By: Verne Maree
In this regular running column, we talk about training, shoes, gadgets, nutrition, racing, hashing and more. With the Singapore Standard Chartered Marathon just a couple of months away, Verne Maree talked to former elite triathlete Ben Pulham about running a faster marathon. Want to sign up for the latest marathons and races in Singapore? Head here.
Ben firmly believes that humans are born to run long distances. Having run “obscene amounts” as a world-class triathlete, right up to 2008 – upwards of 160km in a big week, on top of cycling and swimming – he’s a poster boy for that argument. Though Ben no longer races, he now teaches others how to do it.
Fortunately for those of us who enjoy it, running is something you can probably carry on doing for a long, long time, if you train safely. “Just the other day, I heard about an 82-year-old Canadian, Ed Whitlock, who ran a 3:41 marathon! At his age, that’s mind-boggling.”
How long does a seasoned runner need to prepare for the marathon?
To do what we call a focussed build-up, you should allow at least 16 weeks, possibly 20 if you’re not very conditioned.
When training for a marathon, distance is all-important, right?
Not exactly. At Journey Fitness Company, we have a unique training philosophy, what we call a “smart approach”. Most vital is allowing enough time for training.
We don’t care so much about distance; instead, our approach is based on two key factors: time, and heart rate. When you run for the prescribed durations, and at heart rates that are optimal for you, your body will self-correct, and you’ll get the training you need – be it on the flat, on a hilly course, on sand or wherever. Working on distance and pace, as most people do, is a sure-fire way to get hurt. Our way is not only very effective, it’s also the safest way to train.
How important is the weekly long, slow distance run (LSD)?
Sufficient LSD running is crucial for aerobic training, and yes, the weekly LSD run is the most important. Why? During the marathon, you get over 99 percent of your energy from your aerobic system; less than one percent comes from your anaerobic system.
Most people think they need to train their anaerobic system, that training at a fast pace will help them race faster. Actually, almost no one is limited by the speed they’re able to run at; what actually holds us back is our inability to sustain that speed. To run faster, you need to improve your aerobic speed and your aerobic strength, and you’ll achieve that by running within the correct heart rate zones.
I chucked away my heart rate monitor years ago, because it told me I was working too hard – despite what I regarded as an easy pace. Was that a bad move?
Yes, it was. Like you, some of our clients do feel demoralised at first. They complain that keeping to the prescribed heart rate zone feels too slow, that they’re going little faster than a walk.
We explain to them that this is a sign of an aerobic dysfunction, one that will be fixed over the course of the next few weeks. As their bodies adapt to the correct training, they will in time get a lot faster – and isn’t that what we all want?
Sounds too good to be true! Can you give us an example?
One of our clients is an ex-professional Aussie Rules player, who came to us quite fit in his own way. Having started off at a 6:30 (minutes per kilometre) pace for his long run, after a month – literally! – he was down to 5:30, at the same heart rate. Through our programme, he lost 8kg and is now doing his LSD runs at 5:00. What’s more, instead of being sick all the time, he’s in the peak of health.
Another good example is the 50-year-old Australian who flew in to see us a couple of years ago. At that time he was a 3:45 marathoner, so a pretty good athlete. Eighteen months later, in November 2013, he ran the New York Marathon in a cracking 3:02.
That’s phenomenal! But I’m still not clear on how the physiology works.
Simply put, the intensities you train at determine the majority of your benefit. To sustain your pace over the distance of a marathon, you need to be burning fat, not carbohydrates.
If you do your training at too high an intensity, you teach your body to burn carbohydrate and to accumulate lactate. At lower training intensities, you teach it to burn fat and to clear lactate. Our method will fix this aerobic dysfunction, enabling you to run faster, perhaps much faster, while using the same effort.
We start with a fuel-efficiency test, checking your metabolism to see what proportion of carbohydrate and fat you’re burning. Then we do a lactate test, to determine the lactic acid concentration in your blood. From that, we can determine your lactate threshold and your optimal heart-rate zones, and provide you with a programme that’s tailored to make you faster.