By Mark Steedman, PhD, Manager, Centre for Health Solutions
Last Sunday, my colleague Matt Thaxter and I took part in the 39th London Marathon. After months of training and fundraising, we both crossed the finish line on The Mall, full of pride – and completely exhausted. With a record number of 42,549 runners crossing the line and over £1 billion raised for charity, I thought this week’s blog would be a good opportunity to reflect on the experience and discuss what drives so many people to push their bodies to the limit for 26.2 miles (42.2 km). Also, since next week is Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m also going to discuss some of the mental health aspects of running a marathon.
Signing up for a marathon
This was my first marathon. I’d never wanted to run a marathon, but early last year I joined a local London running club, and then I joined Deloitte Speed, the firm’s running, racing, jogging and walking club. Soon after, I began running a 10 kilometre ‘boot camp’ run every Tuesday night after work with 100 other Londoners and a five kilometre recovery run at lunchtime on Wednesdays with some likeminded colleagues. I quickly figured out that when you spend a lot of time with people who run – particularly when they’re running – the conversation often turns to what races they’re training for or are planning to do in the future. I found it didn’t take much to get sucked into the excitement of having a big running goal. Before I knew it, I’d made one for myself: to run a marathon in 2019.
Initially, I set my sights on a race taking place nearly a year ahead. I wanted to combine my passions for travel, running and global health into one event, but I also wanted to give myself plenty of time to get ready for the race. So, in late December, I signed up for a marathon in Nepal in November 2019. With 2000 meters of climbing on trails through Shivapuri National Park, I knew I would need to dedicate a significant amount of 2019 to getting myself ready for the biggest physical challenge I’d ever attempted. I planned to start out slowly, continuing with my Tuesday and Wednesday runs, and slowly adding to the amount I ran on weekends or other days of the week. However, in January I made another discovery about what happens when you spend a lot of your time with runners: they encourage you to run even more! I told a few Deloitte Partners about my plans to run a marathon in Nepal, and one (who’d run the London marathon several times before) convinced me that the best way to train for a marathon is to run a different one. He also knew of a charity looking to fill one of their allocated spots due to someone withdrawing due to injury. All of a sudden, I was committed to running the London Marathon.
Preparing for a marathon
I had just over three months to train for the London Marathon – less time than most experts think is best, but with all the running I’d been doing over the past year I had a strong baseline to work from. I found a training plan on the London Marathon website and mapped out what runs I would need to do over the next few months. I also began to do more research about the effects that marathon running can have on your body.
Regular running can help strengthen bones, joints and muscles, and it can improve cardiovascular fitness.1 However, a marathon stresses the body much more than a jog around the park, and attempting to run a marathon without proper training can result in over-use injuries, including stress fractures or shin splints.2 Gradually increasing your training to allow your body to adapt to the increased stresses of running over 26 miles is critical to avoiding injury and being able to complete a marathon. Of the training plans I looked at, all included a weekend long run, which never increased more than 10 per cent in distance from the previous week. The only deviation from this is usually at the very end of your training, where a period of tapering occurs in the week or two before the marathon, to allow your body to prepare itself for race day.
I certainly felt the effects of training for months and gradually increasing the distance I could run. When I started my training in January, I was running fewer than 10 miles on my long runs, but by the end I noticed that not only could I run much further, my attitude towards running long distances changed as well. Right now I look at a half marathon as a piece of cake – but mostly that’s because it’s half as long as what I did last Sunday!
The mental health aspects of running a marathon
While it’s easy to think of just the physical changes to your body that occur while training for a marathon, it’s equally important what’s happening in your brain. During a long run, neurons in the prefrontal and limbic regions of the brain produce large amounts of endorphins - hormones that act like natural painkillers in response to physical discomfort.3 If enough endorphins are produced, they can mask the effects of tired legs or blisters on your feet. This ‘runner’s high’ can lead to an exhilarating feeling that propels you forward. I certainly felt this during much of my marathon, although the last few miles were a different story, and any endorphins that had pushed me through the first half had definitely worn off by then!
Research shows that running can also lead to other long-term health benefits; it can reduce stress, combat depression and improve sleep quality, mood and focus.4 Some studies have found that running can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, other dementias and brain shrinkage that often occurs with age, suggesting that lifestyle choices are incredibly important to preventing neurodegenerative diseases.5
Some final thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed my marathon experience. The last few miles were incredibly difficult, but a combination of running and walking got me over the finish line in under four and a half hours. And while this week has been mostly dedicated to recovery, pretty soon I’ll have to get back out there and start training for my race in Nepal. Having already completed one marathon this year, I know I can run the distance. The key for finishing the marathon in Nepal will be the added obstacles – running on trails instead of concrete, and the overall altitude and changes in elevation I’ll have to overcome. Luckily, I know I’ll be able to count on endorphins to keep me going for much of the way, and that there are mental and physical health benefits from running another marathon – as long as I train properly! And if you’re wondering what happened to my colleague Matt, he completed his second London Marathon, in a similar time, but has decided that, for now, two is enough!