Paul Northup – VLM Training

In his second blog, Paul Northup, CLC Striders’ Virgin London Marathon representative, shares his training plans.

What type of training plans have worked well in the past?

None of my plans have worked out all that well before. Probably because I was doing them in isolation, off my own bat. I was making them up as I went along (which is largely how I‘ve lived my life, but I recognise isn’t the best strategy for preparing for a marathon). Both first and second time around with my running, I’ve always just defaulted to pulling my trainers on and leaving the house and going for a run. This time, things will be different. They need to be!

What did you learn about training for marathons previously?

Overall, I’ve learnt three key things:

  1. That you can peak too early. With the past three marathons I’ve run, I’ve felt in the right sort of shape a bit too early. And then I’ve usually picked up a mildly nagging injury to boot which has meant running a little cagily on the day. This time, despite doing more training than I’ve done before and running longer earlier, I want to feel like I’m getting stronger and stronger right up until the few weeks before the race.
  2. That you can run your best race as part of the preparation, rather than in the marathon itself. Last year, just under three weeks before the Bethlehem marathon, I ran the Gloucester 20. Sage advice from Chris Hale and others was to take it really easy. To hold back. Just to enjoy it. And so I set off planning to run the first half marathon section (the first 13 miles) at 7:30min/mile pace. Which is what I did. Ish. But I felt really fresh and relaxed at 13 miles and so I started to pick things up. Just to see. Just to test myself. I ran each of the last seven miles successively faster, finishing with a 6:35 mile and feeling really strong. Everything felt right. I only wished I’d pushed harder in the early part of the race and clocked a better overall time.
  3. That I need to run out beyond 20 miles before the race. Those last six miles in a marathon are like another country. And in each of the marathons I’ve run so far I’ve suffered and slowed terribly after 20 miles and regretted never having run out beyond 20 miles in training. In my experience it’s not true to say that adrenaline and the crowd will take you those last six miles. It just doesn’t work like that. I don’t want to find myself reaching out to St John’s volunteers, thinking their handfuls of vaseline are food in the latter part of this year’s London marathon. I want to feel mentally and physically stronger than that. And that means visiting the country that is those last six miles a few times before the race itself. Just to get my bearings and acclimatise. Who knows, I might even enjoy visiting that country by the time I’m through!

Where do you source your training plan from?

From my own experience; from reading various plans online; from talking to Chris Hale about his training; but above all by absorbing what I hear from you all on Monday and Wednesday nights about your training and what you do (not just in preparation for marathons). I want to be as prepared as I possibly can be. But I don’t want a plan that’s going to suffocate my life.

What is your training plan for the VLM?

What I’m committed to are some guiding principles, more than a detailed, day-by-day plan. (I do have one of those, of course – it’s just that I’m trying not to be too neurotic about it if and when I need to flex and break it from time to time.)

The principles of my plan include:

  • To keep doing speed sessions as and when I can. I’m usually away in London with work on a Wednesday night but am trying to arrange my meetings so I can make it back for every other week. It’s those efforts which I am convinced will make all the difference. I know I need them in the mix.
  • To run up at least one serious hill each week. Since I’ve been getting back into running, I’ve avoided hills at all costs. Silly, really. But then, after the Malvern cross-country last autumn, I realised what a big mistake that was. I set myself the challenge of running up Aggs Hill each week. I’ve been true to that, but, if I’m honest, I don’t always manage to run all the way up it each week. Some weeks it gets the better of me and I have to walk a small section. Overall, though, I think I’m coping with it better over time and I no longer pause for breath and rest at the top but I push straight on over towards Whittington. This isn’t very sophisticated and it isn’t Kenyan Hill Reps (which I’ve read about and watched Mo doing). It’s just me. It’s what I want to do. And I do think it’s building strength – both physical and mental.
  • To do one long run each and every week (no matter what other races I have on). I was already running a half marathon distance run most weeks in the autumn, so it’s been relatively easy to step those runs up to 14, 16 and then 18 miles already by mid-Jan. No matter what the rhythm of the week holds (cross-country included) I want to run one long run each week.
  • To do one tempo and / or one mid-range run at tempo each week. For this I have Chris Hale to thank. I try to latch on to every offer he puts out of a midweek run as I know that he can push me. A perfect week would involve a Monday night six miles with the club, averaging seven minute-miling (or faster if Mr Charles Goodwin is around!) and then a second tempo run with Chris and others later in the week. Because I lack the sort of burner speed the best guys in the club have, I find I can use Monday as an effective tempo (or threshold) run more often than not! And it’s great to belong to a club now and have the chance to meet up with others to run in the week. (Thank you!)
  • But my last principle is perhaps the most important. It’s that whatever plans I have, they must be flexible. Running is not my life. It’s something that helps me live life and enjoy it better. I have four boys and a job that takes me to London for at least two days a week. Plus, I am supposed to be training for the World Series Olympic distance Tri in Leeds in June (which means I should be in the pool at least twice a week – I’m slacking badly on that front right now). So, while I want to do my best to be as disciplined in my training as possible, some things are just more important.

