Can I run a sub 3hr marathon?

Can I run a sub 3hr marathon?

For those who take up marathon running, recording a sub 3hr time seems to be a popular target to which one aspires. Having recently tested myself in this arena at the 2013 Gold Coast Marathon, I have learnt much about endurance training and the effects both the training and racing will have on your body.

To give you a rough idea, some of the more popular Australian marathons like the Blackmores Sydney Marathon, the Gold Coast Marathon and the Medibank Melbourne Marathon have between three and six thousand participants with average finishing times between four and four and a half hours. The percentage of those finishing in under three hours is always under 5%, often around 2-3%. As a novice runner, it seemed I had set myself an excessively ambitious goal.

The decision to run a marathon came only after the completion of my first half marathon. There seemed like no better time to enter a marathon given I had five weeks of half marathon training already under my belt. The training I had done during this period had set a great foundation. It was now or never as far as I was concerned.

Training for a half marathon was something I felt I could manage on my own, but having lived that experience, I could tell that I would need extra help if I was to complete a marathon, especially in under three hours. I enlisted the help of an old patient of mine, a very experienced triathlete and owner of the Australian company, Fit 2 Tri Triathlon Coaching. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my experience playing on the tennis circuit, it’s that there’s no substitute for experience. I had just six weeks before the start of the marathon, I would be needing some expert help.

My formula for success was almost complete, I had a goal and an action plan, now I just needed to do it. I was confident I could stick to the program designed for me by Fit 2 Tri, but as I had never run anywhere near 42.2kms before, I really didn’t know how I was going to cope on the day of the race.

So how does one prepare for this unknown factor? The final component of my preparation was a daily hypnosis routine, another technique I borrowed from my tennis experience. Whilst hypnosis may sound somewhat alternative, it is a highly effective technique for developing mental toughness. In all the conversations I had with previous marathon finishers, each one spoke of their own challenges – exhaustion, “hitting the wall”, cramping, stomach pains. I needed to ensure my mind was strong for the duration of the race so that I would be less likely to give in to my tiring body.

In the six weeks before the marathon, I only suffered two minor physical niggles. Most anticipated was tightness in the calves. The repetitive nature of pounding left and right foot into the road renders this inevitable. A bit of tightness never really hurt anyone, but my advice to those starting out is to begin training with short distances and work up to longer as your body can tolerate. Always ask yourself, “Is this going to be constructive or destructive?”

I also suffered some atypical foot pain on the top of both feet where the shoelaces sit. This was definitely the more worrying of the two. It seemed the impact from road running was causing me to hyperextend some of the smaller joints in the foot around the metatarsal and cuneiform bones. This in turn was creating some painful inflammation in the foot extensor tendons. It was evident the increased training required for completing a marathon was catching up with my unconditioned running body. I became worried that the rest required to heal this pain would interrupt my training schedule.

I should have ceased training until at least some of the inflammation had waned, but like a true self-absorbed athlete chasing a goal, I persisted. I treated the pain using ice at the end of all runs, followed by mobilisation of the painful joints. I was able to do this on my own, the mobilisation in particular was very helpful. Luckily, the pain vanished after about ten days. Whilst the self-treatment definitely helped, I also regarded the condition as a sort of growing pain – a necessary adaptation the body needed to experience in transitioning to endurance running.

Four days prior to the race, I spoke with my coach from Fit 2 Tri about a race strategy. Ironically, there’s more to a marathon strategy than just “Run Forest run!”. Given you’ll be expending in excess of 3000 calories and sweating litres of fluid, it is vital you have a nutrition plan for during the race. Again, not ever having run continuously for anywhere near three hours, this advice was invaluable. It is a physiological certainty that your body will at some point run out of useable fuel unless you have insured against that through the use of gels and water.

When it came time to run the marathon, having followed my training program religiously and positively affirming myself on a daily basis, together with a simple race strategy, I felt ready to conquer the race. For the majority of the run I felt extremely strong. It became a race for me at 36km. It was at this point that my body started to test my mental strength. Annoyingly, a strong headwind blew up at this point just to make things tougher.

I drew on all the mental training I had done and just pushed and pushed. I was counting down the kilometres as I passed each marker, and I kept cross checking my stopwatch to check that I was on target. The finish line was in site and I crossed it with 46 seconds to spare. I had done it.

I was quite emotional after finishing. The race itself, plus all of the mental and physical training, had left me with nothing in the tank. I also made the interesting observation of how I went from running an average pace of around 4:15min/km during the race to a crippling limp immediately after crossing the finish line. I think it is testimony to the mind’s ability to drive the body when it would otherwise shut down.

The experience of training for and running a half and a full marathon has left me with mixed opinions about the sport. Undoubtedly, it is a sure way to lose excess kilos. The natural high one experiences after completing a long and fast run is also extremely addictive. Furthermore, if you do your running outdoors amongst nature, the benefits increase exponentially. This is what I have enjoyed about running training.

Having said that, the repetitive nature of running and the sheer impact it has on the joints leads me to caution those intent on taking up endurance running. I can’t help but say marathon running is more harmful to your body than beneficial. After the race, I could barely move. For me, the impact I had endured was focused mostly around my hips, for others they might feel it in their feet, calves and knees. Each individual will be different.

Nonetheless, it has been a thrilling experience. I would encourage all novice runners to set themselves challenging goals. With the right advice and a positive and determined attitude, getting into the sub 3 club is most certainly achievable.

*DISCLAIMER: This discussion does not provide medical advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained in this discussion are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this discussion is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog.