Marathon running for geeks

30 03 2010

If I come up against some kind of challenge, task or obstacle, my first thought is usually “what could I utilise to make this easier?” I find a spoonful of technology makes the world go round, or some other confusing kind of mixed metaphor, but the principle works. If you want to paint a room, use one of those self-cleaning even-distributing electronic paint pods, rather than getting more paint on yourself and your carpet using the traditional tray-and-roller method. If you need information on the move use your data-enabled smartphone, rather than scouting around for an internet cafe, paying £3 an hour and feeling obliged to drink stale filter for the duration. If you’re booking a holiday use the web to find the best price and comparison sites to get real reviews on the destination and hotel, rather than trusting to travel agents who are basically obsolete in this digital age (and will tell you anything to make a sale given the massive amount of business they have lost to the web). What can you use, though, if the challenge is one of pure physical endurance and stamina? How can technology help if the task is simply you, 26.2 miles, and a whole lot of pavement? I’m running the London Marathon to raise money for Cancer Research UK (you can sponsor me by visiting my JustGiving page), but what technology can you utilise to help you get around a marathon? 

The London Marathon

I will be in there (somewhere) come April 25th this year.

1. Trainers

Feet are just about the most important thing to a runner, after maybe your heart and lungs (but not far behind) and you’ll want to look after them. Coming into marathon training, I had an old pair of Nike runners, maybe two years old and having seen plenty of action – if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say over 1000 miles, including distance pounded on a treadmill at the gym. The old workhorses had done me proud, but they needed retiring for the sake of my feet. Changing equipment for any sports person is a torturous decision, given that you’re comfortable in your failing old kit, and the new kit is very expensive if you get it wrong and prefer your old gear after the change. When I had the grips changed on my golf clubs I struggled to hit the ball half the distance I had with the old ones (and these are just the grips remember, the working face of the clubs remained the same) but I stuck with it and now play far better for it. It’s the same with trainers. They will always feel foreign at first, you will always not like the new ones quite as much, but we forget we felt this way about the outgoing pair when they were new as well. Persevere, and you shall be rewarded. But what trainers? 

I headed straight for the Nike. “Stick with what you know,” I thought. The updated version of my old faithfuls seemed like the sensible choice, and they were sharply priced at around £50 – a mere fiver more than I paid for the originals which had served me so well. They seemed like decent shoes, but were a bit garish looking, and didn’t seem as comfortable from ‘fresh’ as my original pair had the first time around. Perhaps Nike were sacrificing fashion for performance? They were always there if I didn’t like anything better, but it was time to try something else. 

New Balance were next on the shelf, with their mid-priced runners coming in at around £40 (an absolute steal for a performance shoe) but I wasn’t overly keen. They felt heavy, there didn’t feel to be much bounce in the soles and cushion in the footbed, and worst of all, they had a rigid back section (at this point let me remind everyone that I am a technology commentator and journalist, rather than a sports writer, so if I’ve named anything incorrectly I apologise, but you get the general idea). The area above the heel supporting the ankle and Achilles was rigid and almost sharp along the top edge – I’ve had everyday trainers like that before and they rubbed me half to death walking around town, so I couldn’t cope running 26 miles. The New Balance had to go, no matter how cheap they were. 

Adidas were third in line, and got off to a pretty good start. They felt supremely lightweight, and roughly comparing the weight it almost seemed half that of the New Balance. This was very promising. They had a few different models, and while I loved the ‘trail’ pair (for fell-running, scrambling etc) they weren’t what I needed – perhaps another day when I have different performance requirements. The other options were ‘cushioning’ or ‘response’ and both seemed fairly similar. The cushioning pair, as the name suggests, were very soft and padded, with an incredibly generous footbed and highly impact absorbent sole. Response, on the other hand were more light-weight and less padded, perhaps geared towards runners with perfect technique or no carried injuries (I was neither) so I decided the cushioning shoe, the CSH 18 (priced around £70) was my new favourite. Everyone had told me that if you want a performance running shoe, don’t buy anything without first trying Asics. I remember as a kid Asics were a poor relation of the ‘fashionable’ trainer world compared with the likes of Nike and Adidas, but I’d heard their runners were top-drawer. What also helps is they’re the only brand in my little test to come in half sizes, which can be crucial with endurance events – the last thing anyone needs on a marathon is a blister (just ask Eddie Izzard). They are also very expensive. The cheapest model was around £50 but that was very basic, and I only felt I was really wearing a performance shoe when I got up to around the £90 mark. They seemed to have great balance and weight distribution, but they didn’t feel as comfortable or supportive as the Adidas.

