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Marathon training: train with your head, race with your heart

Marathon training is definitely not a sprint, it’s more of a…well…er…a marathon, I suppose. Over a typical 12 week training period the average runner will experience many highs and lows. There are those weeks when training comes easy. You’re fast, strong and feel like those fast boys at the track are glancing backwards and worrying about that ‘fast, old bloke’. Then there are those weeks when it’s a struggle just to drag yourself out of the door.

Last time I wrote about the ups and downs in my own motivation levels as I train for the Brathay 10in10 in May. And it seems that many of you have had similar experiences. Thank you for the kind feedback – it seems we’re all quite normal. I also signed-off with a post script celebrating having just run a big half marathon PB.

Tim and trophy @ Canal Canter Half
A PB, second place and a first trophy

The Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter provided a great opportunity for a fast race on a flat and straight course with the only obstacles being other runners sharing the towpath (running the 5k, 10k, half, full or ultra).  And for a change I got pulled into racing against other runners, rather than simply running my own race (I’m not normally close enough to the front to worry about such things). At halfway I found myself in sixth place and started to think about picking off the people in front. With three miles to go I had moved into third, and with just a mile to go second place was mine. The winner was too far in front for me to worry about, although I was gaining as he crossed the line.  Exhausted at the finish, it was a four minute PB, second place and a first running trophy(!). A really good marker for how my marathon training was going.

A week later and I was racing again; but this time against the clock. The East Hull 20 comes at an ideal time for those training for a spring marathon. A blustery day meant conditions were tough, particularly on the more exposed parts of the course, which weaves its way through the Holderness countryside. Despite that I was really pleased I ran the whole race at my target marathon pace.  Another positive tick on the marathon training plan.

And then it happened. Sore knee (actually really sore knee). Painful blister on my ‘problem’ toe. Feeling fatigued.  I was also experiencing some guilt over my marathon training. I may have been enjoying the shorter (if you can call 20 miles short) faster stuff, but many of my fellow 10in10ers were putting in double and 4in4 marathons, or back-to-back 20 milers. [And even worse, blogging about it!] Maybe I’m underdoing it, I thought. Better get out for a run, then.

It was terrible – I experienced one of the worst runs I have had in years. Sluggish and stiff, I just got slower and more tired as I went round, coupled with a kneecap that felt like it was about to pop off. Suddenly I was faced with some big questions. Just three weeks out from a target race, with a marathon training plan demanding my attention, a sense that I wasn’t doing enough for my 10in10, and a body crying out for some care and attention. Many of you will recognise this conflict, and how difficult it can be to come to the sensible (and let’s face it, obvious) conclusion.

Cartoon of battle between runner's heart and brain
Brain v heart: the endless battle

We runners are emotional beasts. And the smallest things seem to trigger big emotional highs and lows (just ask our better halves). The heart is an amazing muscle that provides the engine for much of our running. It’s also the thing that helps drive us to succeed when all else seems just too hard. Just watch the closing stages of a marathon and you’ll see what I mean (whether it’s the elite athletes chasing a world record, or the first-timers going to their limit to finish in five hours). It’s heart that gets you to the finish line.

But, when it comes to training, then that’s when we need to let our brain do the talking.  After two months of hard marathon training and racing I was exhausted and my body was feeling the strain. I needed to ease off and rest. Also, three weeks before a big race was not the time to do something stupid:  no upside, only risk. And the 10in10? Well, I won’t know if I’ve done enough until I’m out there doing my laps of Lake Windermere. But I didn’t rush into my training strategy. Getting myself super-fit for the Rotterdam marathon was always the plan. And with only six weeks to go, now is not the time to start messing about.

So, I had an easy week with plenty of rest, stretching and a very pleasant bike ride on a sunny Saturday morning to replace my long run.  And guess what? Yes, it was hard and it led to some grumpy behaviour (and comfort eating).  But by the end of the week I was feeling an awful lot better. Just in time to start a proper marathon training taper! But more of my maranoia next time…

So remember: train with your brain, race with your heart; and I’ll see you at the start.