A Simple Strategy for Running Your Best Marathon

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For all of you runners who will be running in marathons in the coming months, here’s an article sent to me by Dr. Mark Cucuzzella with some very helpful tips to guide you to a great performance in your next marathon. He’s a family practice doctor and faculty member of West Virginia University. He also happens to have the distinction of having run a sub-2:35 marathon every year for the past 20 years. He recently ran the Marine Corps Marathon (2:34) at age 42 and beat the time he ran it 20 years ago when he was 22! For this reason I consider him an ideal person to listen to if you want to do well in your marathon. He has been practicing ChiRunning for the past two years and will soon become a Certified ChiRunning Instructor. He was the doctor quoted in the NPR piece on ChiRunning. Following is the text of his article.

A Simple Strategy for Running Your Best Marathon

As you enter the week prior to running your marathon here are a few visualizations to help you set your plan.  Running your best marathon is part art, 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 the weeks leading up to your event, you have built your efficient hybrid engine ready to race the marathon.

Many of you have likely driven in a Prius and watch the subtle shifts between gas and electric on the screen.  You do not perceive these shifts. Your engine runs on gas, electric, or a mix- depending on the effort.

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 you will be done before the finish.
• If you are all electric you can go all day, but really slow.
• If you are using the proper mix you will go quick and efficient for the first 20+ miles, then fire up pure gas in the last few.

The glucose utilizing pathway is the gas. This is your stored glycogen and blood glucose (pasta meal and breakfast) – easy to access for ready energy.  The fat utilizing pathway is the electric.  In the marathon you must be in hybrid until the last few miles.  Hybrid is where your energy (ATP) is coming from both sources.

Many runners are in great “10k shape” (an all gas event), run their marathon in the gas mode- and usually crash.  No nutrition and glycogen sparing factors apply in races of less than an hour. In the marathon, top end fitness matters little and can only be applied very near the finish.

So how do you know you are running in your best hybrid mode?
This is difficult because the sense is not as profound as aerobic/anaerobic. 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.

You must rehearse a bit in training.  I focus on relaxation and breathing.  If I’m breathing one cycle to 5 steps, then I’m hybrid.  If I breathe any faster I’m using glucose as sole fuel.  Belly breathe. Allow 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 and 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.

In the last 3-4 miles you will be all gas to maintain the same speed as fatigue sets in.  The breathing is usually on a 3 to 4 step per breath cycle- that is OK.  Still stay relaxed and use same relaxation cues.

Now a few extra ways to get 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 you’re running too fast you shunt all blood to working muscles and nothing digests. If you are in hybrid during the early going you can continually add fuel. The key here is not the specific fuel, but the right pace. A gel 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 you can drink water instead of the energy drinks which are often pretty awful on the run.
• Draft if you can.
• Maintain a constant effort level on uphills.  Your pace will slow. You can easily use all your gas here if your effort level increases. Shorten your stride, relax, and use your arms more. Then allow gravity to take you downhill. The first hills of the race will ruin your day if you take them too quickly.
• If you are having a “bad patch” try to refocus on relaxing, maybe fuel a bit, and have faith in your training and race plan.

The fun of this event is that we are always learning and enjoying the adventure of it. I’ve done over 50 marathons now with a couple under 2:25 in my younger years. I’ve had one DNF. At my first Boston in 1989 I raced the first half in 1:08 in gas mode, not realizing it, and was done by 18 miles.

We learn from experience, taking chances, and occasional failures. My first marathon in 1988 was 2:34, when I could run a 30:00 10K. This year I also ran 2:34 at Boston, and I think my 10K split there (35 minutes) was my best 10k for the year. Along the way I have accumulated 20 straight years under 2:35 except for my year of medical internship when there was no time to find a race. I’ve learned a few things in 20 years, but there are still uncertainties every time you line up. Relax, taper, and seize the day.

Mark Cucuzzella, MD
Physician LTC USAF Reserves and West Virginia University Faculty
2 time top 5 Marine Corps Marathon and Masters Winner 2006


Posted in Technique

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