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10 tips for next year

April 12, 2012

With less than two weeks to go, this seemed like the time to look at what I’ve learned from the experience so far. Here’s my top tips for aspiring marathoners:

1) Go bananas.

When I started doing runs longer than about 10 miles, I got thumping headaches that would last for up to two days after the run. At first I thought it was dehydration, but no amount of fluid solved the problem. A friend suggested it was a sodium imbalance. Salt didn’t stop the headaches, but it helped. The solution came when I had to dash off to something immediately after my run and grabbed a banana to keep my energy up. Lo and behold – no headache! Having forgotten to buy bananas a couple of times since then I can confirm that no banana = headache, but eating one sorts me out in no time.

The best explanation my minimal understanding of nutrition can come up with is that the problem /is/ a sodium imbalance. Bananas contain potassium, which helps the body regulate sodium levels. Simply eating salt isn’t enough. I need some help sorting the levels out when I’ve been sweating like crazy.

2) Sssttttrrrreeeeeetttcccchhhhh.

Even hypermobiles like me get stiff muscles. After spending a day hobbling round like the bastard offspring of John Wayne and a Penguin, I learned my lesson. Always stretch out after you run.

3) There is no such thing as too much food.

For those of you who think marathon training is a great way to lost weight, I have bad news for you: I weigh exactly the same now as I did before Christmas. On the other hand, I am actually less interested in food than I used to me. Don’t get me wrong – I still love to cook and my idea of a fun afternoon is one that fills the cake tin to bursting (and swiftly empties it again). What I have found, though, is that I need to eat all the time. If I don’t eat enough, my training suffers, big time. So I have to eat. And eat. And eat. After a while it gets boring.

At the College conference I amused our Research Director by carrying a little box of homemade flapjacks everywhere so that I’d always have access to a snack. Train journeys, exams, the office… I have to carefully plan my days to make sure I will have enough to eat and that I don’t end up in the corner shop getting a sugar high that I will deeply regret later. Which leads me onto point four:

4) It has to be the right food.

Just adding extra cake to your diet to make up for the extra calories leads to sugar highs swiftly followed by crashes. Running during a sugar crash feels like trying to pull a lorry behind you. Every step is hell. I don’t recommend it. What works best for me are simple carbohydrates like bread and potatoes with pate or cheese. Really basic stuff. My body loves it. Spend some time experimenting with different combinations to figure out what best suits you, then stick to it once you get close to race day.

There is another issue to consider. It’s a bit embarrassing. Apologies to those of you with a delicate constitution, there really is no polite way to discuss this.

Runners trots are your worst nightmare. Believe me. There is absolutely nothing I have faced during my training that is worse than the knowledge that if I don’t find a toilet soon there will be hell to pay. For me, what works best is a combination of a low fibre diet for two or three days ahead of a long run and medication a couple hours beforehand to make sure there are no accidents. I thought I was on my own with this issue, so a big thank-you to the Runners World forums for support and advice.

5) There are more runners in the world than you might think.

Since I started on this crazy plan I’ve been beset with support and advice from all sorts of angles. Colleagues who I have barely spoken to before have admitted that they, too, have the running bug. At the aforementioned Conference it was a great conversation starter. I met a man who has done over 20 marathons and will be in London again this year (hope to see you there, if you’re reading this), and another who suggested elbowing your way to the front of your starting block so that you don’t spend the first two miles slaloming around other runners. Sound, if morally dubious, advice.

My mum and brother are both obsessive triathletes and have given me a lot of support throughout my training. Thank you both.

6) Support can come from the most unexpected places.

I always knew my examiners would be a good source of donations. Fight for Sight is, after all, a cause close to their hearts. But the level of generosity has been quite astounding. I can’t thank you enough.

My colleagues have been unflinchingly supportive. They have donated online, they’ve bought biscuits, chocolates and hot cross buns, and they have patiently listened to stories of aches, pains and blisters with every appearance of being interested.

Then there are the complete strangers. The people who give big thumbs up when I puff past them on a frosty morning. The lovely chap who turned back to check I was okay when I tripped over a rock cunningly hidden in the mud. The kind man on Freecycle who gave me a sewing machine to make the costume. The Big Issue seller outside Morrisons in Brentford who waves me into the final two miles with a big grin every Saturday morning. I’ll probably never get to tell any of you this, but you’ve made the hard miles much easier.

7) Dogs love runners.

Almost every week I’ll end up with a dog or three in my wake at some point in the run. Last Saturday a very excitable husky puppy liked the idea of running so much he literally leapt for joy, much to his owner’s surprise.

8) Don’t believe the hype.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m doing all my training without the assistance of sports drinks, energy gels or even shoes. Well, okay, I’m wearing wetsuit shoes to stop my feet being torn to shreds by gravel, but at £6 a pair they hardly count.

Despite dire warnings from more experienced runners I’ve had no problems with lack of energy, cramps or hydration. I’ll admit to a slight electrolyte imbalance but, like Eric Wimp, all my problems can be solved by eating a banana. My running fuel consists of diluted fruit juice and a squeezy tube of honey, and that does me just fine. If you’re thinking of taking up running, or getting into it more seriously, and you’re put off by the expense of ‘proper’ gear, don’t be. I’m not saying that the mass marketed stuff doesn’t work – it clearly does – but it isn’t the only way.

9) Missing the odd session doesn’t matter.

No matter how dedicated you are, things happen. Last week I missed my pace run because I was exhausted and running a temperature. I’ve missed a couple of other training sessions in the last few months as well. In the long run it doesn’t matter. Just don’t make a habit of it.

10) Jon is wonderful.

Last but by no means least. My fantastic partner has put up with months of whining about achy muscles, stress about fundraising, obsessive training sessions and 7am alarms on Saturday mornings. He helped me drag a 1940s cast iron sewing machine from Chiswick to Isleworth so I could make the cookie monster costume. He’s even come with me on most of the shorter runs and the first few miles of the long ones. That practically makes him a candidate for beatification, surely?

Finally: at the time of writing I am within £175 of achieving my fundraising target. Help me get there:


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One Comment
  1. Gwyneth and Rob permalink

    Ellen, re point 10 – are you sure this is the same Jon we know & love, or have you found a new bloke?

    Sorry, we’re only joking, we’d expect nothing less from our son…..!

    See you on 22nd, & tell Jonathan to ‘phone his mother when he’s not too busy transporting sewing machines!

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