The Marathon

A series of runs a few weeks ago inspired this post and I’ve been chewing on it for a while.

There are runs which serve the purpose of striking an item from the to-do list. They aren’t necessarily enjoyable; I call them “just-get-it-over-with” runs. I’m usually dissociating and crave the assistance of a podcast and sometimes music. Sure, I enjoy the usual post-run endorphin rush, but it has the routine feeling of “glad that’s done for the day!” Honestly, the running boredom is present more often than I’d like to admit, especially during high mileage training segments. I have to give myself a serious pre-run internal pep talk, or incentivize myself with a post-run treat. I feel like a fraud advising people that their running routine should always be enjoyable while I’m trudging down the road wondering when I will be at my end point. There are days when the absolute last thing that I want to do is lace up. There are 10 mile runs where I want to quit at miles 1, 3, 4, 5… basically the entire time. The reality of proper marathon training is that it is a straight up grind sometimes.

In Lore of Running, author Timothy Noakes devotes a chapter to the concept of cumulative fatigue and it’s role in marathon training. The concept is also a core element of the Hansons Brooks training program and many others. Physically, it provides the dual benefit of strengthening fatigue-resistant muscle fibers and expanding the aerobic engine. Essentially “training” the muscle fibers for the latter miles of the marathon, cumulative fatigue conditions them to withstand a tremendous amount of fatigue. Long-distance running is a unique sport in that it is almost entirely based on endurance – there isn’t much happening other than running forward… for a very, very long time. The human body isn’t inherently prepared to go for that long, hence training it to do so. In my experience, building the barrier to fatigue is one of the toughest aspects of a quality marathon training block; it is not for the faint of heart and I understand why many shy away from it.

The second component of the physiology of the grind entails expanding the aerobic engine. Every person has an aerobic capacity: the amount of oxygen that the body can utilize during exercise. As the effort level of an activity increases, the body requires more oxygen. Various systems work harmoniously to deliver the delicious chemical element to the hard-working cells, and runners can train these systems to work even more efficiently together through base training. While I knew and understood this concept, I didn’t realize how much of a difference it made until I started to experiment with high mileage training. I view aerobic capacity like an engine with a limitless size, expanded by stacking layers and layers of miles on. The key component is the layering. Running a single 90 mile week won’t do much, but consistently stacking higher mileage weeks on top of each other builds the aerobic engine. It is difficult to understand unless one has experienced the feeling of having a deeper well of fitness from which to pull. Breathing still feels smooth even at faster pacers, running economy is high, and feelings of fatigue set in much later. Making it through the grind feels worthwhile after a good-feeling marathon and solid performance.

In addition to the neuromuscular and aerobic adaptations, training the body to handle the demands placed upon other various bodily systems is crucial. Many systems will be stretched to their limits – the G.I. system, the nervous system, the circulatory system, the respiratory system to name a few. Sodium concentration (extremely important to normal heart function) is thrown off balance and studies show that 10-15% of runners have hyponatremia after a race. Muscle degredation as a result of long distance running could lead to myoglobinuria (release of myoglobin in the bloodstream – not good). Troponin levels increase, which is a marker for predicting cardiac arrest. While all of these conditions are usually corrected in the hours and days following the race, the the speed and ease with which the body corrects these levels correlates to fitness levels. Toughening up the body by completing a thorough marathon training block ensures it is race AND recovery ready. This aspect isn’t so much about the grind, but really important to general training. Unless one wishes to potentially end up like Pheidippides, properly training for a 26.2 mile run is important!

On the mental side, the grind prepares one for the psychological arduousness of the marathon. For the average runner, completing a marathon requires 3 or more hours of focused effort. Three to five hours isn’t an extraordinarily long period of time, but it seems like 333 hours of physical activity. Completing those long, not-great feeling runs provides one with a sense of “I can get through this” which comes in handy during the later miles of the marathon. Running a marathon requires just as much mental tenacity as it does physical and developing a sense of belief and confidence is paramount to a seeing results on race day. Mental strength must be built in order to see the fruits of the physical labor.

I’m not inferring that marathon training means being habitually tired and achy. While first-timers should certainly train to run on tired legs, as they will need to do during the race, preparing should still be an enjoyable and experimental experience. However, reaching a higher level in any sport sometimes requires searching for the upper limits of what the body and mind can handle, perhaps even more so for endurance sports. I think that a majority of long distance runners, including myself, seek to improve their fitness and race performances. The grind removes some of the glamour, but rewards await at the finish line. The Science of Experience theorizes that there are three important components to expert performance, the second of which is deliberate practice.“That dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion — repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician… the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding.”

I’m also not inferring that marathon training should take over other aspects of life like social relationships, down time, pleasure activities, work, etc. A majority of marathon runners are not professionals, not on the hunt for a prize money check, and not able to just run and eat and sleep full time. A majority of marathon runners have full lives: kids, busy jobs, hobbies, normal life duties. But again, one needs to evaluate the alignment of goals with sacrifices. It takes a lot of time and energy to reach the higher goals and it’s up to each runner to decide whether they believe its worth it or not. This post isn’t meant to claim that every person training for a marathon absolutely needs to run a lot of miles per week, but rather to explain to those looking to run better and faster what is required.

“Well, that surely can’t be healthy for the body.”

Correct. However, completing a 26.2 (or more) mile race is a choice, much like smoking, eating an entire pizza, or drinking 5 too many margaritas. Making the choice and training to run a very long distance race requires acceptance of the ensuing bodily chaos. As a runner gains experience and knowledge and begins to recognize the benefits of the grind, it becomes a choice to experiment with cumulative fatigue, depletion runs, meaty workouts, longer-than-marathon-distance long runs, and gauge whether the race results make it worth it.


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