Updated: Nov 17, 2021
On 16th October on the beautiful Suffolk coastline I embarked on a challenge that had been waiting for me over 30 years! It was a challenge for me but also a test of the research into the benefits of nasal breathing, putting all the theory to the test and me being the test subject.
I'd always wanted to do a marathon, as a teenager I loved all sports and almost felt like a marathon should be a normal part of the bucket list if you love sport and exercise. I felt like I should be able to do one, and wanted to prove myself right. However 'talk is cheap and money buys the whisky' right? at 38 years old I'd never done one!
My professional rugby career was always my excuse, we weren't allow to do other training that would be detrimental to performance - which is fair enough.
I'd retired in 2013 and it was now Christmas of 2020. For some reason I had a realisation of the excuse I used to make for myself around rugby 'stopping' me from doing a dream marathon was no longer stopping me. I literally then jumped on the internet and booked a off road, trail coastal marathon in Suffolk. Sounded like the perfect one for me... Suffolk is flat, right? I love being in nature rather than road running so all would be good... finding out the week before there was 300m of elevation and the distance was actually 27 miles, which technically makes it an ultra as it's more than 26.2 miles - but why I was so poorly planned is story for another day (although you'll see in the lessons below, being unplanned might have its benefits!)
One thing to mention (giving me a bit of slack) as to why I didn't jump straight into a marathon after retiring from rugby is that in 2013 it was a head injury that forced my retirement. A seizure on the training field and a bleed on the brain lead to an extended period of recovery, which in terms of running took me a full year to be able to run without headaches and other brain injury symptoms. In 2014 I did get back to running, but my first 10km in 2015 brought my symptoms back for a few days, so I was always a little cautious.
Fast forward to 2021 and all is good. Running is symptom free and all the nasal breathing has been a huge help in restoring my breathing and helping my brain fully recovery. It was time to put the nasal breathing efficiency to the test.
Lessons from my first marathon
These don't include the obvious like know the route, what safe kit the organisers make mandatory (only 2 idols like me and Mrs Jacko would wait till the week before to do that!!!)
Having had a few days to reflect, here's some raw thoughts. For context training was by no means perfect, no meals actually planned other than building up gradually and progressively from 5k to 20k and beyond... but life meant that I knew actually ran in training further then 23k (about half marathon) which surprised many as we chatted on the run... at one point I said to a lovely lady who helped navigate us when everyone got lost in the woods at around 24km into the 43km (27 miles) marathon,
"This is exciting because I've never been further than this before, I only managed to get to 23km in training...!"
[Lesson One] Breathing Efficiency
Relating to that is breathing efficiency. What training I had done was all about improving my breathing efficiency and aerobic capacity. Nasal breathing at all times during running and keeping heart rate under 180-age was key to this. Improve how efficiency each breath is at delivering oxygen to your working muscles and save you energy. By being more efficient with your breathing during aerobic exercise helps to conserve energy and one of the biggest reasons why I believe I didn’t ‘hit the wall’ during the marathon despite in training never running more than 23km. Which brings us nicely onto lesson two.
[Lesson Two] Train Smart Not Long
My ethos of training smarter not longer was not necessarily planned. I would have loved to have gone up to 20 miles or more in training, but life got in the way, it takes a lot out of you and takes a lot of time, so we only did 23km as the longest run which is only 1 or 2km more than a half. But the training was smart. It was as described in lesson one, based on improving our aerobic efficiency by focusing on the relationship or breathing and heart rate and letting that dictate our pace of running rather than trying to achieve a time for the marathon which required a certain pace.
When you are focused on being efficient and create adaptations of efficiency with your running then the distance you are going to run for starts to become less relevant, because if you stay efficient then you aren’t getting fatigue. You don’t hit the wall. You can keep on going because you’re not facing fatigue… so long as you are fuelling effectively which brings us nicely onto lesson three.
[Lesson Three] Fuelling and Nutrition
I had some great advice from @brian_keane_fitness about fuelling for marathon. He’s done some crazy ultra-marathons in places like the artic (we discuss on the @schoolofcalishenics podcast if interested) and best of all about Brian is that he doesn’t even like running, he does it because it challenges him which makes me want to listen to him even more.
So ‘eat early’ he said (and many others did too) and don’t do anything you didn’t do in training in terms of nutrition. If you didn’t use gels or sweets etc don’t start on the marathon you’re guts won’t thank you – he said! The problem I had was the un-organised characteristic nature of the Jacko and Mrs Jacko training meant that we only ever did a half in training (three separate occasions) but never took any food, gels or even a drink of water. So for the marathon I had to do something different… actually drink and eat when running.
On reflection I think this actually (although unplanned) served me well as in training 18km or more I’d start to feel it and be low on energy. Eating bananas and some naked energy bars plus drinking electrolytes drink with L-Glutamine added in felt like a massive treat and blessing… almost like I was cheating because in training there was nothing. So when we hit 18km on the day I felt fine. 23km I’ll have a bit to eat thanks and feel pretty good. Where is this so-called ‘wall’ as we hit 30km? We got to 40km and yes tired and over 4 hrs 20mins of running was taking its toll I was ok, anther bite to eat and lets finish this thing. At that point I did run out of water but promised myself I wouldn’t stop during the run. The only way to get a drink was to stop and fill up at the last station which I choose not to do and the last 4k were certainly the most challenging.
I’m not saying don’t eat and don’t drink on training runs, but just being honest about what I actually did and how it potential helped on the day – if that makes sense?
[Lesson Four] Body Talking
Maybe the last one is the endorphins speaking but the body talks to you man! It really does. It might feel like pain, but it’s a sign a signal of something. The biggest and most interesting thing for me is that it was my left knee and hip that was ‘talking to me’ which I never have a problem with. The right knee, calf and hamstring is what are my old injuries and issues, yet they were completely fine and a few days later on still fine and all is well.
I’m now using the ‘talk’ aka pain from the left hip and knee to investigate what is actually going on, Lacking some external rotation in the left hip is something I’ve noted and TFL is having a tough time right now… they’ve been under the radar for years, hiding behind the old injuries of the right leg but it’s time to bring them into the light. I’m excited for what benefits I see by correcting and strengthening these issues!
And even more excited for the next nasal challenge… suggestions welcome!!!