As December rolls around again, runners in Singapore are gearing up for the biggest race in our neck of the woods, the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM). Over 2 – 3 December, some 50,000 runners will brave the humid conditions to put their months of training to the test. If you’re one such athlete, we wish you all the best, and hope your training plan has been fruitful. We recently caught up with Ben Pulham, former professional triathlete and founder of Coached, to pick his brain about some last minute tips for a marathon.

Ben Pulham, Founder of Coached

Can you take us through a bit of your story as an elite triathlete?

I grew up in New Zealand at a time when NZ was arguably the best in the sport. I spent my youth watching guys like Hamish Carter (2004 Olympic Champion) and Cameron Brown (multiple Ironman winner) and wanted to do what they do. 

I got to know and train with both these guys (and many more great athletes) and was fortunate to represent NZ in the ITU world cup, world championships and Olympic trials. I retired from racing at the end of 2007.

If marathon runners are not exactly at the level they want to be for SCSM, what can they do to prepare without overdoing it and injuring themselves?
Run at a low intensity over hills. Running at low intensity develops your aerobic system. This is the system that drives long distance running and burns fat as its primary fuel. The hills develop strength endurance. If you have solid aerobic function and are strong, you will run well. 

Many people think that they’re limited by their speed when in fact they’re not. They’re limited by their ability to maintain a good speed for the length of the race. This is the role of the aerobic system and strength endurance primarily.  

A huge part of training is nutrition. What kind of foods should participants be looking to eat as they prepare for the marathon?
Food should nourish the body, regulate insulin levels and keep inflammation levels low. I always advise our athletes to eat real food, not “food products”. If it has been heavily processed and has had a high level of “human interference” to arrive on your plate, it is a food product. Go back to basics – veg and fruit, meat and fish, nuts and seeds, eggs. These should be the foundation of your diet. 

What is carbo-loading and how can an inexperienced athlete go about it?
Your body has a limited supply of stored glycogen that it can use for energy during racing. The notion of carbo-loading is to “top up” these fuel stores. Unfortunately, if you’re like most runners who eat a standard Singaporean or western diet, you’re already carbo-loaded. If you eat more carbs in race week (carbo-load), you actually lower your chances of performing your best (in my opinion) because you switch off your ability to generate energy from fat. 

Unlike glycogen, your body has almost an unlimited supply of body fat it can access to fuel itself. If you can eat in a way that puts you in a fat burning state, you not only stay lean and energetic, you have a lasting fuel source that allows you to conserve your precious glycogen for the later stages of the race when you should be picking up your pace. 

How much food/fuel should a person consume during the course of a marathon?
This is always a hard question to answer because, quite frankly, it depends. Things like sweat rate, sodium concentration of sweat, fat burning, stomach tolerance, race distance, weather etc. all effect this. This is something that everyone should be practicing in the later stages of their preparation to find what works for them.

Would you say flexibility and strength training are an important part of the regime? How much of it should be incorporated into a plan?
A reasonable level of flexibility is a requirement for a comfortable life but is not overly necessary for good performance in endurance sport. Tight muscles are more responsive and this is good for performance. Given most of your readers are not professional athletes, finding a “flexibility balance” is the best strategy. You want to be flexible enough that you have good mobility and no pain, but not so flexible that your muscles lose that responsiveness. 

Strength training for runners is crucial and we spend a lot of time doing strength work in our programmes. We don’t do this in the traditional – at the gym – type of strength work though as many runners are already limited in their time and I would prefer they keep their ‘run frequency’ high. Instead, we include strength training within runs. This is both functional and effective.

Is it advisable to drink sports drinks during the marathon?
Again, this depends. I personally prefer using a sugar-free electrolyte drink and water for hydration and gels for energy. It is easier to customise for your unique requirements with this approach. A typical sports drink addresses both hydration and calories in one. 

Singapore is a warm and humid climate, many runners have trouble training in these conditions. What advice do you have for them?
You can’t control the weather so you need to control the things within your ability to control to optimise your training. You can choose the time of day your run, how you hydrate and whether or not you wear a heart rate monitor to gauge the stress your body is under. 

While it’s a good idea to train when the weather is cooler for the majority of your runs, it is also very important to spend time running in extreme heat if that’s what you will face on race day. If you are still going to be out running at 10am in the Singapore marathon then you need to know what that feels like and how your body responds in that situation. Do some training at that time and learn. 

What are some important things first-time marathoners should keep in mind for race day?

Racing is about execution, not fitness. Most runners (not just beginners) don’t maximise their fitness on race day because they make poor decisions early in the race. If you want to run to your potential then you need to be conservative in the beginning and build your effort throughout your race. 

 SCSM happens 2-3 Dec. Register here.

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