Hints & Tips

Acclaimed physiotherapist Sammy Margo and renowned mental performance coach Andy Barton revealed a series of insightful tips to help runners get through their training.

Sammy's Tips

Return to sleep

Although you may be able to get off to sleep easily, waking in the night is common especially in anticipation of the big day. If you wake in the night avoid ‘clock watching countdown’. Turn the clock to face away or cover it up. If you feel that you have been in bed for longer than 20 minutes without catching any zzz’s then leave the ‘sleepless zone’. Get up and do something light such as emptying the dishwasher, drinking a cup of chamomile tea or reading a magazine article, then re-enter your bed as if you’re starting your sleep again.

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Build a bedtime routine

Think about sleep as more of a dimmer switch than on-off switch, when it comes to your body. Try to set aside time in your day to unwind and settle before you sleep, setting yourself a technology cut-off time and avoiding any smartphone use in the bedroom. Research has shown that the emission of blue light from these devices can interfere with the release of your sleep hormone, Melatonin, which will in turn affect the quality of your sleep. Have a relaxing shower or bath, listen to some soothing music or an audiobook with a warm glass of milk or chamomile tea. Also, dim the lights to increase your chances of getting plenty of recovery-friendly sleep and keep your body fit.

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Breathe easily

There are several proven techniques to help you unwind if you’re worrying about your next run, one of which is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). PMR is a great way to help you unwind and prepare your body for sleep. It involves tensing and relaxing your muscles from your toes to your forehead. Squeeze each muscle group for a few seconds then release and relax for ten seconds before moving onto the next, all the while taking deep breaths in and out. Studies have shown that PMR can reduce cortisol levels, a steroid hormone associated with stress that can play havoc with your ability to get to sleep.

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Indulge in snooze foods

Foods that contain Tryptophan can help to promote restful sleep as it’s the catalyst to the hormone, Melatonin, so try to include some of these foods as part of your evening meal. Bananas, for example, are practically a sleeping pill in a peel, while turkey is one of the most famous sources of Tryptophan. Marmite, almonds, oatmeal and warm milk are also effective, particularly when combined with carbohydrates. This means something like Marmite or bananas on toast are great evening snacks if you’re struggling to get to sleep.

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Know your stimulant and sedative cycles

Understanding the potential effects of common stimulants and sedatives means you’re well equipped to know when to avoid them… or when to use them. Alcohol is a key sedative that’s wise to moderate during training. Although alcohol can help you feel relaxed, it may prevent you from getting into the deeper healing stages of deep restorative sleep which is crucial for recovery. Conversely, caffeine is a well-known stimulant that can help your performance, but avoid drinking it between three and eight hours before bedtime, depending on how sensitive you are to its effects.

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Build a bedtime routine

Think about sleep as more of a dimmer switch than on-off switch, when it comes to your body. Try to set aside time in your day to unwind and settle before you sleep, setting yourself a technology cut-off time and avoiding any smartphone use in the bedroom. Research has shown that the emission of blue light from these devices can interfere with the release of your sleep hormone, Melatonin, which will in turn affect the quality of your sleep. Have a relaxing shower or bath, listen to some soothing music or an audiobook with a warm glass of milk or chamomile tea. Also, dim the lights to increase your chances of getting plenty of recovery-friendly sleep and keep your body fit.

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Use rest to help recovery

You risk injury if you increase frequency, duration or intensity of training too quickly. Your body’s tissue tolerance to loading can only be pushed so far, effectively having a ‘plastic limit’, much like those old rulers that you could bend and bend until the moment they snapped. This means that too much training coupled with too little recovery is not a good thing. If you are recovering from an injury or overtraining, you will need to take some time out and embrace a little “active rest”. Active rest is an activity that keeps you moving but at a greatly reduced intensity or duration, like running a shorter distance on a softer surface, or swimming a few lengths and then gradually increasing distance and speed over time until you’re back to full training pace. You may wish to dedicate some time to working on your core too, as this will make you less prone to injury.

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Andy's Tips

Strike the pose

Psychologists at Harvard Business School carried out a study where they asked their subjects to adopt “power poses”; effectively changing their body language to make their bodies bigger. After only two minutes of power posing, they found that on average their dominance hormone, testosterone, increased by almost 20 per cent. At the same time, their stress hormone, cortisol, reduced by a similar amount. Incredibly, after only a couple of minutes you can feel significantly more confident and relaxed just by changing your posture. So if you want to feel confident before and during your run, all you need to do is strike the right pose.

