10 secrets how to run a Boston Marathon Qualifyer.

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There are no shortcuts.

You have to to do the hard work. Put in the miles and do your hard workouts. The last two years for me have been amazing. From being barely a sub 4 hour Marathoner two years ago (3.58) I am now snifing at the sub 3h with a master PR in New York under very hard conditions at 3:14. What did I do differently these  last two years to be able to succeed qualifying to Boston?

1. Reduce weight.

The less weight you have to carry around the faster you get to the goal. It may be easier said than done to lose weight, and one should not try to lose weight while training hard. Best to stick to a weight loss diet early in the season and then try to maintain it through the hard stages in the last months before the marathon. In simple terms however, the main trick is to try to avoid all types of processed food. Early in the season you could try the guaranteed weight loss program described in Tim Ferris entertaining book 4-Hour Body (Amazon US/UK). Yes, it is entertaining – subtitle of the book gives you a hint: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. This diet is strict 6 days a week and contains one cheat day. when you can eat all those things you had desire to bite into during the week. The cheat day, makes it easy to withhold the days of strict diet.

Another way to rapid weight loss is simply avoiding carbs all together.  This sounds as an oxymoron for a marathoner. Are we not suppose to fill up our glycogen stores to be able to complete a full marathon? But in the book The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance (Amazon US/UK).with subtitle A Revolutionary Program to Extend Your Physical and Mental Performance Envelope, two scientists argue that endurance athletes could explore diets that give 65-80% of the calories from fat. Depriving the body of carbs, forces the body to get into a fat burning state called ketosis. As a consequence while exercising the body shall use fat as fuel rather than glycogen. There is no lack of fat for fuel.

A person with ketosis metabolism will not bonk, because he does not run out of fuel.
Also as long as you do not put in more calories than you use you will lose weight.  It may be difficult to run fast without carbs, but for fast weight loss and increased resistance, the high fat diet should work very well.

More practical diet for most of us who are more or less addicted to carbs can be found in Matt Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight (Amazon US/UK).  The diet is based on whole food and avoiding processed food. It is a simple diet to stick to even while training.  While training hard it is important that one gets all essential nutrients and vitamins, and maintain a quite high protein intake for building and repairing muscles.

In two the last two years, I have lost 10kg (22 pounds). It has been calculated that for every pound of weight lost, your marathon time will improve by about 56 seconds. So with my 22 pounds less, my marathon time should have improved with 20:32.  Goes to show that race weight may be one of the most important factors to qualify for Boston.

But less weight is not all about body fat. To run efficiently, I don’t like to have a camelback hydration backpack or a liquid belt. I wear a very slender lightweight belt which holds my bib and my gels (and my phone which I like to cling on to for safety, as well as for my music when I use that). Furthermore, it is important to dress lightly. I usually wear a super thin Adidas tank in my races so I lose all excess heat and so that the sweat does not soak my garment.

Thirdly, I use very light weight shoes when I run the marathon. According to Jack Daniels, the legendary coach for every ounce of shoe weight reduced, you’ll run .83 seconds faster per mile. I used to run with Asics Gel Kayano – a stability shoe and customized orthotics. Now I run with Nike Free 3.0 or Asics Gel-Lyte33, the latter which was my first light weight shoe without orthotics. There is at least 6 oz difference in weight which can be translated to 3 min and 46 seconds faster time.  Not all runners can handle light weight shoes. One needs to adjust running technique to forefoot-midfoot landing, strengthen the feet with specific exercise and get a better runner form, which brings me to the next two points.

2. Strength

Early on in my transition of running style from being a heel striker to becoming more of midfoot/forefoot striker, I started doing more strength training. I bought a Strength Training for Runners program from Jeff Gaudette’s RunnersConnect. Although many of the exercises can be found on line, it was nice to get specific routines to go through. I always sucked at strength training. I found it boring. The fixed routines helped me get over my aversion.  I am still allergic to gyms, so fortunately 90% of the exercises are body weight or with the help of elastic bands.
I found the programs for hips, core and feet the most useful ones.

