Running Q&A

What is your training programme like?

Quite dynamic, although there are some constants. I generally start training in January for a spring marathon, then continue with whatever my plans evolve into over Summer until completing a final marathon in late October. I then take November and December off running completely. During training I originally followed a Nike+ coaching programme, and run on average between four and five times a week, always including one long run at the weekend, between 15km and 34km depending on where I am in my programme. Since Nike wound down it’s support of these programmes, I now follow a variety depending on the race. Of course, over the long term a runners training regime will shift focus depending on a great many factors.

Maybe this year I will do more, maybe in two years I will cut back a lot. It will depend on how I feel about running at the time, whether I am enjoying it, or there are other pressing needs on my time etc. At the very peak of my training I run upwards of 90km per week.

Do runs become easy when you run a lot?
Yes and No. I am currently, and have been for years, in good enough shape to run a half marathon without any special preparation and with negligible recovery time. I can also run up hills more easily nowadays than before training for my mountain marathons. However, that never makes them “easy,” just perhaps a little easier. In my experience, when I head out for a 5k run, my mindset is that 5k is the target and psychologically one attunes himself to that goal, and I would find it difficult to run further. The same is true for a 30k run. It’s very much a mental mindset thing. I find the majority of runs “hard” to do because of this aspect, but just occasionally you get rewarded with a day where you feel like you can go forever. These magical runs only occur about 5% of the time though, in my opinion.

Do you use a heart rate monitor?
Many years ago I tried to use one for a few months but found it uncomfortable and did not have a mentality where I took the results seriously. For many athletes, they provide useful feedback and can be an excellent training tool. Broadly speaking, you attempt to train within a range where your heart is working at a given percentage of it’s maximum recommended rate for your age, and this helps you improve your cardiovascular efficiency. There are a lot of metrics you can go into. The biggest barrier was that I found the monitor around my chest uncomfortable. With the advent of things like the apple watch, I do occasionally keep an eye on my heart rate in training, but not in a disciplined way.

What is your nutrition strategy during a marathon?

Marathon breakfast has for me normally been just a bowl of cereal and half a banana, at least three hours before race time. I feel like I haven’t found my ideal breakfast yet, but experiments with eating a more substantial meal didn’t yield positive results. Now, I am cutting back even further and just have a croissant an hour or two before a race. races. I now sometimes have a coffee too but I’m sure this leads to me peeing more. In terms of liquids, I drink about 200ml of sports drink about ten minutes before the race.

I used to carry a 500ml water bottle with me which I initially filled with Isostar and then refill en route with water. Now I carry a smaller bottle and rely more on the drinks stations. I “drink to thirst” which means, any time I feel slightly thirsty or my lips just start to feel dry, I’ll take some sips.

For solids during a marathon, I use a combination of power gel shots and powergels. I have one packet after one hour and then subsequently every forty minutes after that. I normally carry them with me in a belt because every race offers different products and I prefer the security of products that I know won’t upset my delicate constitution -although in recent years I became more flexible there. In addition, I’ll occasionally eat a bit of banana or whatever else is offered, if I get too tired of gels or run out of them. Even if I am not feeling like eating towards the end of the race, I find its important to still get something down, it does have a net positive effect.

For a half marathon, I will not eat anything at all. During an ultra marathon, I will eat once per hour rather than every forty minutes. I’ll also cram in a few extra snacks as and when I feel like it, on top of what I carry, and I try to build in something for the middle of the race which is more like a “treat.” If you are 4 hours into a 12 hour race, it is nice to have something to look forward to at 6 hours, even if it is just a cliff bar than yet another gel, as crazy as that sounds.

After a long run, it is recommended to eat a small meal within half an hour as it promotes muscle recovery, so I try to adhere to that. I am rarely hungry after a race or very long run, so I just eat something small and use that benefit to control my weight.

Any other race strategies you wish to share?
An important one which a lot of people ignore is simply not to start off the line too fast. It’s all too easy to do. You are rested after the taper, full of adrenaline, and feeling spritely. Don’t do it! Run your planned pace, or at least settle down after the first kilometer.

