Wednesday, 16 January 2008

12 weeks until London ... what's your plan ?

This sunday is 12 weeks to go until the 2008 Flora London Marathon. While the elite field is looking as loaded as ever with Paul Tergat, Stefano Baldini, Martin Lel, Sammy Wanjiru and Ryan Hall leading the way for the men and a Paula Radcliffe v Gete Wami rematch headling the women's race for most people the focus will be on beating their personal best or just getting round if its the first attempt.

You have got your acceptance letter or been successful in the club ballot and the clock is ticking. So what now ? The good news is that 12 weeks is a long time in terms of improving fitness and by following a few basic rules of planning you can achieve your goals whether you are aiming for 2.04 or 4.02 !

When preparing a big race its always wise to work backwards in your planning. Why ? Because the date of the race won't move and every training session you carry out needs to be a function of your current fitness and how far you are from the target race. Its amazing how many people start planning forward from today and then get to race day and find that they missed some crucial aspects of their training.

So starting at the end your first task is to set a realistic but stretching goal for the race. Take some quiet time to do this. Lie down if it helps and close you eyes. Imagine yourself running towards the finish line. See the sights you want to see, hear the noise of the crowd in your ears and notice just how you feel as you head towards the line achieving your goal. Make the image as powerful as possible. As you cross the line have a good look at the clock and get that big yellow number fixed in your mind. Top athletes are forever rehearsing their performance in their minds in just this way. By repeating this imagery frequently it becomes second nature and your chances of success go up !

Your goal is crystal clear so now the 12 week plan. A nice way to think about it is 4 blocks of 3 weeks. These are short enough to keep you focused and long enough to see progress from one block to the next.

So working backwards the first 3 week block is the taper (this will start on monday 24th march). Whether you are looking for 2.04 or 4.02 you have to taper. This is when you body repairs itself after the training that has come before and stocks up on vital glycogen for race day. Trying to make up for lost time during the taper is always counter-productive. You have been warned ! I will write a bit more about the taper nearer the race. For now you just need to know that those last 3 weeks are for the taper only.

The next 3 week block is the 3rd-23rd March. This is going to be the hardest block: the most miles, the longest long runs and 9 weeks of cumulative fatigue by the end of it. This is the time to minimise other commitments and work out how you are going to get some extra sleep to help you recover. Make sure that those close to you know about this now, then they will be prepared for when you decline that big night out or weekend away during March.

The final 2 blocks are all about getting you ready for March in a progressive way that allows you to stay healthy. 11th Feb-2nd March is going to be fairly hard in its own right while 21st Jan-10th Feb is when you get your legs used to long runs again and lay some solid foundations.

Every athlete's individual training is going to be different and there are some great books available to help you plan your build up with detailed schedules. I've listed some of the best in the Recommended Books section on this website. The most crucial training elements for most club runners are going to be the long run and rehearsing marathon pace. Again working backwards its wise to identify what your longest run is going to be. I prefer to work on time rather than distance as its easier to measure even with modern handheld GPS. Lets say your marathon goal is 2:58 and your longest run is going to be 2:40 but your long runs are currently only an hour and half. Well that means adding 10 minutes per week until you hit the longest run 4 weeks before the race. Not so bad after all !

As for marathon pace, i'm certainly not advocating club runners attempting 25km tempo runs like the elite do. However having a good sense of race pace is crucial so that you start off at the correct speed. The biggest mistake in marathons is starting too fast and in a few miles undoing months of good work in preparation. And especially in london with a downhill third mile you can roll through 10k feeling great and then pay later. I've been there and trust me it gets ugly. 32mins at Cutty Sark in 2006 (2.15 pace) ended up with a death march down the mall and a disappointing 2.20. By getting your race pace really grooved in you can start sensibly. You only need to do a few miles at race pace to start off with and you can add more later on if required. Use a track or measured road course to know that your pacing is accurate. Of course these runs have the additional benefit that as you get fitter your race pace runs will feel easier, especially during the taper.

So go and find that quiet space and create yourself a powerful and motivating image of success !

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