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How elite marathoners have prepared for London showdown

Last updated 3 months ago | By Paul Ochieng and Gerald Lwande

Kenya's Brigid Kosgei smiles after winning the women's 2019 Bank of America Chicago Marathon with the World Record on October 13, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois. [Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / AFP]

The wait is over! The most anticipated race of the year is here.

This race is a culmination of many months’ work; the athletes have thought about the race from every possible angle, and equally analysed each other from every perspective, what remains now is a proof of whose analysis was on point.

To win a marathon against a strong field of elite athletes like the one assembled in London this year needs more than just opponent analysis.

So, how did the 65 elite men and women prepare for this race?

A good preparation begins with the athlete’s proper understanding of their body at least four months to the race. This body knowledge is important in structuring training, analysis of failure and testing one’s performance prior to competition.

As opposed to other athletics categories, marathoners don’t have a complete rehearsal ahead of a race. They need to build the required endurance by clocking sufficient mileage ahead of a competition.

Mileage accumulation is done twice a day via easy runs, twice a week interval training on both the track and road and weekly long endurance runs. In between all this, they have other muscle and strength building activities that could include weights and core exercises.

As the programme is being implemented, there are two major issues that must be properly controlled to ensure that an athlete sticks to their daily training regimen of nutrition and recovery. This is achieved through proper diet planning, food portion control and supplementation in the event of diet insufficiency and good quality rest sessions.

Another assessment done on the athletes at the beginning of the training season is their weight and body mass index. The objective of a nutritionist doing this assessment is to define the baseline and come up with an optimal competition weight.

Therefore, for the London marathon entrants, sometimes in June this year, they begun working on their optimal weight. The lighter an athlete is, the faster they run and the more enduring they become. However, being too light predisposes them to injury due to overtraining or malnutrition.

Among elite athletes its common knowledge to begin the day with a light breakfast prior to the morning run to have a carbohydrate intake. This is important because running on “empty” increases the likelihood of early fatigue and poor training outcomes.

Secondly, the daily easy runs of approximately 20km or the weekly long runs of 25-40km runs require proper rehydration preferably at 5km intervals to reduce the chances of collapsing or dropping out. Most of the sports drinks used for rehydration are made of water laced with sugar to replenish lost energy.

Once done with the long run, within 30 minutes, the athletes take a proper carbohydrate rich breakfast with foods like cassava, yams, sweet or Irish potatoes. Later a post training recovery sleep followed by a physiotherapy session is obligatory to prevent training related injuries. 

By the time they wake up, they usually have a great desire to eat a lot, however, they are encouraged to properly space their eating intervals with little but frequent quantities of food. A proper serving of vegetables and plant proteins is encouraged with lower quantities of carbohydrates.  

For an elite marathoner, choice of fruits and vegetables is very important. Citrus fruits and wild vegetables should be used post intensive training sessions such as fartleks (interval road runs), track and long runs.

Taking such acidic food products prior to these high intensity sessions increases hyperacidity and may reduce an athlete’s pain-tolerance levels. Therefore, a rich serving of pawpaw, avocado, white cabbages that are considered less acidic is a prudent alternative.

This regimen is often repeated for the first three months of preparation.

Athletics - London Marathon - London, Britain - April 28, 2019 Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge celebrates winning the men's elite race with the trophy as he poses after setting a new course record. [REUTERS/Paul Childs

At the beginning of September (one month to the race), the London marathon elites started to reduce the mileage quantity through shorter easy and long runs, less strenuous track and fartlek sessions.

The objective is to begin conserving energy ahead of the “big day” for the marathon. The travelling itinerary is properly planned based on the time zone difference. The wider the time-zone difference, the earlier the athletes leave to give them ample time for their bodies to adjust to the shift.

Earlier this week, when the athletes arrived in London, they had more easy runs and physiotherapy sessions to condition their muscles for the task ahead. The nutritionists had meticulously planned their meals in advance.

Ordinarily, the athletes are encouraged to stick to the diet they are familiar with.

The night prior to the race is the make or break eve. The athlete should take high carbohydrate foods ahead of the race day. The following morning, a high animal or plant protein diet (based on availability) is the optimal choice. This is because proteins are slow digesting products and the athlete will not feel hungry over a longer period.

Come race day, on the start line, all the athletes will be on their own. The coaching and technical staff now left behind; it will be up to each athlete to put into action the four months of training.

Once the race is underway, the next available stop for rehydration and carbohydrate reloading will the next 5-kilometres interval fluid stations.

Gone are the days when the fluid stations had sugar laced water. Nowadays, many sports drinks companies such as Maurten and Winforce have been developing innovative rehydration products that are mixed with high sugar concentrations (of up-to per cent) and salts.

This is because, the athletes lose a lot of water, energy and salts as they sweat in the course of the marathon. As athletes run, some may not consume enough sugar due to anxiety or time, therefore, these companies have developed hydrogels -which are basically semi-solid, easy to chew and swallow gels.

Currently, the trending hydrogel is the Maurten Gel 100 that has about 25g of carbohydrates per serving. Alternative hydrogels like those from Winforce come in a variety of flavours and some can even be crunchy based on the athlete’s preference. Eliud Kipchoge tried the Maurten Gel 100 - that was stuck on his sports drink bottle- during the INEOS 1:59 marathon.

Tomorrow as the race progresses, it will be very evident who had the best analysis of their opponents, who stuck to their dietary regimens and who trained hardest.

Will these plus the efficiency at the fluid stations determine who will carry the day?

Let us wait and see.

Paul Ochieng ([email protected]) is a Sports Economist and Dean of Students at Strathmore University and Gerald Lwande ([email protected]) is a Biomedical Scientist

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