I’ve been training for a marathon and it is a personal habit to let data take over my life for each of my hobbies. I’ve built apps that track my badminton scores, golf struggles, and now I’ve gone all analytical on my running. This post is a summary of how I’ve approached my training and used the science and data approach to try and maximise my performance.
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All the Gear — No Idea
Step zero is to get yourself a GPS watch. I’ve got a Garmin 245 but any watch that can track your route and also your heart rate will do the job. You need the GPS to know how far you’ve gone, how fast you are running, and the heart rate monitoring to know how hard you worked. You’ll also want to be recording your heart rate throughout the day and when you sleep to get an accurate picture of your resting heart rate. Additionally, most watches also let you program various types of runs into the watch and schedule them into your calendar. This can save the mental load of trying to count laps or guess how fast you have been going whilst keeping you organised in the training.
When it comes to running in an actual race, Garmin will also pace the route out with PacePro and account for the elevation so your watch will tell you every kilometer how fast to go to hit your target time.
So in short, your watch will become your best friend in this training process.
Once you have the watch you’ll want to connect it to Runalyze. You might have heard of Strava, Runalyze is Strava that went to Uni and got a PhD in Sports Science. You get more of an idea of your training status and better tracking of each run and the effect the training is having on your fitness. It will also provide you with training paces that use ‘the science’ and also race time predictions. The predictions are also pretty accurate and lined up with my maximum efforts.
Buying a chest strap heart rate monitor is an optional extra. I had one from Garmin, but it broke, and never felt the need to replace it. The newer watches track the additional metrics it used to provide (ground contact time, vertical oscillation). I think the heart rate monitoring tech in the watches is always improving and the actual benefits of an additional heart rate monitor are lower now than say a few years ago.
Looking Good on the Pavement
What do you wear when you are running? This is less important. Just go to your TK Max and get whatever is cheap, shorts/T-shirts socks, etc. That’s what I did! You just want something, light, comfortable and that won’t get soaked in sweat. Maybe a jacket if you are running when it is cold. If it is going to be cold, get a Merino base layer, specifically a Merino one, they are very effective at keeping you warm. You’ll also want a running cap or hat to keep the sun off your face/ears warm. You do you and whatever makes you comfortable. Spend loads on Soar Running or go cheap like me.
That money you saved on clothes, spend on running trainers. Notice that’s plural, you’ll want (you don’t need) multiple different pairs. A slow pair, a medium pair (optional), and a fast pair.
The slow pair is for your easy runs. They need to be comfortable with plenty of cushioning and feel like clouds for your feet. My choice in this category is the Brooks Glycerins.
The fast pair is what you run the race in. They will have all that technology, like inbuilt plates in the sole and super modern foam that regenerates energy into your legs. You’ll want to minimise the amount of training in this pair, as generally, they are more brittle than everyday shoes, but you want to make sure you can run the distance in them. I used Saucony Endorphin Speed 3’s to run the marathon in and they have a nylon plate and feel quick on your feet. You might have heard of the Nike supershoes (Alphafly, Vapourfly) that have carbon plates. This is what we are after, something to run quickly in and get as much help from technology.
You then want something in-between the slow shoes and fast shoes, a medium pair per se. This is for quicker runs where the slow shoes can feel clunky. I went for Sacouny Guide 15’s. Handy to pack in a suitcase too as they are a bit more lightweight than the Glycerins.
Ok now, you are fully dressed, new shoes laced up, how do you approach the training?
Run lots. To get better at running you have to put the hours in a do plenty of running. Throughout my training, I was on average running 6 of the 7 days a week. Just the process of running helps improve your fitness and gets you used to running long distances and for a long time. So unfortunately, there is no secret sauce, no hidden training method just the harsh reality of giving up a part of your day to pound the streets. The majority of your running still needs to be slow, you should be comfortable and get through the easy runs without any trouble. Running more miles is more important than running fast miles. If you kill yourself running quickly one day and need to take two days off to recover then you are at a net loss in terms of progress. So just slow down and get out more often.
Once you’ve got used to running frequently you can start to introduce more structure into the runs. You’ll want a weekly ‘long run’ where you are out for more than 90 minutes. Beyond the hour-and-a-half mark is when the body stops burning short-term energy reserves and switches to long-term energy stores. The long run should be slow enough that you can reach that magic 90-minute mark easily and continue for some time afterward. This long-run is where your body adapts to going further and running for longer and gets you used to changing energy stores. You’ll also want to practice refueling on these long runs, as anything over an hour needs some sort of food to keep yourself performing.
