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How two runners achieved marathon success

The novice: At the age of 30 I was just an average bloke. I was stuck in a rut with a stressful job that had long, unsociable hours. I was overweight, taking no exercise and enjoying a smoke and a drink. Then something happened. Training became a science. I believed in the plan and I knew it would make me a better runner. It eventually changed me into an international athlete.'

The experienced runner: The athlete must achieve a balance by doing just the right amount of speed training. The initial goal of the training program was to condition myself to be able to run 110k per week. The major indication that this phase had had its desired effect was that I started to finish the long runs so fresh that I wanted to run further on the following long run.'

Marathon Training for Your Personal Best

Muscle training - contrary to popular belief, your performance will slide if you ignore your fast-twitch fibres.

Warm-ups - why so many athletes waste their time with stretching routines when what' s needed are sport-specific drills?

Hydration- how fluid loss reduces performance. How to beat it with the aid of glycerol.

Recovery - a detailed, tried and tested training schedule for the non-specialist prepared by the ultimate runners' guru Tim Noakes, whose massive tome Lore of Running is accorded near-biblical status by most serious athletes.

Science section: Metabolic markers of peak performance · Injury risks for marathon ' virgins' · Carbohydrates and perceived exertion · Why distance running can be bad for bones · Why stiffer legs make running easier · Nature and nurture in Ethiopian endurance running success.

The novice runner and his story

Keith Anderson gives a personal account of his life as a runner who, at the age of 30, was stuck in a rut with a stressful job that had long, unsociable hours.

He was overweight, taking no exercise and enjoying a smoke and a drink. Then something happened to change him into an international athlete.

Keith describes how his running at the time was based on enthusiasm: he just put his shoes on and ran with no knowledge about what he was trying to do, no concept of pace or recovery and no plan.

Eventually, recognising this would lead to frustration, disappointment, and failure he changed his approach to running. With his new plan, training became a science. Although other athletes enjoyed a joke at his expense, he believed in the training and diet plan and knew it would make him a better runner.

'Each time I ran I knew exactly why I was running, I knew what was the correct intensity and duration and what that run was going to achieve'.

As the plan progressed, the writer found that nutrition has such a fundamental effect on performance it requires as much focus and planning as the physical training. With his new balanced diet he stopped feeling fatigued and breaking down.

Although having the wrong diet sounds like an elementary mistake he found this is an area where a lot of up-and-coming athletes have problems. With the right diet, times and race results both improved.

As a consequence of the combined plan, results improved dramatically. Not only did the writer win his category but he was usually finishing as the first non-Kenyan in 9th or 10th place overall and running close to world masters (over-40) records.

Utilising fast twitch muscles:

You would normally think of maximising fast-twitch muscle fibre potential in order to enhance speed and power. But, contrary to common belief, failure to train fast twitch fibre for endurance events will result in lactate threshold being reached early, holding back your performance.

Here' s why: unlike the 100m sprinter, who can ignore his slow-twitch fibres altogether in training without damaging performance, the endurance athlete has to train all fibre types in order to maximise sustained muscular energy.

Most people are born with a relatively even distribution. However, for a variety of reasons, losing fast-twitch speed and power ability is a bad idea. For example, at the end of a closely fought marathon there may be a need for a sprint, requiring fast-twitch fibre input.

Fast-twitch fibres have to be trained accordingly; it' s no good turning a runner into a plodder with an emphasis on slow-twitch, steady state work, if they are needed to produce a sustained kick and a sizeable energy contribution.

Why you should drop that old-style warm up routine

It is a common human failing to look very hard - maybe too hard - at something and still fail to see what' s staring you in the face. This may explain why coaches and athletes have continued to keep faith with the old-style warm-up despite mounting evidence that it doesn' t do what it says on the tin.

Marathon Training for Your Personal Best explains how to replace the old generalist approach with a much more dynamic, focused routine, specifically tailored to our chosen sport. The various drills warm up our muscles specifically for the movements that will be required of them in the activity to follow. In this way specific neuromuscular patterning is switched on and specific, functional range of movement developed.

For many, this is an unknown concept. Coaches will have to turn their old ideas on their heads. Athletes will need to throw out their old concepts about warm-ups.

But, ironically the dynamic, focused warm-up is not a new a concept. Athletes from the former Soviet Bloc were using these types of warm-ups as far back as the 1970s - decades before they came to mainstream attention in the West. Yet so entrenched were our ideas - and those of our coaches that we failed to take this lesson to heart.

The time spent specifically warming up will also improve your running action and specifically strengthen and stretch your running muscles, so boosting your performance. The lower leg is fundamental to running performance, and many of the drills described in this section will strengthen this region and so, in turn, do wonders for your power generation and force return .

You'll be better prepared mentally. A slow warm-up with a sustained period of stretching can switch your mind away from the dynamics of the task ahead. This may be particularly detrimental before a race or competition, when you' ll want to maintain your focus and stay sharp. On a subtler level, your neuromuscular system may not be optimally prepared if you pursue a slower style of warm-up with lots of stretching. The more focused approach will heighten the ability of your muscles to contract.

Over-stretching your connective tissue can impair running efficiency and dynamic sports performance. If a runner becomes too flexible, perhaps in the hip and upper thigh region, energy can be wasted through inefficient leg drive and knee pick-up. And these negative effects become more pronounced the faster you run.

Other research has indicated that the shine is knocked off dynamic activity by too much preparatory passive stretching in the warm-up. Runners' legs need to be 'hard' , energy-efficient, force-returning appliances, not spongy, over-absorbent ones. Too much stretching and too great a range of movement can be a bad thing. Recent research indicates that plyometric training for distance runners will develop this energy-efficiency, but so, too, will a more specific warm-up.

Having said all this, there are times when 'old school' stretching is OK.