BTW, I publish my data to Garmin Connect and then I’ve linked that to Strava – for anyone with time to kill! (I’m not big into data and stats myself!)

What is different about this plan?

I’m going to run more long miles from earlier on in the schedule. Before, when I’ve been training for a marathon, I’ve built up towards a one-off 20-mile run and then backed right off straight away. On reflection, I’ve never really built the strength, endurance, the muscle and mental memory and the confidence that is necessary to be up on your feet, running for more than three hours. This time, I’d like to run a 20-mile run by the end of January (and I’m on track for that!), so that then that sort distance just feels like my default long run, anytime I want to take things out that far. The idea being that, knowing 20 miles is in the bag (a good few times), I can then run out to 22 and even 24 miles as part of the prep, too. Something I’ve never done before.

I’m going to make much more of an effort to do speed work (when I can), whereas before it’s been all about the mileage. The speed sessions at CLC are the things I am convinced will make the most difference to my running. I regret that I’m away most Wednesdays and I’m working out ways I can plug into them as often as I can over the next three months. I’m also entering short races like the Linda Franks Five and the Bourton 10k and (when I’m not cajoling my young twins around the lake) I’ll try to blast a few parkruns, too.

I’m going to make sure that I run up at least one horrid hill each week. (It will usually be Aggs Hill – although, living where we do, I know that “other hills are available”.)

What do you see as the challenges you’ll have to overcome?

For me a lot of this is in my mind. Mental preparation and strength are almost as important as the physical regime, I think. It gets boring running for that long. Your mind wanders. You drift off and realise that you’ve let your pace drop or that you’re not driving forward as much as you should be. And then there’s the tenacity involved in your mind making you keep running. In each of the three marathons I’ve run to date, because of various failings, I’ve ended up walking sections in the last six miles. That’s partly because of physical fatigue. But it’s also to do with a lack of metal focus and steel.

Because of family life (and wanting one) I have to do my long runs before things kick in on a Sunday. Which means being on the road by 6.30am at the latest usually. So I go out relying on fuel and hydration from eating the night before. It’s also pitch dark and so I have to stick to street-lit roads. You’d be amazed how tortuous it is to work out a really long run without running out to Churchdown through Badgeworth! I’m getting to know Cheltenham very well!

I haven’t even mentioned nutrition and rest. But I know they are key and I don’t do well with either if I’m honest.

How will you prepare yourself for those challenges?

Getting used to longer mileage earlier on. Making it second nature. Being bothered about my mile times on my long training runs. Not letting them slip but instead trying to improve them over the course of the run. Perhaps investing in a good head torch and some really bright high vis gear for those early mornings on the lanes.

What races do you have planned as part of your plan?

I want to run as many of the cross country fixtures for the club that I can. I’m running the Linda Franks Five this Sunday (24th Jan) for the first time. I’m running one of my favourite local races in mid-February – The Dursley Dozen. (I can thoroughly recommend it as a great adventure and challenge, BTW.) I’ve entered the Bourton 10K at the end of February (although if I’m honest I think the prospect of trying to bag a decent 10k time is more daunting that running the marathon – I find it such a hard distance to get right). I’m doing The Gloucester 20 again – but this time I’ll try to race it a bit more than I did last year. And then I just might run the Bethlehem Half Marathon on 1 April if I can get the time and funds to work out. (I know a group who are going out to run again there this year and I’m sorely tempted to join them.)