preparing your body in many ways, both physically and mentally. You need your muscles to be strong enough to get you through it but you also need to be prepared for those things that out are there in the unknown, beyond your ‘normal’ training. There is a lot of unknown beyond that longest run you do that you should spend at least a little time working on.
Most people when training for their first marathon, top out at 18-20 miles for their longest run. While this prepares the muscles for the long haul that is the marathon distance, what about those last 5-6 miles? You are going to be tired and want to quit, that’s for sure. Are you going to be ready to tackle that?
For many people training for a marathon, there just is not enough time to actually do a 26 mile training run and some would say they don’t even want to, however you can easily (and only occasionally) mimic the conditions that you will be experiencing those last miles. One is being just plain physically tired and the other is the dreaded ‘bonk’ at the end of marathons that happens to so many marathoners.
Problem 1: Energy Source
The well-known marathon bonk usually comes from a lack of glycogen in your body. When you eat carbohydrates (a standard pre-marathon ritual) your body turns those carbs into stored energy in the form of glycogen which gets jammed into your muscles. The funny (annoying?) thing about that process is that you can only pack so much glycogen into your muscles at once, and guess what? That is only 3-4 hours worth of ‘effort’ that is stored, which inconveniently, is just a little less than what the average marathoner needs to get to the finish line.
While you might be able to consume gels and gatorade during the race, your body is not meant to digest and process food while running and many peoples stomach will reject such ‘food’ in which case bad things can happen, like gut-rot that really hurts when you are running. You are putting food in your stomach, but your stomach-processing-system is off line so that food you ate just re-coagulates in your stomach forming an very hard to digest glob in your stomach. This happened to me at the end of several races (before I figured it out) and would sometimes last more than 24 hours.
Your muscles need the glycogen, but more importantly, your brain needs the glycogen, too. If you run out mid-race and your body is not prepared with a backup system ready to go, your brain goes a little weird and you have officially ‘bonked’ and bad things can happen. As a general rule your brain is the very last thing you want to starve of its fuel source.
The backup system is there, but most people have never had to use it since we don’t go very long without eating. Evolution has made you a very efficient machine such that you can go a week or so without any food (but you need water) because your body, if pushed to the task, can burn fat as your primary fuel source. In modern society, however, we eat plenty of carbs, evenly spaced out, so we rarely get to a point where we have to burn fat as our primary fuel source hence we are not very good at it. Waiting until mile 20 of a marathon to force your body to learn-on-the-fly how to burn fats is, well, just not nice to your body.
Training your body to burn fats efficiently is something you have to ‘teach’ your cells. Some athletes will go all the way and eat very few carbs and burn fats as a primary fuel sources all the time. These ketosis athletes are hard core and the diet is VERY restrictive, but every marathoner can learn from the concept. We are trying to train your body to burn fat when needed and not be shocked when it happens. As with any other training component, the first time you do it, it might be a little harsh, but each subsequent time, it will be easier.
Most people the night before their long run of the week might have a second helping of pasta, or a little more to drink before they go out for their run. If you want to mimic the end of the race, try (in training) to bend your comfort level. Instead of a big meal the night before, have a small salad. Go to bed just a little hungry. Instead of having a pre-run protein bar, just have a cup of tea. Your muscles can handle the 15 mile run you have planned, but where is the energy going to come from? Of course you have enough fat on board to finish the run (you have days worth!) but you need to get your body to start burning that during your 15 mile run, so you go in with low glycogen levels and your body will make the switch early in the workout.
While this is a similar method needed when training your stomach for ultramarathons, it is not so bad as you just have to burn fat for the last handful of miles, assuming you have packed your 20 miles worth of glycogen into your muscles.
Problem 2: Mental State
You are tired at the end of races, whether it be a 5K or a 100 mile race, if you are doing it right, your tank is getting low at the end. Your body is doing what is supposed to, it is telling you “hey buddy, I’m tired and its time to stop here. We are getting low on fuel and you want to survive another day, we need to stop”. It is a pure survival mechanism.
That first 15 mile run you did was a little rough because you had never run that far before. The 5th time you did a 15 mile race it was no problem, because your brain knew how to handle all the operations needed (including metal) to make to the end of that run. The first and 5th 18 mile run was the same. It should not be a surprise that your first run longer than 20 miles (your first marathon) will have the same effect. If you brain has never experienced that anguish that first time could be rough. We don’t want it to be rough, we want your first marathon to be fun. So we just have to expose your mind to that crappy place that will be miles 20-26.
This training is also easy, you just need to run when you are tired, and if you have family and kids, it is still easy. You either wake up early, or go to be late.
Early morning runs are just that simple, you wake up early. Early enough to get up, run your ~12-15 mile run and be home before the rest of your life (spouse/kids) wakes up. As a rare occasion, it might not be that hard as long as you mentally prepare before such a workout. You have to get over that hump of your alarm going off and NOT hitting snooze. Think about it the night before. Visualize you getting out of bed, putting on your running clothes, grabbing your prepared water bottle and get out the door. The sooner you get out running (less than 10 minutes is great) the sooner you will be testing your ‘I am tired, darnit!’ resistance. Remember, this is meant to prove to your mind that when your body and brain are tired, you still have plenty of energy to get through the workout. What is really cool is when you come home and watch your family wake up from their sleep, you are wide awake and juiced with endorphins and are happy as you know you already have your workout for the day done before they even wake up.
Late night runs are similar, but you are trying to tired yourself out during the day (no naps, no lounging around after dinner) getting stuff done, cleaning, playing outside with your kids, whatever. Put your family to bed, then go out and do your 10-15 mile run. Of course you will be tired, that is the point. You are trying to prove to your mind that even when it THINKS you don't have enough energy to keep going, you really do.
Again, as with any ‘new’ training protocol, the first time you do either of these ‘alternative’ runs, it will be hard, but every subsequent one will be easier. You do not need to be doing these all the time and even just 3-4 of these types of runs before a race will make a noticeable difference.