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How to Run a Marathon

A downpour of rain isn’t enough to deter the Common Runners from their weekly 5km Social Run on Wimbledon Common, and this week, in honour of International Women’s Day, they were joined by inspirational ex-Olympic marathon runner Mara Yamauchi. Born in Kenya before studying at Oxford University and LSE, Mara is the second fastest British female marathon runner of all time, second only to Paula Radcliffe.

After the run, the mud-splattered runners and T&L – shamefully minus the muddy trainers – quizzed Mara on her Olympic career, her tips for running a marathon and how to eat for energy. She even revealed Paula Radcliffe’s secret marathon technique. Here’s the full Q&A.

Warning: may prompt an urge to go on a long run!

Q: Did you ever doubt in your mind that you would become an Olympian?

A: Yes, there was a lot of doubt. I had this dream to become an Olympian when I was 11 years old, but when you’re that age you have no idea how to organise or do anything. When I left university, I wasn’t good enough to become a full-time athlete – I had to work, so I went into the civil service. But I never lost that wish to be an elite athlete, and when I was 29 years old I thought, right, I’m really going to give it a go.

It was stop-start. I had the motivation to do it, but I couldn’t always afford to do it, and then when I could afford to do it I switched my work to part-time so that I could train, and then I got to the point where I could leave work and earn a living as an athlete.

Q: Any basic advice for those who have just started running?

A: Setting challenging, but realistic goals is useful – if you don’t have a goal, it can feel a bit aimless, and there are just too many decisions to make, whereas if you have a goal it can be quite clear what you need to do to get there and it can help structure your training. And concentrate on yourself, as comparing yourself to others can be quite damaging sometimes.

Q: How did you manage a work-training-life balance?

A: I started off doing a jobshare with a colleague, later on I did 70% time, so I worked 10am-4pm and trained morning and evening. I was very lucky that my employer was flexible, but with flexible working I think you just need to ask for what you want, and present it in a way in which your employer can say ‘Yes, let’s have a go.’
When you watch the Olympics on telly it all looks incredibly glamorous and wonderful and easy, but actually it’s not easy at all. In elite athletics, for every Mo Farah and Jess Ennis who have big sponsorship deals and earn a lot of money, there are many who really are living on very little. And then if you’re injured and can’t compete, that’s income coming off. So it’s a very unstable existence, but if that’s what you love, the love of it and the motivation makes you work for it.

I don’t have children – I know a lot of you do – and I know it can be a real challenge fitting it all in. So what I did, in a way, is a lot easier than what working mothers are doing, because it was quite compartmentalised.

Q: How do you train?

A: I used to run seven or eight days on the trot and then have a day off, and I would run twice a day about four of those days. And then I would also do about three strength and conditioning sessions a week in the gym, and drills two or three times a week for about 20-30mins. Occasionally I would do swimming or cycling, but that was mostly when I was injured, or if my legs were really sore but I had to do a session.

There’s a lot to be said for cross-training; often runners who switch to triathlons will find their running times improve, because they are getting the benefit of the other two disciplines. I’m a really big fan of strength and conditioning, particularly for beginners, because being injured is miserable. It’s also particularly important as you get older – I read that one of the Supreme Justices, an 83 year old woman, does these amazing strength exercises with her personal trainer; she can do the plank and push-ups!

Q: Do you train best on your own or with somebody on your level?

A: I think I train better with other people. I’ve done loads of training by myself, and I can get out there and do it, but it is a lot easier with other people. There’s a trade-off – if you’re running with other people, you can’t always insist on what you want to do, but then you get the camaraderie, and if you’re having a bad day it’s so much easier.

Q: If you were training three or four times a week for a marathon, what training sessions would you recommend?

A: A long run is important. Next priority would be long intervals; some form of speed training is obviously important, and for the marathon km or mile reps are always going to be more beneficial than, say, 400m. Also tempo runs, so a long sustained effort – anything from 10 minutes upwards.

The next priority I would say is what I call a fast jog – if you imagine jogging and speeding up until you can’t manage to hold a conversation, which makes it more on the fat-burning side. So it’s not interval, and it’s quite comfortable, but it’s not exactly easy running.

Q: How do you pace yourself during a marathon?

A: The marathon is quite different to other races. Any race under two hours, you can afford to be a bit ambitious, go on fast and hang on. But anything over two hours, you need to be a lot more cautious, because you get into the territory of running out of carbohydrates and hitting the wall. Doing even splits is the holy grail of the marathon, because that’s the most efficient way of getting from start to finish.

