Many of my friends back in my hometown of Winnipeg just participated in the Manitoba Marathon. Seeing their months of training, hundreds of miles logged, and many an iTunes playlist completed, finally pay off on the big day made me smile and reflect upon my first marathon, which was similar in almost every respect.
Except this one: I didn’t train for it.
In February 2009, I was in the midst of my 3rd year of university, studying jazz guitar. Since that meant I was spending most of my time sitting on my ass, I thought it would be good to do some running at the gym during my free time.
Wow did that go badly. It was less than a month before I developed horrible shin splints and had to stop. As you probably know by now, I’m one who usually pushes through pain – hence my horrible tendonitis following my guitar career – so my stopping was no laughing matter.
My farthest run at that time: 3 miles (4.8km).
Fast forward to August. One day I wake up and decide, “I’m going to run a half marathon today.” I inform my parents of this, plot out my route on Google Maps, and head out.
At the end of my route I realize that – woah – I’m halfway to completing a marathon. And I know I can run half a marathon since I just did it. Putting two and two together, I decide that I may as well complete the full marathon, since I’ll probably never run such a distance again (I’m much more of a sprinter and think “low and slow” running is a counter-productive, excessive behavior).
So, passing by my house for some chocolate milk and bagels – just to arrogantly thumb my nose at more conventional training wisdom, I set off again.
The second half was much more arduous, as my body started to tell me that this wasn’t fun anymore, and there was a whole world of John Coltrane to explore if I’d just go home.
But no – at this point I really wanted the fame and prestige that comes with completing a fairly common task (0.5% of the American population has run one) with no practice. The merit badge would be mine!
When I hobbled pathetically across the finish line, I raised my arms in triumph, much to the confusion of my neighbors, who must have figured they were watching some poor injured bloke making friends with the end of his driveway.
So, the feat was done. But the real ordeal was that night. Sleep would not come easily. Barely able to move, with every muscle locked up tighter than a CEO’s funds in an offshore bank account, I had to hobble to the washroom every hour to pee, and then drink several large glasses of water because I just couldn’t rehydrate.
But two days later I was fine. Running, jumping, and eating cake like normal.
So I might say that my marathon took 2 days of training. One to run it, and another to recover from it.
For someone that has no interest in distance running, that’s some damn fine ROI. 12 or 16 week training programs? No thank you.
So the big question is: How did I do it.
How I Ran a Marathon With No Training
Let me start by saying that I’ve always been in decent shape. I haven’t exercised as much as I want to as an adult, but I’ve always managed to maintain a sub-10% body fat level and a decent capacity to generate power (just ask my 3x body-weight leg press of 400lbs).
And I’m not kidding when I said no training. I didn’t run, lift weights, play rec sports, or anything. I did some light walking occasionally as a break from 12-hour guitar sessions (incidentally, enough time to complete several real marathons!).
Then what the hell did I do?
I focused on the one thing that almost no runners ever bother to: Body mechanics.
According to Brian Mackenzie’s book “Power, Speed, Endurance,” something like 80% of runners have sustained a serious running injury. And all running injuries are avoidable. Most people don’t know how to use their bodies. And I’m allowed to say this with venom as I was the poster child for this – having lost my voice for 2.5 years because of shitty body mechanics.
But when it came to running a marathon, I nailed it.
I figured that, with my shin splints, there was no way I was going to slowly slowly work my way up to the training distances “necessary” to complete a marathon – my body would give out. My only chance was to do it in one shot. So from the start, I had to think differently than most would-be marathoners ever would.
So, what is the main reason marathoners don’t finish a marathon?
Eventually, their muscles aren’t able to generate enough force to keep going. There’s a bunch of heavy biological stuff in here about sodium pumps and what have you – point being eventually you get that jelly feeling in your legs and they quit.
In order to avoid this, I focused on eliminating as much impact force as possible from my stride.