 In the interest of being thorough, I took an Asics shoe costing a whopping £130 down from the shelf and tried it on – it felt fantastic. It might just have edged the Adidas, but not by a huge amount. The Asics are great shoes, but I think they’re only worth paying the extra for them if you struggle with the standard whole sizes and need something in a half size for comfort reasons. If not, then the Adidas CSH 18 might just be the trainer for you – it’s served me well for the past 3-4 weeks, and I’ve got a month until the event so I’ve timed my change perfectly.

Adidas CSH 18

The Adidas CSH 18 trainer is comfortable, great looking and high quality without a ridiculous price.

 2. Watch

A watch is vitally important to any runner, even to those of us who aren’t going to be sub four hours at the marathon this April. Why? Because it’s about the pace being constant, not fast, that gets you around the course. Set off too hard and you’ll suffer for it later, but set off too slow and you’re prolonging the pain of the race more than you need to. Finding your own pace is important. There are actually a lot of technical solutions to the watch question out there, with the Garmin Forerunner series being one of the best. They’re actually GPS enabled watches that utilise satellite navigation technology to work out how far you’ve travelled and how fast you’re going at any given time, and some also come equipped with other handy functions like a heart rate monitor and even a radio. They really are great pieces of kit, but they’re not cheap, with an RRP of £199 on the cheapest model.

Garmin Forerunner

The Garmin Forerunner is an amazing bit of kit, but very pricey, especially if you're only training for one event and won't want to run ever again after it's over.

Smartphones like the Apple iPhone are also GPS enabled, which is ordinarily utilised for mapping and navigation technology (Nokia Ovi Maps, for example) but this same technology can also be used for training. Various apps (some free, some pricey) can be downloaded to your phone that allow this functionality and it’s a great idea to use a piece of technology you already have, and can really save you money. The one drawback is that it’s still a phone – you’re not wearing it on your wrist like the Garmin, it will lock itself after a few seconds of inactivity, and it’s basically a bit of a fiddle to use while you’re on the run. So the simple answer, then, is to get an ordinary watch. It has to be digital and it has to have a stopwatch function, but apart from that it really is up to you. I made sure I bought one with an LED backlight because training for the London Marathon mostly takes place over winter (dark, miserable, cold) and I got one that’s waterproof for the same reason (I get rained on a lot) but it only cost me around £10 (a Nike Typhoon, from eBay in the end I think). Because you don’t have the benefit of navigation built-in, you need to be a little smarter with your preparation – using a site like GMap Pedometer allows you to not only plan your route for total distance, but work out where your waypoints and landmarks are for calculating distance. This then allows you to control your average speed with a little simple mental arithmetic, and is vital for finding the right pace.

Nike Sports Watch

With a little planning, a cheap sports watch is just as good as a GPS super watch (well, almost).

 3. Fuel

Basic science: when we exercise, we expend energy and lose fluids. If we don’t stock up on this energy before, and replace this energy and lost fluids during exercise, we will feel unwell and fall down. I know this only too well. More specifically, the energy we require before/during exercise is best served in the form of carbohydrates (they’re not evil and they don’t need cutting out to stop you getting fat – you just need to exercise to burn them off, lazy dieters). This usually means eating lots of pasta and potatoes, which to be honest is no great hardship for me. But during is more difficult. As much as I’d like to take a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise with me on a run, that’s slightly impractical, so the next best thing is sugar, and glucose is the best way to achieve that. As for fluids, you need to keep topping them up regularly (infrequent big gulps will make you unwell) and while water is fine, because you’re not just losing the volume of fluid itself (you’re also losing salt, electrolytes and precious minerals in your sweat) you ideally need to complement it with something more, an isotonic sports drink for example. At the London Marathon re-hydration is covered by the organisers. Every couple of miles there are alternating stalls with bottled water and isotonic sports drinks. There are literally hundreds of tonnes of water and sports drink around the course, and for good reason – the average runner will need at the very least two pints of fluid over the course of a marathon, but the most they can realistically carry without impedance is under a pint. As Lucozade are one of the official partners/sponsors of the event, it’s their drinks that will be coming up at those alternating drinks stalls (and in the interest of fairness, Vittel are the plain water) so runners need to practice using the Lucozade drinks in advance. It may sound silly, but because the task is so momentous, if you practice for 6 months with Gatorade (for example) then switch to a different compound like Lucozade, you may find that your performance suffers on the day. Scary stuff, and clever market manipulation by Lucozade, but I still appreciate that they’re doing it.

Lucozade Sport

Also rather useful as a hangover remedy.

