Tuesday, 7 July 2009

No half measures (written for Re:Play magazine 07/08).

Run Britain editor, NICOLA BAMFORD offers advice from some of the UK’s top distance coaches and World’s best half-marathoners on how to prepare for and execute the perfect 13.1-miler.

Completing a half-marathon can be a daunting task, especially for those who are new to the lung-bursting, leg-burning challenge. But like I myself choose to envisage, such a gruelling event should be seen as an adventure; a test of one’s brains not just brawns, for the only way you can truly enjoy the ride is if you prepare with military precision and run your own, sensible race on the day itself.

It was in fact; watching thousands of runners, incessantly buoyed by hundreds of enthusiastic supporters in last year’s Sheffield half-marathon to the thunderous applause of the Yorkshire people that inspired me to take part in the 2008 edition.

Of course an unfortunate few failed to finish however and we all hope and pray that the dreaded DNF won’t appear next to our names in the results, so to avoid such a scenario, we must turn our attentions to the ‘5 P’s’ – Perfect Planning Prevents Poor Participation!

Regardless of whether attacking course records is a realistic goal of ours or not, preparation is certainly key and who better to seek advice from than World half-marathon record-holder, Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands – “When I set my record (of 1:06.25 in Italy last October), I ran even-paced splits and focused very hard the entire way. You must keep a strong mind to ensure the body remains strong, too,” the former Kenyan explained.

Wise words – but what about the weeks and months leading up to such a demanding event? Director of athletics at Loughborough University and coach to twice-Olympic marathon 4th-placer, Sheffield-born, John Brown; George Gandy divulges, “The main thing about preparation for a half-marathon is to ensure that you have a good weekly mileage routine behind you, particularly during the previous three months. What is ‘good’ will depend on your age, personal running background, physical resilience and lifestyle (work full-time, full-time athlete etc) – somewhere between 4 or 5 runs per week, with a progressed, relaxed run of longer than anticipated race time.”

Richard Hollingsworth; a former international athlete & current distance coach at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield Athletics Clubs continues, “If you build up to one 10-mile run a week up to a couple of weeks before the race then it is possible to complete the distance without having to have actually run 13 miles in training.”

On the pre-big event racing schedule, Gandy resumes; “Include a couple of preparation races at shorter distances, ideally 8-10km after 4 or 5-weeks of your training programme; this will enable you to practice half-marathon pace, with an option of picking up the pace in the second half.”
In order to get to the start-line in tip-top shape, a period of ‘easing down’ to recover is required and according to Gandy, athletes should “ease off your training for the last 3-days of your penultimate week and some more after the Tuesday of the race week.”

Hollingsworth – also the sports massage therapist at Hallam University stresses competitors should “look after your feet during the weeks leading up to the event! Cut the toe nails, have any large build up of dead skin on the points of contact with the ground removed, and get any blisters that may have developed treated (best done professionally).”

Additional pearls of wisdom from the 65:30-half-marathon-runner include “avoid any chaffing of the skin from your choice of running attire by applying a lubricant to the areas such as groin, underarms and nipples (for men). Do not start the race in a brand new pair of shoes – make sure that the shoes have been worn in at least a couple of long runs in the weeks leading up to the race, to ensure that they will not cause unnecessary rubbing and pain during the race.” Come race day, it is also advisable to eat a fairly substantial carbohydrate-based meal at least 3 hours before the start and don't over-do the fatty foods, as they will take longer to digest and may cause stomach problems late into the race. Also drink 500ml of fluid in the last hour up to 30mins before the event, to ensure you are adequately hydrated.

For the inexperienced runners, it is wise to take on a little water at every feed station along the race route and not to get carried away by the occasion, by running too fast in the early miles - devise a sensible race plan and stick to it! Passing your fellow competitors in the final few miles, rather than being reeled-in by the droves, gives a big confidence-boost and saves a considerable amount of pain and embarrassment!

Mick Woods; a top UK Athletics and senior performance coach at St Mary’s University explains, “It is important that an athlete knows what pace they can realistically run at – the best way forward is to run even pace. The half-marathon is long enough for you to start steady and sustain that pace. You should be well-aware of your capabilities and have a realistic target – it’s better to air on the side of caution, than being overly-ambitious.”

One athlete well-aware of the importance of sensible racing tactics is Hungarian half-marathon record-holder, Aniko Kalovics. The 2006 World road-running 11th-placer; with a best time of 68:58, reveals, “I try to save my energy until 10km into the race then begin the harder racing -the last 3kms are the hardest.”

So there you have it – a plethora of expert advice to ensure no matter how fast or slow you cover the half-marathon route, at least you’ll be prepared –enjoy the ride!

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