Saturday, September 30, 2017

How To Prevent Fading In Your Next Marathon

Exaggerated "float" phase of the run
You were running really well in your key marathon. You've trained very well, started conservatively despite feeling great hoping to have a strong negative split. You've hit all your target times at each 5 km split that you've written down on your hand.

To your greatest horror, you start to tire in the final miles of the race. Your dreams of a personal best begin to fade too.

What was the fade due to? Was it dehydration? High core temperature or low blood sugar? Apparently, none of the usual suspects according to a paper that studied 40 marathon runners immediately before a race and within three minutes of them finishing the race.

The best predictor of the runners fading was in fact muscle damage.

With each stride you run, your quadriceps and calf muscles contract "eccentrically" (lengthen instead of shorten). The muscles shorten when you push off, but they lengthen whilst you are in mid air in the double swing (or floating phase). See picture below.

This causes an accumulation of microscopic damage to your muscles. It's this eccentric contraction that causes delayed onset of muscle soreness (or DOMs).

The above mentioned study of the marathon runners showed that the eccentric contractions can literally hobble you during the race. Runners whose pace dropped more than 15 percent from the beginning to the end of the race had levels of creatine kinase and myoglobin (both are by products of muscle damage measured in blood tests) 53 and 112 percent higher than the runners who managed to maintain a steadier pace.

When I read the paper, my first thoughts was that the runners who faded did not train enough as those who didn't. However, the researchers suggested that age, running experience and training were not significant enough to explain the differences.

The authors suggested three ways to prevent fading in your next marathon.

Doing your long run close to your target marathon pace is crucial to get your muscles stronger. A 30 km run at or close to your target race pace three to four weeks before to simulate the effort will lessen the chance of muscle damage in the race.

Due to the "repeated bout effect", it will be harder to trigger as much muscle damage once they have recovered. You will need to run harder or faster to trigger similar damage.

The second way to increase your ability to withstand eccentric muscle damage is with weight (or resistance) training. Eccentric lunges and squats of at least 80 percent of the heaviest weight you can lift will help prevent damage to your muscles. Do the weight training twice a week during your training cycle and cut back to once a week when you are tapering for the race.

Be sure to practice downhill running if your race has downhill sections. Running downhill causes lots of eccentric contractions, a sure fire way of triggering muscle damage. Experiment with your stride to find the best way of descending as lightly as possible to minimize the muscle damage.


Del Coso J, Fernandez De Velasco D et al (2013). Running Pace Decrease During A Marathon Is Positively Related To Blood Markers Of Muscle Damage. PLoS One. 8(2): e57602. DOI: 10/1371/journal.pone.0057602.

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