As for re-fuelling, that’s traditionally been more tricky. Runners have in the past relied on calorific foodstuffs like chocolate, flapjack and Kendal mint cake (the hiker’s favourite) for a quick shove of energy. This year for the first time Lucozade are also providing a handful of stalls around the course with their carbo-energy gels, a sort of concentrated Lucozade sport drink that isn’t particularly tasty, but is compact and light, and seems to do the job. I have been practising with them and they do a good job, so I will be running with several strapped to my middle because I’m sure they’ll be scarce on the stalls by the time I get around. 

Lucozade Gel

Not the tastiest thing on the planet, and probably not so hot for teeth.

Anything else? Well, there is one other thing you can try on race day that will take the edge off your hunger and might just give you that little extra burst – sweets. Jelly babies, jelly beans and other highly concentrated sugary sweets can be a big help, and like the carbo gels, are small and easy to cram in. Lucozade have even brought out some specific runner’s jelly beans, which I am interested to try. I’m also told that as part of the great crowd spirit on marathon day, kids line the streets with jelly babies for the runners, which is a lovely idea 🙂 

Jelly Babies

Mmmm, now that's much more like it.

 4. Medical

The simple fact is, the human body is pretty fragile and obviously depending on how you’ve treated it over the years, some are more fragile than others. I used to play rugby union a lot when I was younger, and one of the hazards of that is knee problems. Knee problems in turn can lead to other compensatory injuries (such as feet or ankles) but my big issue is shin splints. They’re pretty unpleasant, and just about the worst injury you can carry for distance running as most other things can be treated. Shin splints, unfortunately, can’t. They’re effectively a compression of the shin bone under downward pressure or weight that ache when the weight is off, and send shooting pains up through your knees and to your lower back when it’s on. Nasty stuff. 

Shin X-Rays

All I can recommend for shin splints is stay off them if you can. Don't be stupid like me and run a marathon.

The key is not to suffer if you don’t have to, though. That doesn’t mean pulling out of the marathon, by the way. What I mean is that if there’s a way to diminish your pain or discomfort, then do it, no matter what it is. New trainers have certainly helped, with added padding and fresh, uncompressed cushioning, but my shin splints are fairly bad and I needed more. Having done some research online I found that neoprene compression supports, worn around the shin and calf, might help alleviate the pressure and reduce my pain, even though they won’t cure it completely. I picked up a pair for around £8 (again, eBay) and tried them out – they’re not an absolute cure, but they make it far better than before I wore them, so that’s a definite win (even if I do look like I’m wearing knee-length stockings in them – like I said, no matter what it is). 

Shin Support

You wouldn't think something so simple would help so much, but it really does.

Medication is the other thing all athletes need to be prepared for. You will get sore, you will get swolen, you will get chipped and cracked and painful, and leaving it to heal naturally on its own might not be an option if you have training or an event to complete. My advice: get everything as strong as you can. Aspirin or paracetamol aren’t as effective something codeine-based like co-codamol. Ibuprofen is good for swelling, but diclofenac is stronger – if you can get a spray or gel with ibuprofen or diclofenac suspension in it all the better, because that’s targeted relief. It also pays to know what you can take to compliment each other and what you can’t – I know from asking my doctor, for example, that while you can’t supplement co-codamol with paracetamol (this would be an overdose) you can take co-codamol and ibuprofen at the same time because they have different base compounds and different effects. And please remember – I am not a doctor and you shouldn’t go out and start taking medication on my say so. Always speak to your doctor, your pharmacist or a nurse and find out what’s best for you. All I’m saying is don’t be afraid to have some handy because you might just need it. 

5. Anything else?

Stretch. Stretch a lot. Always make sure you’re properly stretched (always stretch your upper body and neck as well as your legs – the impact of running can affect your body in different ways) and be sure to warm up thoroughly before and after every training session. Training with someone else helps too and can be great motivation – I’m running the marathon with my other half Emma, and we’ll be crossing the line together in a month. 

Other than that, have fun! It’s a pretty massive endeavour but I’m still looking forward to it – the atmosphere on the day and the feeling of achievement and satisfaction are going to be well worth all the hard work. If your event is less distance, or even a different discipline, the same principles apply – get the right kit, keep yourself refueled, and look after your body as best you can. 

Oh, and if you’re doing something like this and you’ve not already chosen to run for a charity (some people really do just run the marathon for the sake of running it rather than to raise money, strange as it sounds) please choose one and earn them some money. Charities rely on insane people like me to do ridiculous things in order to keep them going, and it’s important that continues. I’m running for Cancer Research UK after being diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago (I’ve not let it slow me down)  so if you’d like to sponsor me then please visit my JustGiving page.




One response

1 04 2010

Best of luck dearie I’m rooting for you!

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