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Stay in the present

Athletes perform at their best when they are in a state of flow or “in the zone”; a state where running feels easy and effortless. We get in the zone when we are performing and trusting our unconscious, learned skills without any self-consciousness, when we are free of distractions, fears and concern of the consequences of our actions. To get into the zone, it is essential for the mind to be in the present. Marathon runners can often find themselves out of the present, focusing on the future, about how far they have to go and what time they are going to run, or looking back to the past and worrying about whether they have done enough training and whether they have started at the right pace. If you just focus on what is in front of you, enjoy the crowds, the atmosphere and even focus on your breathing, you are more likely to get into the zone.

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Focus on the positive

When we are worried, anxious, fearful or in a generally negative mood, we tend to speak to ourselves using negative statements such as “don’t be nervous”, “don’t worry” or “don’t mess this up”. Unfortunately, our minds can’t actually process negatives so we end up focusing on the thing that we don’t want to happen, effectively programming ourselves to do things badly. If you have ever been carrying a tray of drinks and someone has said “don’t spill them” you will understand how this makes you more likely to spill them. Give yourself positive instructions such as “stay calm”, “be confident” or “go for it” and you give yourself a better chance of success in your running.

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How Isaac Newton can improve your training

There isn’t an athlete of any level who doesn’t have days when they would rather slump on the sofa in front of the television with a large glass of wine than go out for a training run, especially on those cold, wet and dark evenings. They imagine a long, gruelling run ahead of them and decide it’s too far or will take too much time and often give in to the temptation of having a night off. Rather than think in terms of “all or nothing”, it would actually be better to set a much smaller goal for that evening. When you’re due to run for ten miles but can’t face it, tell yourself that you’ll go for just a mile. Before you know it, Newton’s First Law of Motion will be in effect and you’ll keep going. According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, “a body in motion stays in motion”, so by getting your body moving with just a short run will more often than not get you more in the mood to run longer and further.

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When a question is the answer

Although people often use such declarative statements as “I will do it!” as a means to motivate themselves to perform, research carried out by psychologists Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin suggests that such statements actually have the opposite effect to what is intended. Often, these statements sound like obligations and people don’t generally like doing things they are obliged to do. Interestingly, the psychologists found that people are more likely to motivate themselves to train if they used a question rather than a statement. People who say to themselves “shall I go for a run?” instead of “I shall go for a run” feel that they have a choice, and so embrace their decision to exercise in a far more positive way. So next time you want to get motivated don’t tell yourself – ask yourself instead!

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Tell the world

You may be tempted to keep your goals for the marathon to yourself. Research, however, shows a real benefit to sharing your goals with as many people as possible, partly as there is an incentive to avoid the embarrassment of not achieving it once you have told them, but also because it helps to increase motivation, focus and energy towards training and the event itself. One of the great benefits of social media is that you can share your goal and your progress with all of your friends at the click of a button. You also have the added benefit of getting positive support as you gradually increase your training regime and reach new milestones. So, if you have a goal in mind, make sure you tell everyone.

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Take control of your inner coach

One of the things that can have a massively detrimental effect on our performance is that mean, hyper-critical and pessimistic inner voice that creeps up on us when we need it least. It’s the voice that tells us that we are “no good” and that we “can’t do it”. The problem is, we tend to believe what the critical voice says to us. I often ask clients what they would do if they had a coach who spoke to them the way that they speak to themselves. Nearly always they say they would sack the coach. So next time you find your inner coach speaking to you in a negative way, sack it. Then replace it with a voice which is positive, encouraging and motivating and notice how your attitude changes towards your running.

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The power of enjoying yourself

One thing people can do when they are taking on a challenge such as a marathon is to start taking it a bit too seriously and forget about the fun side of their activity. They think, wrongly, that the only way to improve is to be serious and they pile pressure on themselves and get frustrated when things don’t go to plan. We are actually far more resourceful when we are happy; we have greater energy, we think more clearly, we sleep longer and even digest our food better. Just putting a smile on your face can make a significant difference in the way you feel before and during a race. Ensure you find the fun in what you are doing and you are far more likely to stay with training and get better results.

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