That was the entire plan. Things like nutrition are important, but diet tweaks will only get us so far (like from mile 3 to mile 4, maybe). Minimizing impact forces took me from a 3 mile, shin splint experiencing disaster, to – half a year later – a marathon completer.
So it’s time for a crash course in Force Manipulation 101
Step One: Reduce Your Body Mass.
I had/have an unfair advantage in this category as my body mass has always been low, but with a high percentage of muscle. This makes it relatively for me to fling it in all sorts of directions without tiring.
The average American is between 10-20 pounds overweight, meaning every time such an individual makes a stride, they’re needing to use more force to support their body and their muscles tire faster.
Want to improve your distance running? Lose the extra weight. Running to lose weight? Stop immediately and change what you eat. Cardio-based exercise is an ineffective weight loss plan – sorry.
Step Two: Forefoot Strike/Barefoot Technique.
I was not a barefoot runner at this point, but if I had been my results probably would have been even better. Striking the ground with the front of our feet requires only 1/7th of the force of a heel strike, according to the fine researchers over at Harvard.
I think of this as immediately increasing your max distance by a factor of 7. It’s not at all true, but it is that important. (Well, maybe it’s a bit true, I increased my max distance 9x)
Never barefooted? Here’s how to get started courtesy of Mark’s Daily apple: LINK
Note that you don’t actually have to run your marathon this way – I didn’t. I just took the mechanical principles of barefooting and applied it to my own running. You can do the same.
Step Three: Your Optimizing Stride Rate.
I remember watching the marathon runners at the Olympics and counting how many times their feet hit the ground each second. Yes – I was really that curious. It turns out that the best distance runners in the world take 180 steps each minute. This is the pace that minimizes our time spent on the ground (overcoming friction and other nasty momentum killers) and maximizes our energy efficiency.
Run with music? Either find a bunch of drum and bass tracks at 180bpm or get yourself a metronome. 180 is your new favorite number.
Step Four: Use Gravity
Tim Ferris has a nice chapter in The 4-Hour Body that discusses this. Basically, most of us, when we walk or run, are fighting gravity. We stick out our front leg, landing on the heel, then try to pull the rest of our body to this new spot. This is insanely inefficient.
To discover a new way of moving stand up, feet together. Now lean forward until you start to fall. At this point, do whatever comes naturally.
See what happened? One of your legs caught you before your face smashed into the fridge – I hope.
This is a much more efficient mode of movement. Catching ourselves on one side, then the other, and suddenly we’re running. Also note, that when we catch ourselves, our extended leg should actually be directly below our torso, not extended forward. This is acheiving the ultimate efficiency in motion.
It feels funny at first and takes some time to get used to, but the economy of movement and the reduction of impact force is worth it.
And that’s it. Those 4 things are the totality of the things I did to go from 3 miles to 27 miles (yes, I went over the 26.2), without running a single step in between.
If I could add anything it would be this: listen to your body! There are 2 types of pain. One type is the kind you push through to develop yourself. The other kind is warning of imminent injury. Pushing through that isn’t macho, brave, or noble. It’s stupid. During my run I often stopped and stretched. Why? Because I wasn’t competing with anyone except myself. I had nothing I felt I had to prove.
And secondly, if you want to improve your running by doing some training that isn’t repetitive, high-impact obsessiveness every day, do some squats, leg presses, and/or deadlifts and really make your legs powerful. It will make propelling your body that much easier when you hit the pavement.
Finally, I’d like to offer you this piece of advice: Don’t do it! I’m all for showing people how to think differently and challenge expectations, but some things are just stupid and don’t need to be repeated. The first marathon runner died, remember?
And there can be a lot of other negative effects that you don’t want to experience.
But I know that most people who want to run a marathon won’t be dissuaded by things like “statistics” and “facts” – and that’s okay. That’s why I’m here to show you how, if you must do it, you can at least do it as effectively as possible.
Well, minus the training part. I don’t do that. Fortunately, there are plenty of others who do.
See you at the finish line!