Categorized | Dr. Mark's Desk

How to Run the Boston Marathon: Race Day Strategies

Posted on 06 April 2012

At the 2011 Boston Marathon. I'm in the white and blue shirt. I went 2:37.

In just over a week, I will be running in the 2012 Boston Marathon. This will be my nineteenth time there, with a current string of 10 consecutive races. My only misses were for military and work duties, and a foot surgery.  I had five races under 2:30, six between 2:30 and 2:35; three between 2:35 and 2:40; three between 2:40-2:44; and one DNF (my first one in 1989 with all the rookie mistakes such as going out way too fast and pounding down the hills).

Last year, at the age of 44, I went 2:37.00 and finished with a smile

I had been toying with the idea of running barefoot, since I do many of my 50 miles per week without shoes. And two weeks ago, I road-raced a mile barefoot in 5:01. But since I want to try to run Boston with some speed, I will be racing in Newton MV2.

Two days before the race, I will be conducting a Running Form Clinic with Newton Running Shoes.  It will be at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday at the Boylston Marathon Sports location.  Store phone: (617) 267-4774

I will also be speaking at the American Medical Athletic Association’s 
41st Annual Sports Medicine Symposium at the Boston Marathon. My topic will be “Lydiard for the 21st Century.” Famed running coach  Arthur Lydiard hailed from New Zealand. After his relatively unknown athletes scooped many of the distance medals at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, he consolidated New Zealand’s golden era in middle- and long-distance running, and his own reputation as a coach. He also introduced the concept of jogging for those interested in losing weight and improved heart-health.

I am giving the talk with former Boston Marathon winner Lorraine Moller,who had trained under Lydiard.  Lorraine was also an Olympic Bronze marathon medalist in the Barcelona Games in 1992. She was 37 at the time. She is a lead in the Lydiard Foundation and now taking his timeless message to a new generation of runners. I had the privilege of speaking at and attending the first Lydiard Coaching Seminar last fall in Boulder.  Other speakers at the conference include Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan, Nancy Clark, and Irene Davis.

Like many other runners, Boston has a special place in my personal running history. My best learning experiences were before 2005 when the men and women started together and I had the privilege of running alongside and witnessing the patient approach and incredibly efficient running of the top ladies.

In the 1998  Fatuma Roba, the Marathon Gold Medalist in Atlanta Olympics and three-time Boston winner, scooted over the ground with an incredibly efficient motion.  She hydroplaned along the ground, hips extending, arms relaxed, and face always relaxed.  She stayed out of trouble by tucking behind the lead pack of more aggressive ladies.  I followed behind the train and hit half way in about 1:13.  Fatuma then opened her stride up in the second half moving away from all of us to run a 2:23.  An amazing second half effort.  I was pleased with my 2:27 that day and credit Fatuma as any thoughts to go faster sooner were mitigated by her patience.

A few years later in 2001, I witnessed multiple world champion and Boston winner Catherine “the Great”  Ndereba employ the same strategy.  Her light springy stride and complete relaxation of effort were a contrast to other ladies in the pack whose body language and breathing displayed they were putting out more energy than Katherine.  As a group we hit the half in 1:14.  Katherine kept relaxed down the last set of downhill during mile 17 then tightened the screws with a huge acceleration over the Newton hills, running a 50 minute last 10 miles for a 2:24.  Katherine helped my day.  By cueing off her pacing and relaxation I ran an even race and finished in 2:29.

The other runner who taught me to have fun out there was the legendary three- time Boston winner Uta Pippig of Germany.  In 1997, I ran with her until she dropped me at Cleveland Circle mile 22.  The crowds loved Uta and the noise escalated as she approached.  She smiled the whole way.  Maybe this was her cue to relax, feed off the crowd’s energy, and have fun in the moment. In marathoning you must be present in the moment; not thinking about how far you have to go,  what you may feel like later, wondering if you are going to slow down, fearing  the wall is coming.  Uta ran a strong fourth place that day in 2:28 and I finished a few strides back in 2:29. She is an example of how our brains govern our effort; when we are positive, energy naturally flows through the body.

All of these ladies made sure to get their fluid and nutrition at all stops. The few extra seconds used here paid dividends down the road.  They ran over the road not into the road, especially on the downhills; you could hardly hear them land as they did not employ hard heel striking technique.  Their posture was tall and their arms always relaxed.  But most vital was their efficient energy conservation and utilization strategy.

So what are some other recommendations for those who will be running in Boston…and and other marathons?

Running Your Best Marathon is Part Art, Part Science.

