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Marathon Race Simulation: Picking the Right Course to Test Your Run Fitness

08 September

Wet Winter LaneCreative Commons License photo credit: Aerokev

There is no such thing as being 100% ready for a marathon. While we can strive for perfection in terms of training and scheduling and recovery, the reality is that many of us simply fall short of the perfect-little-world that’s outlined in the training plan taped to our fridge. This is partly due to extenuating circumstances (work, family, other commitments), but the truth is we often self-sabotage by adding extra miles or picking harder workouts to “make up” for our training imperfections. Instead of more fitness, we end up with more fatigue and potentially even an overuse injury. In this blog post, we are going to explore the true marathon training fundamentals you need to focus on (to measure success) and how you can use the “right” key run to be as prepared as possible for your race day.

Marathon Fitness Fundamentals
If you’re like 95% of runners out there, you simply can’t fit all the training in. So there’s no sense in sweating the micro-level details. Instead, understand the big-picture elements that matter: (1) your fitness and (2) your ability to execute.

Fitness is Your Engine
Built over months and years of training, your fitness is much more than last week’s 20-miler, it’s the total sum of the work you have done as an athlete. Sure “recent” training really matters, but the truth is the longer you have played the endurance game the better you get at it, and the less training you need to be able to do more. At some point, in other words, your “baseline” fitness is pretty darn fit.

Target Pacing
Inside Marathon Nation we train on a daily basis with paces as determined by a 5k test because we want every mile that we run to be as focused and effective as possible – we strive for zero junk miles. The idea here is that even if you can’t hit every run, the ones that you do get in are very specific to where your body is at right now.  Running with others and doing track workouts are a great way to push yourself, but they aren’t always specific to you.

Consistent Training
Since your fitness is the sum of all the running work you do, then the focus is on getting in more work than just “a” workout. Another reason for the specificity of the MN training plans is the understanding that the long run in week 8 of your 12-week plan isn’t the be-all, end-all of your training program. The true measure of a long run is whether you can recovery quickly enough to continue your training cycle in the following week (at the proper paces!)

The Right Race Simulation
Fitness aside, we still need to be able to put the race together on the big day. In addition to our free race execution guidance for marathoners [get it here on Facebook], we also use a single Race Simulation workout to align our training with our expectations and to prepare ourselves to execute.  Unfortunately, most athletes who place such a strong emphasis on their long runs often

Why Simulate?
I won’t go into the basics of a race simulation workout as I have written about the value of a race simulation before in some detail over here and a little bit here. Basically there are two main goals within a race simulation: paces and planning.

First  to make sure the paces you have picked for race day are, in fact, attainable. Better to find this out now, with a few weeks to go (and on your own) than at mile 18 of race day with little other alternative than to slow down or walk!

Second, to allow you to put your equipment, nutrition, and mental focus to the test before the crucible of the big day itself. Despite the fact that we’ve trained all year for this single event, we’ll often make crucial errors in judgment that lead to the unraveling of our day. By creating a race plan and testing it in the simulation, we accelerate this learning process and increase our chances of success on race day.

Picking the Proper Course
Yes, your goal marathon is hilly. You feel the need to test your body against the elements. You want to know what it’s like to hit the wall so you’ll be ready for the big dance. But trying to combine all of these elements into your training cycle — with no taper or rest — will often prove too much. Many a veteran marathoner has had a fantastic long run in training, only to under-perform on race day. Here’s how you can make sure you don’t fall victim to the same situation.

Step One: Pick a simple, flat course for your race simulation.
The goals here, remember, are pacing and planning. To score an A+, you’ll need to be able to dial in your exact goal race splits to see how your body adapts over time. Adding hills and descents only means additional difficulty in maintaining paces and in determining your actual abiility to pace well. If you can handle it mentally, a two or three loop route is best to compare your pacing for early and late miles. This type of course can be used for frequent pit stops as well.

Step Two: Do the race simulation is as close to race conditions as possible.
This means tempurature/humidity first, time of day second. You’ll want to know exactly how your body will respond to the demands of the day, and what to wear. Not always possible, for sure, but if you can delay your long run to the early afternoon to get hotter temps, do it. If you are running Disney, for example, and start time is 6am then you had better be ready to get up early, eat in a hotel room and get warmed up to be your best.

Step Three: Create a race plan.
Whether you are using the Marathon Nation protocol or rolling your own, the race simulation is built around your actual paces. Write out your plan and review it several times…really put some thought into it so when you go out for your run, you are more completing a mental checklist than making it up as you go along. Many a potential race day mistake are addressed in the planning phase.

Step Four: Execute the Race Simulation
Time to put all this prep into action. Guaranteed something will go wrong — but it’s supposed to! Make notes and do the best you can with what you’ve got!

Step Five: Review your Execution
Once the dust has settled and you have recovered properly, it’s time to bust out the stopwatch and review your pacing and mental notes. Typically the night of that same day is the best time to sit down and do the review. Aside from listing out your actual splits next to your planned splits, take care to note:

  • when it became difficult to hold your splits;
  • when/if you became hungry;
  • when/if you became thirsty;
  • when you lost mental focus / clarity on what you were doing;
  • what, if anything, led to a second wind; and
  • what part of your body hurts/needs extra attention.

Conclusion
Knowing that you should do a race simulation run is a far cry from doing the right one. Things will go wrong; they are supposed to. But don’t make your training any harder than it needs to be by adding in more work in all the wrong places. Nail your race execution once in your training, and it will stick with you for a lifetime. Good luck!

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