Why You Can't Buy a Fast Marathon

Earlier this week, I was scrolling through social media and came across an article being shared around different running related accounts. It was an article in the Wall Street Journal discussing “The Next Level of Marathon Training”. You can find the article HERE. This article was touting all the fancy devices and modalities available that claim to help you prepare for a marathon.

I disagree with most of the claims in this article and wanted to highlight why this a focus on devices is not helpful to runners looking to improve their ability to compete. This type of writing confuses runners. It makes them think that the road to a successful marathon is through tips and tricks and not through slow, consistent training. You can buy a lot of things, but you can’t buy a good marathon. 

Training for distance events is hard. It takes a large time commitment, the improvements will be slow and when you begin each workout you will often question why you are even doing it in the first place. You sacrifice calories, social events, and other hobbies to train. Many of my clients go to work, spend time with their family/friends and train. That’s about it. To really reach your peak in the sport, there is not much time for else. You certainly need to have balance, and running should not consume your entire life, but if someone is telling you it does not take a substantial commitment to reach your individual potential in distance running they are lying to you. 

The overwhelming majority of you reading this, if not all of you, are not elite runners. In order to be elite at something you need to pick the right parents and practice for a long freaking time. However, there is no shortage of companies willing to sell you things that claim to help runners perform or recover. That is why when you open up an article of Runners World half the magazine is ads. Now, I won’t deny that many of these things feel good. Soft tissue massage, compression and other modalities generally feel good after a hard effort. Just because something feels good does not mean that you are in a better position to train and compete. This is a conversation I have with my patients and clients frequently. We should be careful to associate those two things. 

Could you get some improvements from the devices listed? Maybe, but they would be extremely, extremely small. Think one sprinkle on top of a giant cake small. If you are an elite athlete whose job is to perform in order to put food on the table, that sprinkle matters. It is still incredibly small compared to the more important aspects of training. To make claims that high tech services play a large role in improving your abilities in distance running does a complete disservice to anyone who puts in the work to compete in these events. From the parent with three kids and a job training for a sub four hour marathon, to the elite competitor trying to make it to the Olympic medal stand, the route to those achievements is through consistency over a long time.

When looking at elites they are looking for literally anything that will give them the slightest improvement in race day performance. Eliud Kipchoge is looking to run a sub two hour marathon in the near future which is absolutely insane. Seconds matter to him so the slightest chance to improve something is important. He’s also a once in a generation talent that has substantial genetic gifts and has been an elite level runner for close to two decades. Lowering his race pace by one second matters. All avenues should be explored to put him in the best position to achieve that monumental task.

What should you spend your money on?

Maybe you do have some extra cash lying around to invest in your running. Here is where I would invest your extra bucks. 

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Hire a Good Coach

Some runners are able to achieve incredible achievements while being self coached, but many struggle with coaching themselves because of the many variables going into training. To be better at running, you often have to run smarter. Sometimes that means running more, running faster, or running farther, but simply more is not always better. I’m lucky in that I get to talk to fantastic coaches on a daily basis. Whether talking with Jeremy and Jessica Hammer, owners of KC Endurance, or with Runners Zone administrators Chris Johnson and Joel Sattgast, I get to see awesome coaches at work on a daily basis. A good coach is able to appropriately determine the stimulus you need to get ready for race day. For many runners that information can be hard to hear because they either need to be honest about their commitment to the task or check their ego at the door. 

There are many runners that simply need to run more to be better at running. For many novice runners simply increasing their training volume at an easy pace will improve their abilities significantly. Even though it sounds counterintuitive, some more overzealous runners will improve by actually running less. Sometimes it’s letting runners know they need to run slower on their easy runs or faster on their workouts. It’s never as simple as more, more, more. You have to fit the right training plan to the individual based on their schedule, past experience and long term goals. That’s where a quality coach can be a game changer. 

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Consult with a Dietician

Nutritional intake is extremely important both in training and during a race. Consulting with someone whose professional career is based around mastering nutrition can be an extremely helpful asset for an endurance athlete. Not only can they be helpful with fueling strategies and advise on intake for recovery from training sessions, they can help investigate any potential disordered eating that can be present. We continue to learn how common disordered eating is in all endurance athletes both female and male. Having a good local dietician is a necessity for any endurance athlete. 

There has been a big increase in the focus on eating in the fitness world in general. With the advent of social media literally anyone can be a “nutrition expert” without formal training or the ability to critically discern information to make appropriate decisions for an individual endurance athlete. 

I would also recommend to great texts by expert dietitians Rebecca McConville and Marni Sumbal. They are both very easy reads and packed with lots of practical advice for novices and experts alike. They both are fantastic at this stuff when it comes to the unique demands of endurance sports. 

Find Becca’s book HERE and Marni’s HERE

The path to a good race is through consistent training over time. Don’t let someone sell you on anything different.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan Carlson DPT, USATF


Nathan CarlsonRunning