Learning From Mistakes

This year's marathon preparation was almost a contrast to my 2009 effort. This year I made some significant mistakes that kept me a fair distance from any attempt at a personal best. Two years ago I got a lot right which resulted in a PB of over 10 minutes. Often it is important to focus on the positives and take the best from each situation. On the other hand, I also think it is important to analyse the mistakes to understand why they happened, where the future risks are and to develop strategies to not make them again.


Instead of going the miniature and covering every speed variance in each run versus heart rate, or marking kilometers covered versus sleep, it will be more useful to take a larger view of my training. The outline of goals versus the type of training actually completed and in relation to the rest of life will be more useful. Let's get into it.

The Goals

I wanted to run a new PB at the Melbourne Marathon, that meant faster than 2:58:44. There was even hope at getting down to the 2:50:xx terrirtory. Big goals. With trying to push beyond anything I have done before comes the risk of pushing too far. It is very fine line working at your limit and sometimes impossible to define until you go beyond it.

To get there idea was to have three key training phases:

  1. Base
  2. Threshold
  3. Specific
Then a taper leading into the day.


Base training was covered in Base Training - 2011. The most important goals here were:
  • Make running comfortable for 3 hours
  • Become efficient and relatively fast at low effort levels
  • Develop the strength and structure to handle the next phases of training
At the time I convinced myself I hit these goals. With hindsight I wasn't really where I needed to be. I could go and run for 3 hours any day of the week, which I translated to being comfortable. The reality was that it wasn't comfortable enough, there was always an element of struggle too it. To be honest, I was paying too much attention to pace during these runs, which meant I was always forcing it a little. This resulted not being efficient and fast enough at the lower intensities. Discussion on this topic can cover text books and forums forever, but the end result is my base and supportive mechanisms (mitochondrial density, efficient use of lipids etc.) wasn't developed enough.

I switched from Base training to Threshold training based on the dates in the calendar. With hindsight, my body hadn't followed the timeline I had imposed on it. The Base training should have continued until I had hit the three goals as listed above.


This is where everything went wrong. The plan was covered in Threshold Training - 2011. The main goals were:
  • Increase the speed and time I can sustain running at anaerobic threshold
  • Enhance ability to run relatively quick at low effort with better substrate use
From that post was a warning about the risk this training phase poses:

"This style of training can really hammer me. Not so much in the form of injury, but more in a fatigue, failure to recover or just get sick way. If I do get it right, past experience has shown I can make some impressive increases in fitness and performance."

Well it did hammer me, in the failure to recover way.

Where exactly was the problem?

Firstly I hadn't developed my Base fitness to the level required. Second I didn't take the in-between running easy enough. Only about 2% of my running was at an intensity below 70%HRmax. Trying to develop speeds closer to marathon race pace and blunt some of the recovery to prevent heading towards an early peak meant I just ran myself down. When the body is under substantial stress, like the training I subjecting it too, it can often cope very well for a short period (maybe 1 to 2 weeks) and even perform well above expectations. This is what happened to me.

However, I only performed well in some sessions. The slightly shorter, but faster work I hammered, the aerobic conditioning runs of around 60 minutes I excelled at. I felt good. However, the long runs were no where near where they should have been. Yes they did get faster, but so did my heart rates during them. I wasn't increasing my abilities at the lower effort levels. Despite getting faster at around my anaerobic threshold, I wasn't developing the ability to hold it for any longer than before. While I was getting better in some performance markers, the most important ones for the marathon weren't progressing.

It took just over two weeks for it catch up with me, but I persisted for another week convincing myself I was just being soft, and extra fatigue is just part of the equation. That extra push and persistence was my undoing. The end result was I had destroyed my body's ability to absorb the majority of training. The exact mechanisms involved will probably always be a matter of debate, but there are endocrine, parasympathetic/sympathetic autonomic imbalance and immunosuppression markers and theories. Basically many characteristics are shared with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (albeit it didn't last beyond 6 months). There is reasonable research to suggest it can take 6-12 weeks to restore the body back to a state for it to again appropriately handle training. For me it did take a good 6 weeks to get somewhere close to training enough to cover the marathon distance.


Since the marathon I have run through an analysis of what I ate during my training. For a long time I haven't put any effort into thinking about my intake. I had assumed that being having spent a few years recording every single mouthful and the intermittent checks over recent years would have been enough for me get in enough just by habit and feel.

It wasn't.

From each didn't view I took, it was clear I didn't eat enough. Depending on the reference I was chronically deficient in carbohydrate by about 200-300g/day and deficient in protein by 30-80g/day on average. The caloric gap was huge compared to what I subjecting my body to. Reasons for this included the reduced appetite due to the overtraining, missed meals due to the demands at work and how I dealt with the shifting body clock of rotating shift work. I leaned down somewhat, but not in a good way. It is impossible to ask the body to improve significantly when you aren't feeding it enough.

What Else?

Two kids, rotating shift work and the other commitments of life all play a role. There have been some mild extra stressors thrown in too. All of which affect recovery requirements. These I believe I approach well and mitigated as far as possible. Unfortunately I didn't adjust the training enough to accommodate life.

Take Home Summary

  • Good nutrition is vital, make the effort to prepare, eat enough and track what goes into the body.
  • Develop the basics before developing the extras. It takes time to create an exceptional endurance engine. Take the time to do just that.
  • Low intensity training is very important (only performing 2% of training at <70%HRmax doesn't cut it). It allows recovery, develops lipid metabolism and everything that supports it.
  • Establish genuine check points on how the body is responding to training, be honest, accurate and use the information.
  • Recovery, recovery, recovery. Without it, training doe not work.


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