Many good athletes aim for so called “negative splits,” which means completing the second half of the race faster than the first, and train with that in mind. I’ve had negative splits a couple of times, but it’s generally hard to achieve as you get progressively more tired. I certainly didn’t have negative splits when I was sitting exhausted in the street being licked by that old ladies dog near the end of Lausanne!

I always go for a warm up run of 2 to 3km on the afternoon before, in exactly the clothing and with the race bib attached. Check the weather report and dress for the expected marathon temperature. This way, I know I don’t have to worry on race morning, or if I do make a clothing change, it is the result of an informed choice.

I personally normally run without music for the first two hours, then use music on my iPod nano in the second half. Your mileage may vary, but I find a good playlist definitely helps me through the tougher part of the race. In at least one race (Lucerne), I’m sure it helped to take ten minutes off my time.

Don’t underestimate the positive impact that a good crowd will have on you during the race.

Do you have a favourite training route?
Yes, a 10km run over some nearby hills from my old apartment in Zürich, a circular route through the Kaferberg forest to the Honngerberg University Campus and then to the Restaurant Waid, with my favourite view over Zürich city thrown in for good measure. It combines the best of everything. Flat, hill climb, trail, a nice view, and a nice gentle downhill on the way back home.

Do you have favourite equipment?
Most definitely. I run most races in Nike Pegasus shoes. There have been many versions of the Peg down the years. It is the most popular running shoe on the planet. It is a “neutral” shoe which means it does not overdo the ankle support. I liked the Pegasus 29’s. The Peg 30’s were very comfortable but arguably too cushioned and not direct enough. The current 31’s are a great shoe, though better in standard than in weatherproof version, which I feel lacks some frontal support. I ran the last Jungfrau with a Gore Tex version of the Pegasus 29, which are now out of production. I occasionally run in Nike Lunarglides, but find them rather uncomfortable on runs over 25km. I will run approximately 500 to 750km in a shoe before discarding it as it loses support over time.

Another favoured piece of equipment was my Asics running belt. In the past, If I got totally exhausted towards the end of a race, I would jettison the Asics belt on the course like a damaged airplane dumping it’s fuel to shed weight and help it make the runway! But then Asics stopped making them so I had to conserve them. However, that belt held a 500ml bottle on the right side and I fear that running so many km with it has actually led to some asymmetry in my gait, which may have contributed to my lower back problems of 2017 / 2018. So I recently switched to a Nike belt with a smaller bottle on each side. The majority of runners do not wear a belt but for the nutrition reasons stated above, I do.

For clothes I really like Adidas running trousers and technical tops, their Adi Zero range is particularly great in warm weather because it weighs so little. I also have several Nike items. At the moment I have some ultra reflective warm Nike running trousers which are great. I run in 2XU running caps (a triathlon brand), because I think they are the best made caps and I find it the easiest way to prevent sweat dripping into my eyes. I have some items from On and Salomon as well. If I carry a rucksack, it is a small trail running rucksack from Arcteryx.

For most of my running I used a Nike+ GPS Sportswatch. Many serious runners would prefer something with more features but I was happy enough with it. And having run so many kilometers with it, I felt somewhat tied into their online ecosystem. However, Nike sort of stopped fully supporting endurance running in my opinion. so I switched to Garmin. I now use the Garmin Forerunner 920XT, which is to all extents and purposes THE ironman watch, because it is designed from the ground up for not only running but triathlon in general.

Broadly, I do triathlons for fun, but what drew me to the watch is it’s impressive battery time of 20+ hours. Also, it integrates with my bike computer seamlessly, just adding the GPS data on top. All this wirelessly uploads without any effort to my watch and to the Garmin Connect system, Strava, and Nike+. In a word, it’s brilliant.

Why haven’t you run the London Marathon?
I applied for it a few years ago for the first time but you have to enter a ballot and have a one in seven chance. I was not successful in the ballot. The following year, I forgot to enter on time and missed the ballot altogether. But mainly, It just has not presented itself upon my consciousness as an important race to run. As I alluded to in my reflections, I’m happy enough with smaller local events that I can travel to and from more easily. Never say never though. I have Brighton on my radar as that would be my true “hometown” marathon and it has become very popular, with about 18,000 runners.

