Paris Marathon [2:36:54]

Chasing my shadow around the streets of Paris (photo credit: Emma Cockcroft)

As a runner, you become pretty accustomed to finding excuses for poor performances. These are often completely justified, ranging from employing a sub-optimal pacing strategy, through to blaming the weather. Honestly, that spot of rain can make all the difference. Yet, reflecting on the Paris Marathon, I cannot seem to find anything to excuse the performance. I went out chasing 2:29:59. I crossed the line in 2:36:54. You do not need to be knowledgeable about the sport to realise how much of an underperformance this was.

To modify the go-to idiom of football pundits, my performance was “a race of two halves”. The first half was a controlled 74:47-minute effort (as planned), preparing myself for an even split. In the second half, my legs just did not feel like working. However, my heart rate was relatively steady (175 beats per minute), alongside my perception of effort, which I deemed to be between ‘hard’ and ‘very hard’ (as expected). In fact, my heart rate decreased towards the final stages of the marathon, likely due to the fact that I had all but given up (i.e. voluntarily reduced my average pace), attributed to the fact that my race aims had already disappeared over the horizon. However, this short piece is not intended to be an analysis of the race itself, but an acknowledgement of the training in the lead up to the event, and what I could do differently. In the process of writing this, I intend to (re)frame my performance as a foundation for future success in the marathon, with Berlin lined up for September 2018.

As masterminded by my coach, Rob Watson (Mile2Marathon), I completed a solid twelve-week block of training, including a two-week taper (see figure 1). Importantly, I remained injury free during this period, allowing for consistent training. In terms of basic periodisation, I averaged eight training sessions per week, typically including two workouts and a long run. Disregarding the taper, I averaged a weekly volume of 125 km, amounting to an average total duration of 547 minutes per week. During the two-week taper, this was reduced to an average of 82 km and 350 minutes per week. Only two races were included during the training block: BUCS XC Championships (week four) and the Bramley 20 (week five). I had also planned to run the Bath Half (week eight). However, this was cancelled due to snow.

In addition to the basic periodisation of the training block, figure 1 also highlights the weekly training intensity distribution. This was calculated by using an individualised heart rate-based measure of training load, known as Lucia’s TRIMP [1], informed by my previous VO2max test data. Specifically, this approach is calculated by multiplying the time spent in three different heart rate zones (zone 1 = below the lactate threshold (LT), zone 2 = between the LT and the lactate turn-point (LTP), zone 3 = above the LTP) by a coefficient (k) relative to each zone (k = 1 for zone 1, k = 2 for zone 2, k = 3 for zone 3), before summating the results. Throughout the entire training block, 87% of training was spent in zone 1, 9% in zone 2, and 4% in zone 3.

Figure 1. A review of the twelve-week training block, including total training time per week, number of sessions per week, and training intensity distribution per week (as previously described).

In relation to ‘key workouts’ completed during the training block, the week typically included one interval session (track-based), one tempo/threshold session, and a long run. On alternate weeks, the long run would usually include a progressive tempo/threshold component. Some examples of these workouts are listed below:

Interval session: 4 x (1,000 m (60 s), 2 x 400 m (60 s)) (2 min)
Tempo session: 2 x 20 min (3 min)
Long run session: 5 x 5 km (2 min), plus warm-up and cool-down.

When viewed separately, none of the workouts that I completed were outstanding. However, when viewed as a whole, the accumulation of training load, combined with these workouts, allowed me to improve throughout the training block. A lot of this can be attributed to the specific detail that Rob provided for each of the planned workouts, tailored towards the aim of running a sub-2:30hr marathon (i.e. getting used to putting in work at race pace). However, with the Berlin marathon up next, it will be interesting to see how we approach the training block.

In my opinion, there are three areas for improvement. Firstly, the intensity distribution of my training (see figure 1) does not align with the more polarised model employed by 2:06 to 2:10 marathoners, as reported by Billat and colleague [1]. In relation to their training intensity distribution, these elite marathoners (male and female) were spending 74% of their training in zone 1, 4% in zone 2, and 18% in zone 3, on average. This approach has since been substantiated by the work of Stephen Seiler [2]. Therefore, this approach to training could be something that we try out. This would see a shift in focus from the mid-week tempo run, to a workout that is more ‘high intensity’, going above and beyond marathon race pace. However, the threshold model of training distribution, which is most similar to my recent training, has also been evidenced as an effective approach [3].

The second area for improvement is related to total training volume, which may counteract any attempt to ‘improve’ my training intensity distribution. Albeit, I believe that being able to maintain a training volume of 140–160 km per week will be beneficial to my performance, as long as I build towards this sensibly and remain injury free in the process [4]. Thirdly, I would argue that I need to get in some strength training. I was guilty of having not routinely included strength training in the lead up to the Paris marathon. Therefore, the inclusion of circuit training and/or weight lifting is likely to be beneficial. In a systematic review paper, Blagrove and colleagues [5] evidenced that a periodised approach (i.e. 2 to 3 sessions per week) is likely to improve running economy, time-trial performance and various anaerobic parameters. Although my knowledge of strength training is something to be improved, this is definitely an area that I will pursue throughout the next training block.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts. The most exciting part of all of this is that I am disappointed with a 2:36:54 marathon. This is exciting as it allows me to learn from what was done ‘right’ during the training block, with an enhanced motivation to improve my understanding about how I respond to different approaches to training and competition. On that note, getting a coach has been one of the best decisions I have made — you’re doing a fine job, Rob, regardless of how I executed the race in Paris!

Next stop, Berlin…

[1] Lucia et al., Tour de france versus vuelta a espana: Which is harder? Med. Sci Sports Exerc, 2003; 35:872–878.

[2] Billat et al., Physical and training characteristics of top-class marathoners. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 2001; 33:2089–2097.

[3] Seiler., What is the best practice for training intensity and duration in endurance athletes? Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2010; 5:276–291.

[4] Sylta et al., The effect of periodisation and training intensity distribution on middle- and long-distance running performance: a systematic review. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 2016; 48:2165–2174.

[5] Gabbett., The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? Br J Sports Med, 2016; 50:273–280.

[6] Blagrove et al., Effects of strength training on the physiological determinants of middle- and long distance running performance: a systematic review. Sports Med, 2018; 48:1117–1149.