As you enter the weeks prior to the race here are a few strategies to help you set your plan.  Running your best marathon is part art,  part science, guts, faith in what you can do, and a little luck.  Running your best 10k is mostly about fitness. The best analogy I can think of is this: if you have trained your body properly with the right mix of aerobic level training and some up tempo stuff in recent weeks, you have built your efficient hybrid engine ready to race the marathon.  Many of you have driven in a Prius and watched the subtle shifts between gas and electric on the screen.  You do not perceive these shifts. Your engine(muscles) runs on a mixture of gas and electric, and how much of each depends on the effort.  This is why slow aerobic training is critical for marathon success, you build a massive electric engine.

You are starting the race with one gallon in the tank- assuming you have eaten a nice meal the night before with a breakfast top off.

•    If you are in all gas mode, your engine will run about 1.5 hours at a strong pace, and then you are out of gas.
•    If you are mostly electric you can run all day, but maybe not so quickly.
•    If you are using the proper mix you will go quick and efficient for duration of your event, and you can even do some topping off along the way.

The glucose utilizing pathway (glycolysis for the science folks) is the gas. This is your stored liver/muscle glycogen and blood glucose (pasta meal and breakfast) – easy to access for ready energy.  The fat utilizing pathway (gluconeogenesis for the science folks)  is the electric.  In marathons you must be in hybrid the entire race.  Hybrid is where your energy (ATP) is coming from both sources.

Many runners are in great “10k shape” (an all gas event), then run their marathon in the gas mode- and usually crash.  Glycogen sparing strategy need not apply in races of less than an hour as long as you had a good pre-event meal to fill the tank. In marathons and ultras- top end fitness matters little and can only be applied very near the finish. Glucose gives 36 ATP per molecule, fat 460 ATP per molecule.  You must tap into the fat burning tank. Now you know how a bird can migrate 7,000 miles without a PowerBar.

So how do you know you are running in your best hybrid mode?

This is difficult because the sense at this level (Aerobic Threshold) is not as profound as Lactate Threshold (or Anaerobic Threshhold).  A slight increase from your optimal pace will switch you from hybrid to all gas without you realizing it, and the effects are felt miles later. Charging up hills early will tap your gas quickly.  If you want to speed up early….don’t!. Relax and maintain effort, not speed.  You should feel easy in the early stages; it is a marathon.

You must rehearse a bit in training.  I focus on relaxation and breathing.  If I’m breathing one cycle to five steps, then I’m in hybrid mode. If I’m breathing faster, I’m using mostly glucose as fuel.  Belly breathe — allow your lower belly to blow up like a beach ball on inhalation and pull your belly button back to your spine on exhalation.  Then you will fill the lower lung areas where oxygen exchange occurs. Notice the breathing efforts of those around you and many are rapid breathing- they tend to suffer somewhere past half way.  Rehearse complete relaxation from the top down — eyes, jaw, shoulders, allow your legs to relax and extend behind you, relax and soften your knees and ankles.

Find you own cue for this.  If you use a heart-rate monitor in training strongly using consider one during the event.

In a marathon, the last 3-4 miles you will be mostly gas to maintain the same speed as fatigue sets in and heart rate rises.  The breathing is usually on a 3 to 4 steps per breath cycle–that is OK.  Still stay relaxed and use the cues that you have rehearsed to keep your form. Speed up only when you can “smell the barn”, this occurs when you see the Citgo sign (Mile 23).

Land softly, especially on the early downhills.  I run with a forefoot/midfoot landing harnessing elastic recoil. Focus on posture and hip extension. Use a slight forward lean from the ankles (think “face forward” and look ahead).  I’m never sore after marathons now and feel I can keep doing them until I enter the retirement home. I won the Air Force Marathon in 2:38 last fall, and felt fine.  With good form it is “No pain…thank you”.

Shoes Make a Difference.

Your shoes matter too.  Make strong consideration to not running in minimalist racers unless you have trained substantially in them and adapted your structure to a natural barefoot style gait. I advocate gradually adapting all of your training into more minimal and level shoes. If you relax your lower legs and load the springy tendons in your feet and Achilles, these shoes with no heel elevation put you in perfect position to allow natural elastic recoil of plantar fascia, Achilles, calf muscles, and hip flexors.  New research and runners’ experience are now making the case for running with a more efficient stride and questions modern running footwear. The evolving world of modern sports medicine is going back to the future too and rediscovering what evolution has taught us.  My shoe for the last three years at this race has been the Newton Distance.  A fast and efficient shoe for those who have worked on form.

Speed.

Now a few extra ways to get you from start to finish quicker on the same gallon.

•    If you can add a little gas along the way then you can go more into gas mode.  This works a little at best.  If running too fast you shunt all blood to working muscles and nothing digests.  If you are in hybrid the early going you can continually add fuel- the key is not only the correct fuel, but the right pace.  A PowerGel every 25 minutes is easy to digest and tops off the tank.  Carry them with you at the start.  The weight is nothing compared to the benefit you will get.  If you do the gels then you can drink water instead of the energy drinks which are often less predictable on the run. Boston has a PowerGel station at Mile 17.  Carry 4 at the start (one every 4 miles or so) and reload at mile 17.

