Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Training Strategies For A Marathon: GCAM 2013 (Part 1)

I like to share my tips on how I achieved my recent personal bests time for my marathon. On 7 July, I earned a PB and BQ at the Gold Coast Airport Marathon. In addition, I enjoyed good splits for my 10km, 21km, and 32km marks.

In summary, if you aim to excel in your run times you will need to be:
1)    Very fit (aerobic base/cross-trained).
2)    Very light (run racing weight).
3)    Very strong (core).

The first two goals are the crux of success of the top Tour De France riders (minus the ‘edge’ they gain from pharmaceutical assistance). The third factor is required to maintain good form (gait) throughout the race, especially when you want need to ‘dig deep’ or push through fatigue.

1) Very Fit

Since I suffered an expensive hairline-fractured toe (metatarsal) last August (confirmed during Ironman Zurich), I have built my aerobic base – gradually – with low-heart-rate cycling and running. During my two months of active rehabilitation, I rode indoors and swam regularly. In spite of ZERO RUNNING (except for two short runs during race week), I finished in 4:00 Berlin Marathon – one of my worst finishes, yet it was encouraging for my aerobic base supported my comfortable completion.


Since August last year, I have focused on building my aerobic base. Based on Phil Maffetone’s philosophy, I ensured that my heart rate did not exceed 133-138 (180 minus Age + 5bpm for no sickness in entire year). It was cruelly slow and I had to walk sometimes (as my heart rate threatened to climb). However, I was allowed up to two anaerobic sessions per week. A race constituted an anaerobic session, which meant racing above my aerobic threshold (138bpm).

My halfway splits in GCAM 2013 for the 21km was 1:34:47, almost equal to my performance at the Sundown Marathon in late-May. How I managed to achieve this similar timing was probably due to my dedication to tempo runs on my 10km and 21km sessions. I kept to my pace of 4:25-4:35 minutes per kilometer. In fact, I extended my pace further than 21km hoping to sit on a ‘second and third wind’ (fat oxidation stage). However, I over-arched myself and could not sustain my pace and faded into 4:45-5:15 min/km pace range after the 30km mark. I was tempted to test my limits (as a 3:08-3:10 finish was within my reach), so I braved an ‘All or Nothing’ call. I paid for it in the back-end and missed a negative split by a mile (literally in minutes equivalent).

Analysis: I did not get to do my long run of 28km at 5:05-5:10 pace due to the haze/smog. So, that bit of tapering was forgone and forgotten. I continued with my taper of two 21km runs (within three days) and a few 10km sessions as part of my taper.

My approach to running is contrarian: LESS IS MORE. Caveat: This may apply only to the older athletes. Because I train over three disciplines – swim, ride and run – I can afford to run less as I activate my aerobic fitness constantly. Plus, I believe that the ‘cross-over’ effect of the swimming and riding rolls over into my running fitness.


Rest is crucial to full recovery and recuperation. I cannot over-emphasise its importance. My training schedule, done alone, is:

1-2 sessions of 21km runs (long runs, at tempo/fartlek pace).
2-3 sessions of 10km (shorter runs, at tempo/fartlek pace).
*Maximum run of 28-32km (once a week, 4-6 weeks out from race-day)
No hill-work (okay, one bridge).
No interval sessions.
All workouts are performed at tempo (fast/moderate).
Base, aerobic, training is the slowest (done 6-9 months out).
Caveat: I may be faster IF I incorporate a systemic run program, with track intervals and hill-work.

Instead, I use Fartlek (‘Speed-play’) that is an intuitive, variable-paced, approach to running. I observe that clever racing is a combination of various paces and patience. You can run intuitively as you can logically. The various interplay of speeds, pauses and alertness/awareness determine your performance. If you are not aware of your fatigue levels or monitoring your watch/heart-rate, it can spell disastrous results.


My mileage for GCAM was only 40-45km per week. It falls far below the 70-90km serious marathoners usually do. Most of my sessions are aerobic (lower heart-rate). I include only two anaerobic sessions per week. I subscribe to the training philosophy of Dr Phil Maffetone and Ironman legend Mark Allen. My increased use of essential fats was also attributed to the Maffetone, as I was focused on building a strong aerobic base for Ironman triathlons (where it ends with a marathon after 3.8km of swimming, and 180km of cycling). I would recommend a base training of 60-120 minutes per session at aerobic zone (180-AGE = maximum, and avoid exceeding it). Do this for at least 4-6 months. You will feel you are too slow, but you will become faster once your HR falls and you increase your pace. I believe that mileage is not the key, as is training in your aerobic zone/fat-burning zone.

Too much mileage can lead to one road: injury. Common maladies of over-distance and intense speed-work are plantar fasciitis, heel-spurs, archiles strain and possible stress fractures. I did not want to risk that.


I have discovered over my last few A-races (Ironman New Zealand 2013) and Sundown Marathon (21km) that my aerobic base allowed me to operate in new territory of sustained anaerobic pace (4:30 min/km). My training tempo pace have been about 5:15-4:45 min/km, which is unusual.

With my recent results, although the training is specifically geared towards the Ironman World Championships in Kona-Hawaii in October, I am pleased. I hope to meet my dream-mark of a sub-4:00 hour marathon during an Ironman race. With a differential of about 30-40 minutes for a stand-alone and Ironman marathon, I am well within the hypothetical measure. Fingers crossed.

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