How to run a marathon faster – with Dan Afshar

The “How to run a marathon faster series” has been going well and there have been some really interesting contributions. You can see a round up of contributions so far HERE. For the 8th edition of this series I am pleased to have some insight from Dan Afshar, who is the man who introduced me to pacing. Dan is the founder of Xempo and Xempo Race Pacing. These were both launched in 2012, and this is when I met Dan for the first time. I was interested in the Xempo concept as I was trying to improve my times, and this was a good way to set myself challenges, and it is very relevant to what this blog is hoping to achieve. It was later in 2013 when Dan asked me if I would be interested in pacing the Royal Parks. But Dan isn’t just a man behind the scenes, he is an incredible runner, and has been running sub 3 marathons for over 13 consecutive years.

1) How long have you been running, and what is your marathon PB

I’ve always been a runner, from XC at school, through running to keep fit for other sports at uni, then entering organised races from the late 90’s right up to the present without any sort of break.

Running and winning in 1984
I’ve got a newspaper cutting with a race report from winning the regional cub scouts XC champs in 1984. I did my first marathon in London in 2000. I’ve now run 62 marathons and 49 ultras, including Comrades, MdS twice and nine UTMB races.
My PB is 2.44 which came in Barcelona in 2015, at the age of 42. It was my 40th road marathon, so you’re never too old to improve.

2) Have you always been fast, tell me about your first marathon?

I had a place for the 1997 & 1998 London marathons, but poor training led to injuries, so it wasn’t until 2000 that I got to run it for the first time. With the internet in it’s infancy, there wasn’t as much information about as there is now on how to best prepare, so like many, I kind of made it up as I went. But looking back I was woefully underprepared, and didn’t appreciate the required training to take on such an event. I think my longest run was maybe 16 miles and I’d only run two half marathons. I’d been away with some boozy mates for a few days when I should have been tapering in the final fortnight. With no real race plan, I thought I’d just run at my usual training pace (all runs in those days regardless of length were the same pace), for as long as I could, then just take it from there. I went through halfway in one minute over my half marathon best time, made it to about 18 miles before I had to start walking, then the last 8 miles were just a painful mix of walking, running, and cramping. I’d also booked a holiday, flying out from Gatwick that same afternoon, so I had an incentive to get round as quickly as possible! My final time was 3.37 which I remember being reasonably happy with, and was probably a fair reflection on my fitness at the time.

3) What did you do to improve your marathon time?

I was already hooked on running and marathons in particular, so I threw myself into training for London the next year, increasing my mileage and frequency of running. I wanted to get my half marathon time down under 90 minutes, and I managed that at the Watford half in 2001 when I was the last person to finish under 1.30. I remember thinking that it would be impossible for me to run faster, and the prospect of doing that twice and running 3 hours for a marathon was reserved for a different type of person, one that I never would become. I think I believed that it was down to natural ability so there wasn’t any point in pretending I could do that. Of course, that’s rubbish but I think we’ve all been guilty of looking at faster runners and think they’re just lucky that they can do that without realising that there’s no reason we couldn’t do similarly given the same levels of work and dedication.

As it happened, I ran 1.27 for a half just 3 weeks after that 1.29, so I’d broken my own self imposed glass ceiling. A few weeks later I ran the London marathon in 3.19 for an 18 minute PB, so I was moving in the right direction.
From then on it was just a gradual improvement, based mainly on consistency. Running most days, every week of the year, but peaking for target races. My marathon time came down to 3.12, then 3.07, 3.02 and they I broke the 3 hour barrier in 2006 with 2.52 in Cardiff. It was my 15th road marathon. Three weeks later in NY I went sub 3 again. By that stage I was putting in more structured training which included long runs at weekends, hills, interval training, medium long runs midweek, track sessions. A good mix of everything really. I was also getting into ultras, so the change of focus during the year from road, to trail, to mountains and so on was giving me strength in all departments. And the variety of running and racing means I don’t get bored going from one race to the next. I’ve always been into high mileage, and I think the cumulative effect over the years really helps. I needed to get up to 90-100 miles a week before I got my marathon time down to 2.45 in 2010, but it was another five years before I ran faster again for my first sub 2.45.

4) Tell me your top tips to running a marathon faster.

When you get to a certain level, marathon improvement can generally be summed up in six words. More miles, more quickly, more often. The latter brings about the biggest improvements early on. If you can gradually increase your running from 3 or 4 runs a week to 5 or 6, then it just becomes easier much more quickly. But once you’re in the sub 3 zone, improvement is harder to come by. Mileage needs to increase, but you also need to work on speed. You won’t run a fast marathon if you can’t run a fast 10k.

Consistency is the key word. You lose fitness quicker than you gain it, and once you’ve got it, you really want to hang on to it. I’ve been lucky enough to not get many injuries because I’ve never really had much time off from running. As such I’ve managed to run sub 3 hour marathons for the past 13 years. I’d like to keep going at that level until I turn 50 in four years’ time, but I know it won’t happen without a lot of hard work.
Also, I’d say don’t stress too much about the numbers. I don’t use Strava or even measure or time most of my training runs. I don’t really care if my long run is 22 miles or 21.9. I know if I’m running fast or slow by feel, and it doesn’t matter if my 10 mile tempo training is run at 6 min/mile or 6.05. It’s in the race where it counts; that’s when you need to have a good understanding of your splits and target times. Whatever your level, you should always go into a race with a plan. There are too many variables in training to consider, and the temptation to compare your runs to your best sessions or to other people’s training can become counter-productive. If you run your hard session hard, and your easy sessions easy, then the race times will naturally follow.
We all love to race, but we need to keep in sight what the main target is, and not leave our best performances in training; something I’ve definitely been guilty of in the past. For example, I always used to run a 20 mile race in my marathon build up. And I got some really good times (2.02, 2.04, 2.05, 2.07), but when it came to the marathon I couldn’t get near those times at the 20 mile mark and I’d end up with a disappointing marathon result. The problem had been with focussing on the 20 miler as a target to be given 100% rather than seeing its place in the training cycle. As such, when I set my marathon PB, I used the 20 mile race as a progressive long training run, with a slow start and 10 minute negative split. The time was only 2.15, but it left me fresh enough to carry on training so I was in good shape for the target marathon a month later. I’d suggest everyone looks at the races they enter and consider what role they should play in the build up to the main target race of the season.

As all runners know it doesn’t come without a downside. You can’t be a fast marathon runner without making considerable sacrifices, whether that’s with your work, family time, social life etc. Running is a selfish sport at times, and you have to decide how much you’re prepared to sacrifice as well as how much work you want to put it. There are many hundreds of great runners out there, and I’m always impressed with their work ethic, and the deprivations they impose on themselves to strive for improvement. I don’t think running as a sport or as an industry does enough to give credit to those guys that put it all on the line to run extraordinary races for zero coverage or exposure, but just for the pure love of running.

But most of all it’s a sport, it’s our hobby and it’s meant to be fun. Of course, sometimes it’s a chore and it can be boring and repetitive, but the benefits hugely outweigh the tough times. Mixing it up with everything from parkruns to XC, from fast road 10k’s to ultramarathons in the mountains keeps it exciting, fun and the best sport in the world.

On time with my pace Pocket for support

I am so pleased to have met Dan back in 2012, and to have paced over 25 races with him since then. I hope his advice will help others in their journey to run a marathon faster.

Dan is also the founder of Pace Pockets which have the splits for you race target in a reusable fabric wristband. Something I always use when pacing these days. You can find them HERE.


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