I was also happy to find out that classic stretching is totally over rated and in fact can be dangerous. One really does not need to stretch muscles before and after running. However, stretch for the ITB I found necessary for myself. Check Tim Ferris book for a good stretch routine.

I have also learned to more often do an active warm-up to fire up the muscles. The best are the lunge matrix popularized by coach Jay Johnson

and the Cannon Ball Cool Down routine which I like as a warm up as well

These warm-ups fire up your muscles to perform well, and can be seen as an active stretch far more useful than stretching the hamstrings on a bench or balancing on one leg while stretching the quads. Stretching over-relax the muscles, and the muscles actually perform better when they are a bit stiff and hard.

3. Running form

Once your strength is better, it is time to work on running form. There is much talk that barefoot running is the natural way to run, and this is probably true. However, we have all gotten so used to shoes that barefoot running can be right out painful. Having said that, gradually adopting to a more proper running form will allow you to wear more minimalist shoes. Remember from above that lighter shoes will make you run a faster marathon. I signed up for Improve Running Form on Runners Connect. A 6 week course to get better running form. Once again, much of the material can be found on line and in books, but in the end for me it was convenient to have a structured program.

So what is good running form?  In short the central parts are:

  • Cadence – shorter and quicker  steps. It is often said that 180 steps per minute is the ideal, but fact is that it varies. I could in a race fluctuate between 170-208 steps per minutes. Usually faster cadence when I pick up speed. The shorter steps has allowed me to land with the body mass right above the strike of the foot.  Most of the time the foot will be involved in a midfoot strike, but I often find myself shifting to forefoot striking. Yet, there are still people who will land on their heels, which is OK as long as one does not overstride i.e. landing on the heel with a straight, locked leg in front of the center of mass.
  • Posture – don’t look into the ground, but hold your chest high and look at the horizon. At the end of a marathon many runners bend over and look like a sack of potatoes. This is not an efficient way to run. Your rock hard core from your strength training will make sure your posture is correct all the way
  • Hip extension. Rather than extreme push-off with the calves it is extending the hip forward (hip flexion) and involving the glutes into pushing down as the hip extends backwards, that is generating more power. I found this hard to consciously think about, but it comes rather automatic with posture and cadence and does not take too much thinking. Also it is good to do hip strengthening exercise such as lateral leg lifts, clams and donkey kicks to strength the glutes and the hips.

4. Mileage

This is perhaps the most important aspect. I doubled my mileage in 2014 running 2000 miles compared to 1000 miles in 2013.  In previous years when I was still a heal striker I never reach over 1000 km mostly due to injuries. I was mainly injury free during the last two years. Sometimes I did get some stress symptoms, such as sore Achilles tendons, sore calves and piriformes. Most I could run through with massage and rotating shoes. It was sometimes a relief for calves and Achilles tendons to put on a shoe with a higher heel to toe drop. A good shoe is Nike Pegasus which served me very well for the transition.

I think it is necessary to do 70-100k per week rather that just doing 40-50 k per week to get the resistance not to bonk the last 10K of the race. To break three hours in Boston, I was thinking I needed to run as much as 100 miles per week (161 km). I am not so sure now. 100K may just be fine.

5. Fast finish runs

A marathon is always much tougher in the  end than the beginning. One needs to work much harder in the end of the race to maintain the same speed  as in the beginning. So if we in train applying more effort in the end, this will be of psychological value. You will know because you have dine it while training.

Fast finish runs could either be either ladders on a hard day (increased speed in intervals of about a mile each) or fast finish long runs, which start at relatively slow pace and gradually builds up to marathon pace, with the some 3-6 km in the end at a speed which is even faster. Having done this in training, gives a enormous boost of confidence for the last 10K in your race.

