Secret runners’ business: Should I run a marathon?

Secret runners' business: Should I run a marathon?

Running and professional achievement seem to go together.

It’s about the most common question I get: how can I get to the start line of a marathon uninjured and ready to race?

A curiosity of the running technique coaching work I do is the disproportionate number of professionals that bring their Type A drive to the sport of long-distance running. They hide their running obsession under a well-cut suit, their steely determination and sinewy muscles only ever on show during a sneaky lunchtime run or at hard-fought weekend competitions.

Not people to do things by halves, these professionals look upon a 5-kilometre park run as being not far enough to present a meaningful challenge. With goals as ambitious as that, nearly all the runners I see have completed or want to run a marathon.

But is going longer the best way to develop your ability and longevity as runner?

Often the marathon question comes relatively early in the running love affair. Charged full of endorphins after knocking off a 10km fun run, surely the next step is to run a marathon, they think. Unfortunately, the answer is no. The problem begins with the body’s annoying ability to build cardiovascular fitness much faster than it develops strength in the muscles, tendons and the bones.

The good news is that if you prepare well for a marathon, you’ll get the kind of fitness that Type As dream of, and it’ll translate into a long running career – and maybe an improved professional career.

Even a runner with a haphazard technique can quickly improve their capacity to run further with a structured running training program. But these early gains can mislead you to the assumption that if I just do more, I’ll continue to get better. You’ll ignore those growing aches and pains as you unkindly subject your body to greater abuses, determining your way through until the body finally breaks.

Unless you want to present miserably at the physiotherapist’s clinic nursing sore shins, gammy knees and broken feet, it’s best to attack running from a different angle. If a premature marathoner can be convinced to first develop the strength, co-ordination and technique to run with a stronger, more durable and ultimately faster style, they will be well placed to make a better fist of marathon training when the time is right.

If you run slowly enough, you can run long enough. It took me a few years to get my head around the concept that running short distances faster was more challenging than plodding a long way slowly. Running faster requires strength and some technical skill. A running program should always include a strength and co-ordination component because strength training is running technique training.

The key is to develop fitness in concert with strength and skill. If any of these three factors get out of balance, you’re headed for trouble. Unfortunately there’s no quick-fix to catapult you to marathon glory. The answer is in gradual progression over months and years. Just like the journey to CEO can sometimes seem a long one, running is a game of patience and quiet persistence. With the exception of those who just want to tick a marathon off their bucket list, a good guideline in running performance levels that you should try and reach before you step up training and racing distances is 5-minute kilometre pace.

Can you run 5 kilometres in less than 25 minutes? This is a great first goal for someone early in their running career or it could be a new target for a runner who feels the need for speed. Once you can run 5km in less than 25 minutes, you can try and break 50 minutes for 10km, but accordingly, you’ll need to be able to run the 5km in 23 to 24 minutes to crack this next challenge. Ultimately, if you want to run a marathon you should try and first complete the half-marathon distance in less than 1.45hrs.

It’s about that time of year when many have abandoned their faux New Year’s resolutions and are about to knuckle down and focus in on a few specific goals. Consider making your running ambition a faster, more enjoyable experience before rushing to embrace the slog of marathon training.

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