I used to think I knew everything about tapering and carbo loading to avoid hitting the wall. All I had to do was eat lots of pasta and bagels on the three days before a marathon and halve my running miles the week prior, and I'd feel pretty good in the last five or six miles of the race.
Sometimes, I did feel good. More often, though, I'd slow to a jog and smile while silently cursing the spectators encouraging me to pick it up because "I was almost there" at mile 22. Didn't they know that my legs felt like the Scarecrow's and my hips like the Tin Man's before he got oil? But I always had a reason why I had suffered a slam into the wall.
For example, I figured I hit the wall at the 1997 San Francisco Marathon right when I turned off the Great Highway into the headwinds on the upgrade towards the Golden Gate Park pan handle because I had only eaten pasta one night.
I figured I hit the wall at the 1998 Paris Marathon because a week of rich, fat-laden, wonderful cuisine had driven all the glycogen the out of my body.
But when I hit the wall at the 2007 LA Marathon, well, I wasn't sure. Maybe I was just getting too old. The rule of thumb for the impact of age on marathon times is that you slow down a minute a year once you're past your prime. And it must have been that I suffered all 20 years of age-related slowdown at once in the 20 minutes of time lost against my planned pace between mile 19 and the finish that year. Talk about your age catching up to you!
I now realize that I just didn't know squat about carbo loading all those years, because the real secret wasn't discovered until 2002 and I didn't hear about it until last year.
This study by the University of Western Australia, which reads more like a science experiment than a running how-to article, proved you can increase the impact of carbo loading on glycogen levels as much as 90 percent. Then I validated the experiment at the last LA Marathon.
Here's what you do.
- Eat lightly and normally the week before the marathon.
- The day before your marathon, do a 3 minute, very-high-intensity speed workout in the morning. For me, that meant running two-plus all-out laps at the track, leaving me gasping for breath and really feeling the burn.
- Consume 12 grams of carbs for every kilo of lean body mass spread over the next 24 hours. That's a HUGE amount of carbs. For my 150 pound body, that meant buying four 18-ounce cans of ABB Carboforce at 24 Hour Fitness and nursing them down during the course of the day (ten 12-ounce bottles of new Gatorade Carbohydrate Energy Formula would work as well).
If you wade through the study, you'll find the science of it is that your body responds to the all-out workout by getting ready to handle this stress again, i.e., it loads a ton of glycogen into your muscles. Yet the short duration of the workout means it has no impact on your readiness for the race the next day. And Carboforce isn't bad: it tastes like a really syrupy version of Gatorade.
While I must admit to feeling a little bit bloated at the starting line, I breezed past the free cellphone call area coming into downtown LA, where I had hit the wall in 2007, and felt strong all the way to the finish. My time was 23 minutes faster overall, and most of the improvement was in the last 5 miles, thanks to not hitting the wall.