You ran a 50km race. Is that really an Ultramarathon or not?
Although an ultra marathon is generally defined as anything longer than the standard 42km marathon distance, some people say that 50k is not really much longer and shouldn’t be considered a true ultra marathon. You decide! However, others also say that a mountain marathon like the Jungfrau should be considered an ultra because although it is 42km, it takes so much longer than a standard marathon, and is much harder!

My personal view is that a 50k should be considered an ultra and the Jungfrau should not. However, I agree that a 50k is not a huge stretch over the standard 42km. I’ve a lot of respect for those that go longer. Having completed a 73km Ultra and the Biel 100km, I can comfortably now say I am an Ultramarathoner.

Do you run with your wife?
Yes! I feel very fortunate actually. If less than 1% of people have attempted a marathon, then the percentage of couples who run marathons together must be really minuscule! Running together is great fun and a super way to spend time together. We run at a pace where we can still chat so there is plenty of opportunity to make it a social occasion. Although when it comes down to it, Ursula is a slightly better endurance runner than myself, we are happy to train at the same pace. Over the last few years, my wife has stuck to half marathons - probably sensible! One upside of that is that she has been able to support me more on a lot of my races.

Do you go to the toilet during races?
I had to pee in about 50% of my races, which surprisingly is quite an annoyance when aiming for a personal best, as it adds precious seconds. Race nerves tend to take care of the bowel problems before the race, so far at least!

Should I join a running club?
If you want to. It’s not my thing though. I just prefer to run to my schedule, and where I want to go. I’ve no doubt it could potentially improve my running, but it’s not for me.

What about track running?
I like occasional track running on a 400m track because it is a fun diversion and it’s all about variety in the end, isn’t it? I used go to the FIFA track near the Zoo here in Zürich. Since I moved to another part of town, I use a closer track now (Utogrund). Track running is also a great way to see how well your sports watch is calibrated for distance, and it’s an excellent way to measure and compare your pace because the distance is exact and completely flat.

And trail running?
I mix it up and like to run on trails in the local forest, but don’t go out of my way to hit trails unless mountain marathon training which inevitably leads to a lot of trail training…I enjoy that a lot. For the longest trail training, we tend to load our camping stuff into the car and afterwards camp in the region in the mountains or by a lake. A soothing swim in a Swiss lake is one of the few things guaranteed to make you momentarily forget about your aching joints! I did buy some dedicated trail running shoes but rarely used them as they felt too hard for the asphalt parts of a some trail runs.

How do you feel about stretching before or after a run?
I’ve heard it said a few times that pre run stretching can hurt more than it helps. I just start my runs a little slower and use that as a warm up. However, I always, always stretch after a run. Luckily Ursula is a yoga aficionado and so we incorporate yoga into a warm down, which takes between ten and fifteen minutes. Downward facing dog!

What other advice would you give to a newbie training for a marathon?
It takes time. When I first started running, 10km seemed like a long way. The body gradually gets used to it… the power of progression. Build up distances, but not too quickly. Long runs should increase by not more than 15% per week…. Overtraining is one of the easiest paths to injury. On the other hand, recognise and reward yourself for your achievements in both long runs and weekly mileage. Don’t beat yourself up on weeks where things aren’t working out. Enter a half marathon during training so that you are used to running in an organised event.

And the old adage is a true one…. nothing new on race day. No new untested clothes, no different running strategy, don’t lace your shoes tighter than normal.

Be aware that the date of the marathon you choose will determine your training conditions. If you train for a spring marathon, you are going to be training through the winter. This means, you are more likely to be training in hostile, cold, dark, conditions. On the other hand, if you opt for an autumn marathon, you are going to be hitting your peak training mileage during late summer, and if you take a summer holiday, you will probably be taking your running shoes with you! Worth thinking about. I find that it does take a little more dedication to haul yourself out of bed into the freezing snow outside in January… but well, part of me secretly rather like it too!

