon. It's much more important to drink during the race. I hate having to pee too often before the race starts, and I really hate to pee during the race. Half an hour before the start I will swallow two caffeine pills (400 mg). I have consumed no caffeine since 10 days before race day to maximize the ergogenic effect I get from caffeine on race morning. During the race I will take some sports drink at every fluid station. The amount I consume will depend on how my stomach/GI system feel. When they feel good I will drink a full dixie cup. Otherwise I will take just a sip. But I will always take at least a sip. I have underfueled myself before in marathons and it's not a mistake I care to repeat.



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Taper Time

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Nov 21, 2007


On Monday I began my two-week taper for the California International Marathon. I made it! What a relief. I will run only 44 total miles this week and 22 miles next week (not including the marathon), compared to as much as 80 miles in preceding weeks, so my chances of getting injured are small.



If you're wondering why I consider merely "surviving" until the taper period such a cause for celebration, I'll tell you. Six years ago I was in the best shape of my life while training for the Boston Marathon. I set huge PR's at 5K and the half-marathon and was confident of running somewhere around 2:36 or 2:37 in Boston. Then, less than three weeks before race day, I developed a bad case of hip flexor tendonitis that forced me to skip the race. I was very disappointed, but my disappointment would have been 10 times greater if I had known that this injury would be only the first in a long sequence of breakdowns that would prevent me from running another marathon in peak shape until now. So just by making it to the starting line of the California International Marathon in one piece, I will remove a six-year-old monkey from my back.



Here's how I like to taper for marathons:



Two weeks before race day I run 20 miles. Endurance is the facet of running fitness that always comes hardest to me, so I like to have a farily recent 20-miler in my legs when I start a marathon.



I maintain the same basic weekly workout structure during the taper as I do during the peak training period, but all of the distances are reduced. I do two high-intensity workouts during the week and a long run on the weekend. This week's key workouts will be roughly 30% shorter than in the preceding week. Next week they will be 50-75% shorter. It's important not to completely eliminate high-intensity running from your training during the taper period, because tapering is not strictly about resting up for your marathon--it's also about priming your body for peak performance.



I am continuing to cross-train (slideboarding) and strength train this week, but I will eliminate that stuff next week.



Some runners like to rest on the day before their marathon, but I prefer to do a very short run (2-3 miles) plus a few strides to keep myself from bouncing off the walls. Also, even in training I've observed that I almost always run better in a hard workout when I run easy the previous day instead of not at all.



My final long run, performed one week before race day, will be a 15-miler with the last 3 miles at marathon pace. I try to do at least a mile of marathon-pace running each day throughout the taper period, because I want my body and mind to be as comfortable as possible at that pace.



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The first time I ever "went for a jog" I was only six or seven years old. I was inspired to do it by my dad, who ran regularly for exercise at the time. He wore a primitive pedometer when he ran. It was a small, disk-shaped unit that hooked onto the wasitband of his shorts. The oscillation of each stride caused some sort of mechanism inside it to tick, adding one stride length's worth of distance to the total measured distance. As you can imagine, the device was incredibly inaccurate. While you could calibrate it to your estimated stride length, the device had no way to account for changes in stride length resulting from changing speeds or running uphill or downhill. I thought it was pretty cool anyway, and I wore it for my first jog. I ran about half a mile, according to it.



Today's devices for measuring distance coveredas well as speed in real timeare inifnitely more sophisticated, using accelerometers or GPS technology to achieve accuracy levels as high as 99%. I was an early adopter, purchasing the first-generation Timex Speed + Distance device. I've since switched to the Garmin Forerunner, and I use it for almost every run. There are many benefits to using such a device, but their greatest benefit, in my opinion, is one that is seldom talked about: they make you train harder.



In each of my key workouts, I have in mind one or more pace targets that I want to hit. My Forerunner not only allows me to know whether or not I am hitting my targets, but it also encourages me to slightly surpass them, if possible. It's just basic human psychology. You can always dig a little deeper when you're chasing some standard outside yourself than when you're just going by feel. What's more, the device also pushes me to improve my performance from week to week as I repeat certain types of workouts. So, for example, if last week I ran a 10K tempo run in 35:30, when I repeat the workout in two weeks I might pursue a target time of 35:10.



Training runs are not meant to be races, of course, so the purpose of using a speed and distance device to train harder than you might otherwise is not to unleash absolute maximum efforts in everyday workouts. That would take you nowhere in a hurry. The real purpose is to motivate just a slightly greater effort in the two or three workouts you do each week that are supposed to be challenging anyway. The benefits of these extra bits of effort will gradually accumulate over the course of the training process, enabling you to run significantly faster on race day, when time really matters.



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Despite the fact that he was running his first marathon, Dathan Ritzenhein was considered a contender for a top-three finish at the 2006 New York City Marathon. After all, he has just run a 1:01:26 half marathon a few weeks earlier. Ritzenhein ran strong through 22 miles in the Big Apple, but then the wheels came off. He staggered through Central Park at 6:30 pace and finished a disappointing 11th in 2:14:01. The reason for his collapse was rather obvious: he had consumed no fluid or nutrition after the three-mile mark. A track and cross-country runner all his life, Ritz simply wasn't accustomed to drinking on the run (even in a half marathon there's no benefit to drinking for those who can cover the distance in less than 90 minutes).



When he ran his second marathon last weekendthe U.S. Olympic Trials Men's MarathonRitzenhein and his coach corrected the problem. They affixed carbohydrate gel packets to water bottles, which the young runner grabbed from several aid stations along the course. He patiently sucked down each gel and chased it with water, carrying the bottle as long as necessary to get the job done. The result? He finished second, running 2:11:07 on a very tough course and earning a slot on the U.S. Olympic Team.



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Total Stress Load

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Nov 1, 2007


In medical terms, stress is a physiological response to a stressor, which is any kind of challenge or threat to the body. This response is fundamentally the same regardless of the specific stressor, whether it's a hard run, a hard day at work, or a viral infection, although the details of the stress response vary considerably in each case. The cumulative physiological effect of all of the stressors affecting your body at any given time is known as the total stress load, or allostatic load.



As runners, it's important for us to understand these basic facts about stress, because your body can only handle so much stress at one time. Since running itself is a stressor, a major implication of these realities is that the more non-running stress you have in your life, the less running you can handle.



I was reminded of this fact within the past 10 days, when I was pulled onto jury duty. The timing was terrible, as I was also just days away from a book manuscript deadline. I felt the effects of these burdens on my running almost immediately. A few weeks ago I ran a half marathon in 1:14:55. Two days ago I struggled to run three miles at 8:30/mile pace.



Happily, though, I understood my situation well enough not to even try to run more than three miles at 8:30 pace two days ago. I cut my overall training way back as soon as I recognized that I had entered a tailspin. It's been a little scary, with my goal marathon just over a month away, but I think I'll be OK thanks to the crisis management tactics I employed.



My trial ends today, and my book manuscript is due today. Yesterday I had my best workout in a while. Things are looking up!



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