As many of you know, last weekend was my marathon in Frankfurt and I was excited to be feeling fit and going for a PB. You might also know that it didn’t really go to plan, and I wondered if there were some lessons I could share that might be useful for you in your own quest for better health and fitness.
This isn’t a blog about running marathons necessarily, or even a blog about running. I thought I’d focus more on trying to perform at your very best, the important things to consider and what happens if it doesn’t quite work out this time around.
When you’re trying to achieve something, be that a race time, a new strength PB, a weight loss goal or even personal and life goals like running a business or learning a new skill, it’s unlikely that you’ll have success every time.
Often, we have lots of success in the early stages as we start out from a low level of skill or knowledge. With my marathons for example, last Sunday was my 6th and up until now, I’ve run a PB every time I’ve done one. Sometimes only by a matter of seconds or minutes, but the improvement has been gradual. As you reach the peak of your abilities though, it becomes less likely that you can simply get better every time you do something. You’re bound to have failures along the way.
At this point, you essentially have two options as far as I can tell:
1) Give up trying to get better
2) Review what went well (repeat this in future) and what didn’t go so well (change it next time).
If I think about the run last weekend, there were loads of good things about it; I had zero issues with uncomfortable chaffing which I’ve never achieved before, so I know my clothing, footwear and voluminous application of vaseline were right for me. I never felt hungry or thirsty which has always been a problem for me, so the plan regarding food and drink was good.
Even when I started to break physically, my mental state remained relaxed. I never became frustrated, I just kept my focus on one mile at a time (something I’ve never mastered as well before), blocking out the fact that there were more to come afterwards. This allowed me to re-evaluate every mile and meant that once I had broken, I was able to just relax, hobble on home and enjoy the music and the ridiculousness of marathons. I’d love to say I could enjoy the scenery, but apart from being flat and good for quick times, Frankfurt marathon is actually a bit dull in terms of spectacles. The skyscraper skyline is the main attraction, but the truth is that in marathons it’s often busy around you and looking up is not really an option, you have to do quite a lot of staring at the floor to ensure you don’t trip yourself or anyone else over.
My training went pretty much to plan, managing more than I’d done before and at faster speeds. Vicky’s expert planning also meant we were only a few hundred metres from the start so I could warm-up in the hotel gym beforehand and crawl back quickly afterwards (more Vicky’s wonderful organisation than mine but I credit myself for marrying her)!
So all in all, there were a lot of positives to take and that’s why I’m not disappointed. When something you’re trying to do goes wrong, list the positives from the experience. If you can frame it as learning rather than failure, it starts to feel useful.
Ultimately, I didn’t run the time I wanted and so, whilst it’s important for me to take the good stuff from the day, I also need to evaluate what stopped me getting what I wanted and do something about it for next time.
What was it? My issue lay in my biomechanics. By 12 miles, I was feeling tight in my left hip and lower back, by 14 miles this had stopped me being able to bend my left knee properly and not long after that, this led to my right hip and knee hurting a lot as they did more of the work. I believe the problem stems from the major injury I sustained when I was 18, tearing my right quadriceps off my leg completely. The muscle re-attached itself, half way up my leg and by the time I’d discovered exactly what had happened, I was told that surgery could likely cause more problems and I should learn to live with it.
I’ve spent the last 19 years feeling discomfort in my neck, back, hip and leg on the opposite side, essentially because the muscles of the left leg are longer and more of my weight shifts to that side. I never actually have a problem with the muscle I tore. Over the years, I’ve managed it pretty well and achieved some cool things fitness-wise, but running marathons has always seemed a bit too much for it to take; it’s always joint discomfort on this side that slows me down as opposed to fitness or fatigue. I think this time I was too optimistic that it would be ok; often I can manage it pretty well but a few weeks before the race my back locked up and I should have seen a masseuse or osteopath to release it. Better late than never though; I’ve spoken to an osteopath friend and I’ll see him ASAP, and I’m considering seeing a specialist to see if I can re-balance my stride through having some orthotics made.
The point here is that if you’re trying to achieve something and it goes wrong, you need to look for solutions. In performance terms, we’re only as strong as our weakest link, which in my case is my wonky leg. To be as fast as I want to be, I need to be less wonky! For health and weight loss, it’s about looking at the thing or things that are holding you back. It might be that you’ve improved consistently, but now you’ve stopped. What’s the next step that can take you to the next level?
Here’s where we have our choice; I could feel dejected, stop doing all the good things I’ve been working on and know for sure that I’ll never achieve my marathon goal, or I can persist, try to sort my mechanical issues and see if that’s the difference that makes the difference. The only thing that we can ever guarantee is that we give up, we won’t achieve what we set out to do; if we try again, keep the good bits, learn from the not so good and change things, maybe, just maybe, we might.
I will caveat this from a performance perspective by saying that you also need to listen to your body. There will come a time when the risk of pushing yourself to the max for a given event, carries more risks than benefits. I personally don’t think I’m there yet, but we’ll see how it goes once I’ve worked on my biomechanics.
You’ll also often spend the weeks following a race that didn’t go to plan considering doing another one straight away! I'll be honest, I’ve already looked at the marathon calendar to see if there’s something in November or December to try. From experience though, this is often a bad idea, especially after longer races. Your body is tired and a bit broken and it needs time to heal, especially if it was some sort of injury that stopped you reaching you goal. Let it go, regroup, rebuild, recover and then try again.