Finally, recognise that the great joy of a marathon is not just the marathon itself but the journey to get to the start line too.

How far have you run in total?
Since I started measuring in 2010, I’ve run more than 10000km. Of that, about 1650km have been run in actual competitive events, i.e. marathons and half marathons, and including marathon distance training runs, but not including triathlons.

What about Triathlons?
I’ve competed at Sprint distance at the Zurich Triathlon twice, with a best time of 1h19m. I’ve also competed in the Olympic distance three times with a personal best of 2h54m. I’m eyeing up a half ironman for Spring 2016, but do not think I will attempt a full ironman because a) I do not think I am a good enough swimmer and cyclist to perform at the level I would want to, and b) I have some ongoing neck problems which I think the cycling training would impact too much on.

Do people get tired of hearing you talk about running?
Probably! I can tend to get evangelical about the things that currently interest me. Most people are polite though, or at least feign some interest! In the end, running ultimately comes down to putting on some sports clothes and deciding to make a largely unnecessary trip from A to B (unless your name is Pheidippides, running to Athens to announce victory in the Battle of Marathon and thus spawning the origin of the Marathon). I know this. But indulge me.

Are you addicted to running?
To an extent, running has become a way of life. However, recently I was back in my home town and recalled how I would ride around incessantly on my bike when I was a young teenager, or how I would play squash at the court on the old farmhouse on Chantry Lane for hours on end. Perhaps I’ve really not changed that much at all over the years. Running is just the current replacement for some of my energies. On the other hand, whenever I don’t run for a week or two immediately after a marathon, I’m pretty content without it to be honest. The same in November and December when I take a winter break.

Your Marathon times vary quite a lot depending on the terrain and type of race. How much have you progressed over the years and what factors were the most important to get the gains? (This question was asked by a member on Runners World Forum)
In terms of speed, I have progressed rather slowly from 2010 to 2015. However, I didn’t have particularly hard targets except to keep enjoying running and do sub fours wherever I could. That being said, I am quite certain that the extra rigours of Ultra training in 2015 helped me get a few more personal bests, edging my time into the 3:40’s. Not a bad improvement from my original 4:12.

Putting speed to one side for a moment, I have progressed somewhat in terms of stamina due to tackling the mountain runs and the 50km. I do have the feeling that I’m beginning to fight my age and it’s a question of trade off’s. But I’ll see where it goes from here. After all, I ran my first mountain marathon the week after turning 40 and also achieved my flat personal best this year, so I hope there might still be the occasional positive surprise in store.

What is the payoff you get from running? (Asked by Alex G)
This question threw me to an extent. It should be an obvious one to expect, along the lines of I climb it because it is there. In fact, my answer is along those lines: Why do I compete in all these marathons: because I can! And while I can, why not! The second payoff I get from running is that, as I have talked about elsewhere, there is such a thing as a runners high, and this is a great feeling when experienced, a real euphoria.

What initially threw me about the question, is that 2015 was a year when I did so much training for the Biel event that I began to question myself if I was having fun. That is the true litmus test, why run if it isn’t fun any more? Training for a 100km event came dangerously close to crossing that line - too close. Truth be told, it way overstepped it. I trained again for Biel in 2016 with the aim of trying to enjoy it more, but had to pull out of training due to injury… hamstring and lower back, no doubt at least partially caused by the 100km training of the year before. In addition, I developed a minor heart condition which, although common and not apparently dangerous, I also suspect can be attributed to the 100km. So I pretty much threw the towel in on 100km events, though not necessarily on all ultra distances.

Recently, as of late 2018, I would add that running has allowed me to learn a lot more about my body. I see how it reacts to events and to training. I see how my weight fluctuates based on my diet, and more how my nutrition has an effect. My diet is healthier now than ever (although I still enjoy some indulgences). But it keeps me in good shape and allows me to enjoy eating while keeping pretty slim. Finally, as I get older, I see how my body is evolving and also how injuries come about.

Any other questions?
If so, feel free to add them in the comments section below or email me, and I will respond here.