You’ll also want to include two speed sessions each week. These are runs where you’ll be tuning the top end of your running, training to go faster and longer at quicker paces. The recommended way to hit the fast paces is up a hill with intervals. The increased incline means you can reach higher heart rates without putting as much stress on your legs. Doing it as an interval, i.e. running up the hill for a minute and then jogging down for a minute also means you can do a bit more, as the recovery can help extend the workout.
Then there is a ‘threshold’ run, where you are running at your anaerobic threshold for an extended amount of time. This is where the heart rate monitoring comes in from the watch. This is a zone 4 run, where you want to be in the zone for an extended amount of time (>5 minutes). The long runs train your aerobic capacity, the threshold runs train your anaerobic capacity.
But more importantly, the speed session can help break up the monotony of always running slow. Plus it’s more fun to start to see your records (PRs) for the shorter distances improve as you build up your fitness. But that only comes from the full package: lots of running, a long run, and some speed work.
So in conclusion, run lots, mostly slow, once long, and on the odd occasion fast up a hill.
Is it working?
“It never gets easier, you just go faster” — Greg LeMond
You’ve been running for a few months now, how do you know if you are having any effect? Firstly some qualitative effects before looking at the data. One, you should be hungry all the time, or at least I was in the training. Luckily I needed to shift a few kilograms, so the weight loss was welcomed. Secondly, you should find that the longer runs are getting longer for the same effort. It never gets easier, you just find a 10km run feels like what a 5km run felt like a few months ago.
What about something measurable? You should see your resting heart rate coming down.
This is my resting heart rate from Garmin, I started training in October/November and ramped up to a maximum weekly mileage in 2023. We can see a continuous downward trend as my heart is getting stronger. Feb was a tough month where I got ill briefly and then in April, I was on a few long-haul flights that interrupted my training flow. Overall, year on year I’ve dropped my heart rate by about 10 bpm. Make sure it tracks when you sleep though, otherwise, it will be undersampling when you are resting.
You should also start to see your average pace improving.
Given that my weekly running was of mixed paces (long run, intervals, etc.), this isn’t a pure comparison but still shows a trend showing that I was getting faster. This is taken from Runanlyze.
Seeing your V02max go up will also reassure you the right things are happening. Although it’s only an estimate of your VO2 max, it should hopefully be somewhat correlated with cardio performance.
Running Books I’ve Enjoyed
This is a deep dive into the science behind human physiology in different endurance tasks. The more obvious ones like running and cycling plus the more extreme trail running, Mount Everest climbing and Antarctica exploring. It’s an engaging read that is very quanty in the sense it wants experiments to back up claims rather than just anecdotes. So for example, taking ibuprofen in a marathon, swishing energy drinks around your mouth instead of swallowing, and getting yourself mentally tired before going out training are all things backed up by science that will help your performance. Although, experiments in sport science always involve a handful of people and they are usually elite athletes too. So not quite as rigorous as other fields.
Matt Fitzgerlad had the chance to train with an elite group of runners in the high-altitude area of Flagstaff, Arizona. This book details his training and shows how different the elite athletes are compared to us mere mortals. But it also highlights how elite anything is still a job. They wake up run, think about running, eat/nap to make sure they are fresh for more running. One injury can derail your life and how you earn money. Very stressful. Great book though, would recommend it to both inspire and humble.
This website is a repository of information and inspired me to write this blog post. It covers similar topics, but probably in better/more detail. So if you like what I’ve written, you’ll love this website.
Running is a simple activity but needs a little bit of thinking to get the most out of it. I couldn’t be any further from an expert but have experienced everything written above and seen my performance and health improve because of it. In the end, I ran my marathon in 04:02:27 which is roughly the modal/mean performance for the average male. In the training process, I managed to drop my 5k from 25 minutes to 23:24, my 10k from 52:44 to 49:17, half marathon from 02:15:14 to 01:52:47.
When I plug all these times into the VDOT calculator:
Distance | PB | VDOT | 5km | 10km | Half | Marathon |
5km | 0:23:24 | 41.4 | 00:23:24 | 00:48:35 | 1:47:43 | 3:43:11 |
10km | 0:49:17 | 40.7 | 00:23:46 | 00:49:17 | 1:49:22 | 3:46:29 |
Half Marathon | 1:52:47 | 39.2 | 00:24:32 | 00:50:54 | 1:52:47 | 3:53:27 |
Marathon | 4:02:27 | 37.4 | 00:25:31 | 00:52:58 | 1:57:24 | 4:02:27 |
The VDOT calculator gives you a barometer of what your records mean for other distances and can give you an idea of both your training paces and also target times for other distances.
My half-marathon time looks weaker compared to the others. So my next target will be to get a sub 1:50 half marathon. This means I’ll be lacing up those (probably new) shoes and running lots, mostly slow with the odd fast session thrown in. Who knows, maybe another marathon could be on the horizon too.