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Neil Featherby: Why it's time for anyone training for a marathon to hold their nerve

Paul Evans - a man, who didn't know how to run slowly. Picture: Archant

Paul Evans - a man, who didn't know how to run slowly. Picture: Archant

It's crunch time for those runners training for spring marathons and it's time to keep your cool, says Neil Featherby

As we head into March, all those people running in one of the April marathons really are now at such an important phase of their training.

Those who are racing at the beginning of the month will be thinking about not only putting the finishing touches to their training efforts, but also winding down whilst those who are running London at the end of April will be focusing on getting in what is probably going to be their longest runs and highest mileage weeks.

For anyone who has run a marathon or of course those now eagerly awaiting what might be their first such race, whilst it is fine to make a few 11th hour amendments here and there, any big drastic changes really should not now be considered at this stage of the training, particularly for those like Mark (Armstrong) who will be running in Manchester which is the first of the big city April marathons.

I have had several conversations with runners during the last week who have started panicking and wondering if they would have been best doing more of this or more of that so to speak.

This is all perfectly normal especially for those who are first timers or relatively new to marathon running.

My advice has been to stop asking every Tom, Dick and Harry, never mind looking at all the online advice as it just causes further confusion. Without a doubt make a few changes here and there if really required, but this is not the time to start thinking that the plan you have been following for the last three to four months is now inferior to something else you may have read or indeed after having heard what someone else might be following.

However, one thing which has stood out amongst all these questions has been about the benefits of doing lots of long runs and training at a slow pace. Where do I start with this one?

Many years ago Long Slow Distance or LSD was most certainly advocated by several coaches during the marathon boom of the early 1980s and there is most certainly a place for developing endurance with this method particularly for those who are fairly new to running or making a comeback after a long lay-off.

For those who have a much more specific goal though other than just wanting to get round i.e. in a fast time or indeed new PB, then following a programme purely based on LSD will also result in racing performances equaling that of the training intensities which have been applied.

After another one of my marathon telephone conversations with Paul Evans earlier this week, ironically he said exactly the same thing to me in respect of being asked questions particularly relating towards his thoughts about LSD training.

I know how hard Paul used to train and having also experienced several long runs with him I can also confirm that they were never slow. At the same time, I also know he had a huge appetite to pound out many miles at a high tempo whilst also having the ability to recover quickly between sessions.

Nevertheless, I did ask him the question as to whether he ever used LSD during any particular phase of his training, which in his words he replied with, “to be honest Neil, I can’t remember ever running slowly. All my running was structured around being as fast as I could be from when I was track training for 800s right up to moving on to the roads and the marathon.”

MORE: Check out our 2019 race calendar here

He then went on to tell me about one of his many training trips overseas to South Africa and a particular session when he trained in a group which contained Josia Thugwane who was the then current Olympic Marathon Champion and Gert Thys who was also another world class marathon runner with them both having personal best times of 2:07 and 2:06.

Apart from these two awesome athletes, there were also a number of other sub 2:10 guys in the group whereby during a particular training run which Paul knew very little about before setting off, he was so very surprised by what really was a slow pace.

“To say I was confused was an understatement,” he said. “However, after 5k, the pace picked up a bit as it did again at 10k and then 15k for which it had then become obvious what was going to happen every 5k. By 35k we were flat out and by 40k we were done, or more to the point, done in.”

Needless to say that was a one-off session with all those great guys, but at the same time Paul also said he did most of his training on his own to avoid such bun fights at the end of these group training runs “as no one ever wanted to be last back” he said. At the same time though, most of his training was done at a high tempo.

Does this make it right for everyone to now go and train like Paul?

No, of course not, as he was an exceptional athlete and as said earlier had the ability to recover quickly, but what it did also do was train his mind to be tough and stay focused for very long periods of time.

He also went on to say that above everything else he always knew his own body and when to push on or back off and feels that there is now perhaps too much reliance upon gadgets and supplements to help guide and get people through their training and racing. Then when these things may not be available or not working correctly, confusion and panic can occur.

Whilst I do think today’s modern technology is a great aid to training, at the same time I do agree with Paul particularly when it is clear that some runners really have become reliant upon such things.

Whilst we all have differing personality traits and of course different pain thresholds, developing mental toughness and the ability to stay in the zone when all inside the body and head is saying this hurts, comes about through many months and even years of hard training.

You could have a dozen athletes all of equal ability in the same race, but invariably those at the front of the field when crossing the finish line will be those who had the hunger and developed the art of being comfortable with what is being very uncomfortable when you are giving it your all. In a nutshell lots of people have different theories as to how training should be applied, but providing the basic principles are followed whilst being applied with structure and progression to match the discipline, then you get out what you put in.

There are no magic wands or secrets and for those who keep looking for them, dare I say without wanting to be offensive that they would perhaps be far better off spending their time doing a few more miles.

With regards to slow or fast, I will leave that to them to make up their own minds about that one.

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