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How to run the Boston Marathon

Noel Vigue says keep adrenaline in check, and don’t waste time stretching

Noel Vigue says only 20 percent of people are built to run long distances.

In just a few weeks, tens of thousands of runners will line up in Hopkinton for the start of the 110th Boston Marathon. Will you be one of them? If so, Noel Vigue, the head strength and conditioning specialist at the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center at Sargent College, has some advice for you. Interviewed by BU Today, Vigue offers some pain-sparing pointers about stretching after your run (not before), how to prevent injuries, what to eat, and, of course, where to smear the Vaseline.

BU Today: Runners are often thought of as particularly healthy people, but is running a marathon ever an unhealthy thing to do?

Vigue: In my estimation, I think that you’re running on borrowed time a lot of times. Most people, maybe 80 percent of people, aren’t physically designed to undertake such a task. It’s more than 26 miles of repeated stress, which is brutal. This is what we see in physical therapy. Knee pain, shin pain, hip pain, you name it, it all starts to happen in marathon training. A lot of people are tight and weak in muscle areas that need to be strong and mobile, and they end up suffering those injuries.

If a person has decided to run the marathon, what kind of training regimen do you recommend?

You have to go about the training the right way. The smart thing to do is have an orthopedic assessment or a physical-therapy assessment of your lower body to find out how your body works as a system. You want to find out if there are any energy leaks or if there are any areas that are tight or weak. And if you can find those, then you are able to correct them or manage them so that they don’t become problematic.

From there you can work into a progression of slowly building your mileage. Don’t increase more than 5 to 10 percent each week, or you might suffer tendinitis or some other overuse injury or repetitive stress injury. Also, do some sort of cross training, including strength training (not bodybuilding). We’re talking about functional exercises to help strengthen the lower body, work on balance, and stabilize joints.

And runners would also want to have some variety in their training. So there are some days that you go for a longer steady run pace and other days that the person might do a shorter, faster tempo run or maybe some hill work.

One last thing: more and more research is showing that stretching beforehand is actually a bad thing. We actually have people do an active warm-up. These are movements to awaken muscle groups and warm them up through blood flow. It’s very important to stretch and massage, but after running, to restore tissue length and quality.

We’re now just a few weeks before the race. At what stage should a prospective marathon runner be in his or her training?

They would probably already have done their longest runs. So, they’d probably want to taper off a bit. Basically at this point a person would want to remain healthy, which means eating well, getting adequate sleep, and keeping stress at a moderate level. Also try getting into the pool or doing some bike work, something else that could be a cardiovascular workout without pounding your joints as much.

What are some of the most common injuries with runners?

It starts from the foot up. Blisters can happen with somebody trying to break in new shoes. And they can, literally, take somebody out of a race. Another thing people develop is heel-spur syndrome. There’s a thick fibrous chord inside the sole of your foot that runs from your heel to your toes, and that will end up taking too much stress and will become very painful. There are also stress fractures that can occur in the foot, the shin, or the hip. Other common injuries include shin splints or knee pain associated with the IT [ilio tibial] band, which is the tissue that goes from the top of the hip across the knee to the tibia, or shin bone.

A lot of these injuries are caused when a person’s muscles are unbalanced or compensating because a muscle is weak or tight. For example, there are the small muscles in the hip that work to stabilize the femur. If those muscles aren’t strong enough, when the person runs, the femur is very unstable and it causes shin pain and knee pain. So we’re doing a lot more balance training to help strengthen the hip musculature.

What about prerace diet and fluids?

Food is an athlete’s fuel for performance. You need to pay close attention to what you put into your body and also to the timing. It’s important to eat whole grains, a lot of vegetables, and also take in an adequate amount of protein. Carbohydrates should make up at least 55 to 70 percent of your diet. Protein could make up another 20 percent. Fat could make up the rest. When you’re running in an event like a marathon, you’re really going to be burning through a lot of carbohydrates. But you have only 800 to 2,000 calories of carbohydrates stored in your body. So your body will burn through carbohydrates and then it will start to burn fat and then protein. If you don’t eat enough protein, your body has to find it somewhere, and it will look to use its own tissue as energy. Your body will actually break down muscle tissue for fuel.

You need to be drinking upwards of 64 ounces of water each day, which you can get from a variety of sources, from fruit to sports drinks. Basically, your urine should be clear. If it’s dark like beer, you’re in a danger zone. If the weather is hot that day and you haven’t been hydrated during the week, you’re going to suffer some sort of cramps.

Any special advice for runners on race day?

Before the start, there’s a lot of standing and waiting around. So it’s very important to have layers of clothing. You should also be going through a mental checklist to keep yourself motivated, confident, and calm, to try to calm down the adrenalin.

That morning, it can be difficult to know when to eat. You want to fuel yourself, but you want to eat something that’s tried-and-true. Don’t try something new, and don’t eat something that’s terribly high in fiber. You want something that’s easy to digest.

To prevent blisters and chafing, it’s common for males to put Band-Aids over their nipples, and people sometimes put on body glide or Vaseline under their armpits, inside their thighs, and on the hot spots on their feet, such as the heel and the tops of their toes. What a lot of athletes will do is half an hour worth of stretching, and that is a big no-no, a big waste of time. A lot of people do it because they think they’re doing the right thing. Instead, people want to stay warm and active, so do some running, or maybe some push-ups on the common — little five-minute active warm-ups to help you stay warmed up and prepared for movement.