•    Maintain effort on uphills.  Your pace will slow. You can easily use all your gas here if your effort increases.  Shorten your stride, relax, and use your arms.  Then allow gravity to take you down. Do not over reach and heel hit on the down hills- remember run over the ground not into the ground. If it is windy get behind a group.  This can save lots of physical and mental energy.

•    If you are having a “bad patch” – try to refocus on relaxing, fuel a bit (sometimes a blood glucose drop triggers the sense of doom), and have faith in your training and race plan.  Another nice trick is when you hit mile 21 it is not 5 miles to go, it is 4 and change. Mile 22 is 3 and change to go.

•    Do not over-drink water. This can lead to a dangerous and potentially fatal condition called hypontremia.

Finding Fun.

The fun of the marathon is that we are always learning and enjoying the adventure of it.  I’ve done over 70 marathons now with a couple under 2:25 in my younger years.  We learn from experience, taking chances, and occasional failures. My first marathon was the 1988 Marine Corps was 2:34, when I could run about 30 minutes for 10K.

Twenty-four years later I hope to get near this time again and my current 10K is about 35 minutes . I’ve learned a few things in 20 plus years on how to train and race efficiently and economically, but still there are uncertainties every time you line up.  So relax, taper up, and seize the day.

Finally, I’d like to especially thank all the Armed Forces Members around the world who sacrifice daily in the service of their country and for all the volunteers who make the Boston Marathon a Patriot’s Day celebration.  May the wind be at your back, like 2011! Thank you also to my sponsors Newton Running and PowerBar.

Donate

10 Responses to “How to Run the Boston Marathon: Race Day Strategies”

  1. Kyle Roberts, C Ped says:

    Great post, Mark. Looking forward to running Boston again, after not being there since ’07. Totally new form now, and will also be wearing the Newton MV-2s, great lightweight, flat shoe. Appreciate the race advice and will follow as much as possible. Have a great race.
    Oh the hills, the hills!!

  2. David Goulette says:

    Hi Mark,
    I just wanted to thank you for all of your great information you put out. You are an amazing guy and I have learned a lot from you.
    PLEASE, I urge you to run the Boston Marathon barefoot someday if at all possible. You could bring positive publicity to the minimalist movement unlike anybody else. Clearly you see the benefits of barefoot running and you have the skill to explain it to a wider audience (there are others who do this well also). But you are unique in that you are so talented AND you are a doctor. Serious runners will take you seriously because you are so fast, but regular people will listen to what you have to say because you are a doctor. Many of us that do some barefoot running get labeled as “strange” or “crazy” but it will be difficult for people to say that about you. I think you could change some minds with some very public barefoot runs.

    Keep up the great work,
    David

    • MarkC says:

      hmmmm. thanks for the kind words David. this is one of the races i actually compete in and thin shoes are less taxing and faster. tempted though. not sure if pavement smooth or lots of textured and gritty areas.
      Mark

      • Chrissy says:

        Mark,

        I’m also thankful for all the info/videos you post. If I start to feel down on running, I just watch you run the Battlefields + I”m stoked again (I grew up right by Carnifax Ferry, so it’s a small taste of home).

        Altho I’ve been training for a 1/2 completely barefoot, after running the course I’ll be on, I completely support your forethought to wear shoes. My course has the rockiest hardtop at mile 8 and it’s a widowmaker. It’s going to be the toughest part of the race for me despite striated (non-slick) pavement + various other surfaces along the route. I hope someday to run a race designed by a barefoot runner but until then, I’m researching my own minimals for this one. I want to finish.

        Best,

        Chrissy Jensen
        Des Moines, IA

        • MarkC says:

          Thanks Chrissy for this note. after running the race with the road temp at 100 degrees i am really glad i had shoes. plus as i scanned the road and there were lots of manholes, tracks, roads without LA style smoothness. so yes a nice smooth road marathon would be ideal. i’ll ask Ken Bob…he has done tons of barefoot marathons and likely has some favorites.
          Mark

    • Abdelaziz says:

      Directly or indirectly, I found ymself at a site called Running Is Funny, which had a great succinct post that poked a little fun at the media: Most Common Newspaper Stories About Running.

  3. Leon Boone says:

    Although I have not ever run the Boston marathon, let alone a marathon I am training for one. Mark you give some really good tips for a beginning marathoner. I hope to run my first marathon in June and hopefully more after that. Thanks for the great tips they will come in handy.


Leave a Reply

*