6. Music

I never used music while running, but before Lima Marathon in 2014 I had read Eat and Run by ultramarathoner Scott Jurek (Amazon US/UK). He had loaded his iPod for the last hours of an 24h track race not to get bored. I thought it could be a good idea to employ a similar strategy for the Marathon. As it happens we live just by the 32K mark on the Lima Marathon, so my wife brought out my headphones at this point. I had loaded a playlist with some of my favorite songs that fills me with energy such as Clash, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Molotov, Bangles (Walk like an Egyptian), Vapors (Turning Japanese), Cake (I’m going the Distance and Long Jacket). Here is the Putting on the music, when I technically was supposed to hit the hill was like magic. I picked up the pace and I felt like I was flying.

7. Fuel

I used gels in a race for the first time ever (Second Surge with caffeine) in the Lima Marathon 2014.  I started taking them from start. I had pretty much followed Matt Fitzgerald’s prescription in New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition (Amazon US/UK),  , including fat loading for 10 days, carb-loading 3 days, caffeine fasting for 10 days, and taking caffeine in the race.
I think the  whole ritual was essential to the success in Lima. I needed sub 3:30 to BQ, but ran in 3:24.

8. Course and climate

Obviously you should choose a flat fast course and cool weather around 50-55°F  is great to perform well for your BQ. International Marathons include Chicago, Tokyo, Berlin and Buenos Aires. Fast US Marathons include  Chicago, Philadelphia, Steamtown and Wineglass Marathons.

9. Race morning.

I am not a morning person when it comes to running, so I have had to adopt to a good strategy on race morning. In many races where I have failed I have had to do bathroom stops for unwanted bowel movements or pitstops in practically all marathons I  have done as master except the marathons in 2014. What was different?

  1. Small breakfast. Instead of a hearty breakfast 4 hours before the race I only had two bananas and some peanut butter in the morning – and a large cup of coffee. And rather than having a large pasta dinner I have had more breakfast like dinner the night before with oatmeal and milk. This makes it much easier to be efficient in the bathroom.
  2. Run 1 hour before the start. Some slow running  after a second coffee has secured an additional dump just before the race. I always bring toilet paper just in case.
  3. Much less fluid before and during the race. Most runners drink too much. Unless it is very hot, you should really not drink so much, I  skipped some water controls if I wasn’t taking a gel or unless I feel thirsty.

10. Negative split.

That is an advice that I have not lived up to, simply because the first part of Lima Marathon is downhill and the return is uphill. In such conditions it would be silly to try to go for negative splits. What one can do, and as I did in Lima, is monitoring the effort with a HR monitor. I made sure that I ran relaxed and that I was in the aerobic zone (70-80% of max HR ) all of the first half.  Start slowly and take it easy. If you are in the aerobic zone you are burning fat rather than depleting your glycogen stores. It is a good idea to save the glycogen stores for the end.
If you have used the HR monitor during training you should have an idea. I had also done a detailed plan for the race on the average speed I should hold for each kilometer depending on how much gradient there was uphill or downhill.

For New York, I did go out too fast and hung with the sub 3h crowd until 24km or so, but this was mainly because I could stay sheltered from the wind by running tight behind a pack of people. At half marathon I had 1:30:11. I bonked bad in the second half, but was obviously very happy still with my new Master PR of 3:14.

Update.

I ran a very cold and rainy Boston Marathon in 3:17 in 2015. Too little running, a lot of traveling and a sore Achilles stopped me from running Boston in 2016. Currently training for Chicago Marathon. Dreaming of a PR.

 

 

One comment to 10 secrets how to run a Boston Marathon Qualifyer.

  • Kolibri Expeditions Blog  says:

    […] I run,  and I run tours. Running is my great hobby. I have recently qualified to run Boston Marathon. A dream come true. Running bird watching tours for Kolibri Expeditions is my work. But as you imagine it is a hobby that became my work. I am very fortunate. This post is about my running and about our upcoming tours the next 12 months. If one of these topics interest you, you do well to continue reading.  I am also asking you for some help. I was devastated by a robbery recently. The simplest thing you could do is to share this post with other birders. Or if you have runner friends I am sure they will enjoy this post that I wrote recently on my new running blog: 10 secrets how to qualify to Boston Marathon. […]

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