In the first half, it feels easy, and you think ‘I can go quicker than this’, but experience tells you that if you go too fast in the first half, you suffer in the second. So just try and relax, conserve your energy, and just have faith that the pace you’ve chosen is the right one.

Into the second half, it gets a lot harder, so from halfway to about 20 miles, you’re really just trying to keep things ticking over, and try not get carried away – that’s the point where you can do a lot of damage, as soon as you get halfway you think ‘oh great!’ but you still have a long way to go.

And then from 20 miles onwards, it’s usually just about trying to keep things together!

Q: How do you break through ‘the wall’ in a marathon?

A: I set myself small goals - ‘let’s just get to the next drinks station,’ ‘let’s just get to the next mile marker,’ so not thinking too far ahead, just trying to think about what you’ve got to do now. Keep your concentration in the moment. Paula Radcliffe counts. You could focus on keeping a good posture, and having relaxed arms. Avoid thinking ahead too far and letting your brain get full of negative thoughts.

Remind yourself that everybody is suffering – at 20 miles in a marathon most people are having a hard time! So if you can just do your best, despite being in that difficult situation, chances are you’ll have a good performance.

Q: After running, when you get home, what’s your favourite snack?

A: Well, I really love cake... but I probably shouldn’t recommend that! Otherwise a protein shake, a banana, some nuts, anything that’s easy to get down. Or tea with a bit of honey in it – because you’re dehydrated, so if you can make it a drink rather than a snack, so much the better.

Q: What do you have for breakfast?

A: Today I had home-made granola, greek yoghurt, full fat milk, some stewed rhubarb (that’s not typical! I just try and get a lot of variety), maybe some fruit and a bit of cinnamon. Sometimes I have eggs on toast.

On a marathon day, I used to have Japanese rice cakes, which are like a compacted bowl of rice, plus some miso soup, which is salty, so that helps you to hydrate, a few vegetables, a boiled egg – it’s protein and fibre, which reduces the glycaemic index of the carbohydrate, so you get a steady supply of energy instead of a spike and then a drop.

There’s no one menu that all runners should have – it’s really individual, and you have to do a bit of trial and error to find out what works for you. Obviously some carbs and some protein is a good place to start, nothing too fibrous. You want something that’s going to be easy to digest, will give you energy, is easy to get down, that isn’t going to send you to the toilet in the race.

Q: Have you had to work with a dietician? Was your diet strict?

A: Yes. It wasn’t particularly strict; I just tried to eat a really healthy diet. With the marathon, you need to train a lot, so you need to eat a lot to keep up energy, and you need good nutrition and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. But you have to keep your weight down, because your weight really affects your performance. I’m actually quite big for marathon-running standards! The woman who won the Athens Olympics, a Japanese woman called Mizuki Noguchi, weighs 40 kilos! My natural weight is about 56 kilos, but I was racing at about 50 kilos, so I was always trying to keep my weight down. Whenever I see really small, petite people, I always say ‘you’ve got to do the marathon!’

Q: Did you have a full-time coach from early on?

A: No, I’ve had a number of coaches, and they’ve all been voluntary really. And I’ve coached myself at times as well, so it’s been a real mixture. I think people over-rely on coaches actually – a coach is great because they can just tell you what to do and you can go and do it, you don’t have to think about it too much. But, especially when I was younger, I found that I was giving the responsibility of my performance to my coach, and when I had a bad race, I would think ‘I’m fed up with my coach.’ And then I realised that actually, it’s down to me, the performance is down to me, so I have to take care of myself and make sure I don’t get injured.

So I think it’s striking the balance between having the support of a coach, which is great, but also taking responsibility for yourself, looking after yourself, and being disciplined about training – at the end of the day, you’re the one who stands on the start line and needs to be ready to run the race.

Q: In light of it being International Women’s Day, what do you think are the features of your sport that would most attract and inspire women to join in?

A: It’s a very simple sport – if you’ve got the clothes and the shoes, you can just go out anytime, anywhere. I think a lot of women are very busy – many women have families, and are maybe working as well, so time is of the essence. So a simple sport where you can just go out for 20 minutes is one thing.

It’s good for being out in nature, for mental health it’s really good, to have something where you can just get out of the house, even if it’s pouring down, where you can just be outside.

And it can be really sociable, if you’ve got friends that you can run with, that can be really good, you can put the world to rights while you’re running!

To join the Common Runners on one of their runs, visit:

Mara Yamauchi and Caroline DunleavyMara's Beijing Olympics trainers and Medals from the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and a Team Bronze MedalMara Yamauchi Q&ASome of the Common Runners post-run