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A 4:50 to a 3:07 marathon

From time to time at Runfisix we get the chance to work with non-elite runners who are committed to push themselves to see what they are ultimately capable of whilst remaining injury free. In June 2017 we teamed up with Norm a relatively new marathon runner with a personal best in the marathon at that time of 4 hours 50 minutes. His objective was ambitious. To try to run a Boston qualifier time within 2 years for the age of 40. The target time was 3 hours 10 minutes. 

In May 2018 after just 11 months of training Norm ran a new PB in the marathon of 3 hours 20 minutes having trained consistently through the year with no major injuries or breaks. 5 months later in October he ran in the marathon distance again, this time dropping his finish time to 3:07, 3 minutes inside his Boston target. 

Clearly there was a lot of dedicated training involved that saw Norm running every week with each week having at least 4 workouts. However we have found that with any project like this where the runner is under pressure to improve dramatically in a short amount of time, it's injury prevention that is often the biggest factor in whether they will even have a chance to maximize the benefit of all their hard work. 

Besides Norm's unwavering work ethic there were a few key factors involved in explaining his spectacular success and injury free running. In this article we will explain what they were and why they were important in Norm's case.


Baseline data collection

At the start of the project we collected a suite of gait and biomechanics data from Norm that formed a profile of his running. At this point Norm was healthy with no injuries, hence this dataset became his baseline for the project with later data collection referencing back to this healthy profile. Without this early benchmark data it would have been very hard during the focused training period to know where in the continuum of Norm's possible gait signatures he was operating. Later data collection enabled us to assess whether he was deviated away from his healthy profile or not and how by how much. 


Norm Data 1

Norm's baseline data from dorsaVi viMove collected on 17 June 2017. GRF ground reaction force, IPA initial peak acceleration. IPA is similar to impact which described on the metrics page.


Norm Data 2

 Norm's baseline data from Runscribe Plus collected on 17 June 2017.



Correct pacing

Coaches often know better than anyone that correct pacing for a particular person in a given workout is vital to get the maximum physiological training benefit from the work done. But runners will generally have mechanical paces too where they run best in terms of their gait signature and exposure to injury. And this can change as they gain and lose fitness and associated functional strength. 

There are certain process that are occurring during the gait cycle of the runner that will work better when rhythm, timing and ultimately synchronization are better. Run too slow and hip extension can get very limited, contact times can get very long and step rate can drop, putting key muscles under stress for longer with each stride. Run too fast and the force and impact on the body can become too high and the changes in length and tension in the soft tissue can become harder for the body to facilitate. 

With Norm we spent the first month giving him a wide variety of test workouts at different paces in order to understand the responses of his body. Ultimately trying to hone in on his best mechanical paces (small range rather a single exact pace). As he got fitter and stronger these paces were adjusted accordingly. This method was particularly important during the long run and his easy runs. During the long run it was because of the amount of time he was applying sustained effort to his body for. And during the easy runs it was because running too slow on easy runs can often create injury exposure due to running with a highly abbreviated gait with low step rates and long contact times.


Workout consistency

One thing we have observed many times in our work is the importance of consistency of days containing workouts. Of course adequate rest and recovery is important and harder training days need to be followed by easier ones. However having stops and starts in a weekly or monthly training routine can lead to greater injury risk as the key muscles and tendons in the runner's body are not able to establish a predictable pattern of work and recovery. The more predictable the body finds the work, recovery pattern the better it can prepare itself to deal with the training demands. For Norm, this is where his unwavering commitment and discipline came in, always making time each morning to get the workout done without stress or distractions even if it was just a trivial sounding 30 minute easy run.


Course variation

Often times we have seen how variety not only helps boost performance gains but also helps reduce injury exposure. Initially it sounds contradictory to the consistency story described above. However the most important variation should be in the course and workout types and not the workout frequency. In Norm's case the variation in workout types from long runs to threshold runs to fartleks was an inevitable physiological product of the demands of the marathon target. So we really focused our attention on the variety of courses Norm used. 

A workout that really stood out because of its relationship to the marathon challenge was the long run. So we worked on making Norm's long run as effective as possible at reducing his injury risk. Norm quickly adjusted to a new long run course that started with a long gradual uphill and finished with a gradual downhill. The course was almost entirely on soft packed gravel and dirt and featured a multitude of rolling hills. When each of these components is combined the net effect is to reduce the chance of injury overall. For example the gradual uphill start challenges the neuromuscular system and better connects the brain and the muscles early on in the workout ensuring a more balanced gait from the start and a better platform from which to base the bulk of the run.


Listening to the body

Any article on injury prevention in runners would not be complete without touching on the topic of the runner listening to their body. The key that we have found with this is not to encourage the runner to become anxious about every tiny ache or sensation during every part of a run, but to help the runner learn over time which pains and sore feelings are important to recognize and which are less so.

Fatigue is an inevitable consequence of hard training (hard being relative to the individual) and so there will often be some muscle soreness after a long run for example. But with the right cuing and guidance the runner can be taught to read the signs that indicate that something is not right. Sometimes this may mean waiting until after the run to massage muscles or in other cases it may mean stopping the workout and returning home.

Moments in the pre-workout prep and during the foam rolling after the workout are opportunities for the runner to listen to their bodies and be cognoscente of which muscles are getting beaten up more and whether any soreness is balanced between the left and right sides or between complementary muscle groups. This education process is easier with some runners and harder with others, but is crucial to address nonetheless. 

So that's quick dive into some of the factors behind Norm's amazing improvement story in the marathon and how he avoided significant injury and down time in the course of achieving it. In the future we will present more case studies like this with non-elite runners aiming at different goals where we feel we can pull back the curtain and offer transferable insights that can help others in the running community. If you liked this style of post or would like to see more like this please let us know in the comments below. 

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