Just one year ago I was in their shoes and frankly, I was terrified - of the unknown but also of the potential for failure. In my mind, if I wasn't able to hack it on a 20 mile training run, I'd never in a million years be able to do 10k on top of that and successfully finish a marathon. I was also afraid that it would be a terrible experience and that I would never want to do it again and hence, would be miserable for the rest of training and for the marathon itself.
As with so many things, there are 438,413,043,180 articles, blogs, and boards that you could read for advice on how to survive your first twenty mile run. The problem with that is that nobody has time to read 438,413,043,180 articles, blogs, or boards and that even if you could read just 10 of them, you'd likely get 10 different takes that probably even contradict each other. I know this because I tried to come up with the perfect plan last year.
In the end, the sea of information was too overwhelming and I ended up relying upon two things: 1) advice from my trusted teammates and friends, and 2) my own experience to that point.
In an effort to pay it forward and maybe help out some of the Team Midnight 20 Mile Virgin Club, I'm going to take a few minutes to share how I have tackled my 20 mile runs. To be sure, I'm no expert - I have only run 20 or more miles 6 times - but thankfully, each time has turned out to be a not-so-bad (and sometimes even joyous!) experience.
Step One: It's Just One More Mile
This was the approach I take for every single training run as things start to ramp up. Without a doubt, the mental aspect of your "longest run ever" has the biggest impact on your performance. For me, the way to deal with it is not think of it as 20 miles, but rather as the longest run I've done + a few. For most of the first-timers on MTT, that figure is 19 + 1.
Let's think about that for a minute.
This weekend, you will run one measly mile more than you ever have before. At this point, running a mile is such a walk in the park that you barely even notice you've done it. Remember that when you get to 19. You could run that mile in your SLEEP.
Mind games = solved.
Step Two: Preparation
Hey party animals, I hate to break it to you, but to successfully complete your 20 miler and not feel like death, you are going to have to become a well-behaved social outcast starting 48 hours beforehand. For MTT Midnight, that means Thursday which is tough. I can't tell you how much I miss having a nice glass (or two...) or wine on Friday night after a long work week.
But hey, training for a marathon is tough. If you're not up for it, stay out on your Friday nights drinking and go run a half instead (JUST KIDDING!).
Preparation comes in three parts for me: meal planning, being mindful about hydration, and
making smart activity choices.
Meal Planning - Everyone is different when it comes to what foods they can and cannot handle before a long run. I found out the hard way that dairy is a NO GO for me. So I make sure that consumption of cheese, yogurt, cream-based sauces, and ice cream is kept to a minimum, especially on Friday. As a cheese and ice cream lover, this very hard for me.
But again, training for a marathon requires sacrifices. And besides, after the run, I can eat as much cheese and ice cream as I want.
I also steer clear of coffee/lattes/cappuccinos of any kind the night before, soda, big salads, fried foods, and any kind of medicine that isn't a part of my daily routine. Even if I have a huge headache or congestion the night before a run, I won't take an Advil or Sudafed. It's so ugly the next day that I'd rather try to fight through it than risk the alternative.
Oh - and Mexican or beans. Not a good idea. Trust me on that one.
In those 48 hours leading up to the long run, I try to up my carb intake and calorie intake, focusing on protein and good fats like avocado, olive oils, breads, peanut butter, nuts, granola, and eggs. My fuel of choice for the night before the run is usually either a pasta with olive oil or tomato based sauce and chicken or a baked potato with minimum butter alongside a giant lean cut of steak. Both come with additional bread (of course).
Hydration - Then there is the hydration. Being runners, we all just loooooooove to talk about what we like to eat, but not so much about how much we should love to drink water too. I think that a lot of people just assume they can drink the night before or morning of and be ok. For some, it probably works. For me, I start to consciously drink more water at least the day before. I like to think of myself as a camel getting ready to make a long trek - gotta stock up on that water. Of course I realize that people are not camels and it doesn't exactly work that way, but you get the idea.
By the way, here are some things that don't count as hydration:
- Any other alcohol
Activity Level - Perhaps the hardest thing to be smart about is the activity piece of things. And it's the easiest to over look.
I try my best to not do anything on a Friday (cross train or run) before a super long training run. I'd prefer my legs to be as fresh as possible.
I try not to be on my feet excessively the day before either, whether it's standing still or walking around a lot. (For instance, going to an amusement park and walking around the park + standing in one spot while in long lines is not a good idea the day before your 20.)
Even though it pains me, I typically don't go out to movies or game nights or other social gatherings on Friday. I go home, I fuel up, I lay out the stuff I need for the next day, and I go to sleep. Make sure you get a really good night of sleep. It's boring and makes you a social outcast, but that is the price you pay to be a marathoner.
Step Three: Run It
You're ready, mentally and physically, so now just go do what you do - run.
Use the 20 as a test for marathon day.
- Wear your marathon outfit.
- Don't dawdle at the SAGs - get what you need and go. On marathon day, you won't stand around and gab at SAGs, so practice that now.
- Carry whatever you plan to carry - water, fuel, phone - so that you know if it will get on your nerves or not.
- Try different fueling options. I fuel on pretzels, gummi bears, and candy corn, since that is what I'm used to from SAGs. If you're going to attempt Gu, sport beans, energy chews, etc you'd better do it now.
- Practice drinking and/or eating while running. I still stink at drinking on the run, but have gotten slightly better.
- When you get tired, imagine what you would do on race day. Try to find it within yourself to keep running, no matter what.
Don't be surprised if you get emotional near the end of your first 20. I still get goose bumps thinking about mine. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried a little bit.
Step Four: Aftermath
You just ran 20 miles, woo hoo! That means you can sit on the couch for the next 10 hours and not move a muscle until you transfer yourself into your bed, right?
That is probably the worst thing you can do.
It's simple physics - a body in motion stays in motion.
Try to walk a little and stay somewhat active for at least part of the rest of the day. You will hurt a lot more the next day if you don't. I usually feast, then go home, shower, put on compression socks, take a nap, then try to be active around the house - even if it just doing laundry or cleaning.
Oh, and make sure you CELEBRATE. You were a well-behaved monk for 48 hours - go out and reap the rewards now.
So that is my not-so-sage advice for tackling your 20 miler. I feel like I can stand by it, because of all of my 20+ mile runs, only one of them was miserable (Raleigh Rock n Roll Marathon, I'm looking at you). To be honest, the rest were actually pretty great. Empowering. FUN, even - because I have found what works for me.
Do you have to do all of this stuff? Nope. I bet you could run twenty miles even without thoughtful preparation and rest. A lot of people do. But here's my thing - do you want that 20 miles to be a slog, or do you want to feel victorious when it is over? Do you want to do it just to get it over with, or do you want to feel like you have improved and grown as a runner?
For me, I don't want to go on a half assed 3+ hour run at the butt crack of dawn on a Saturday morning. If you're going to do it, why not do your best?
With that, I'll wish you happy prepping and see you all out there on Saturday!
Further reading on my 20+ experiences from last year's MTT, if you're interested or bored:
First 20 Miler Ever