The 7 Commandments Of Comrades Success

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Running the greatest footrace in the world is no easy task; but official Comrades coach Lindsey Parry has helped thousands achieve their goal. Here are his commandments for ensuring you run your best on race day.

Words: Mike Finch

Comrades-race-day-tipsThe Comrades Marathon has been described as the greatest footrace in the world: 90 kilometres of road running through tough hills and valleys, in front of half a million spectators, in one of the hottest places in South Africa.

In the last eight years, as the official coach of the race, Lindsay Parry has helped and advised thousands of Comrades hopefuls. An experienced marathoner and five-time Comrades finisher (including two silvers) himself, Parry has spent many hours talking to fellow competitors, sharing knowledge with the most experienced campaigners, and presenting to runners all over the country.

He’s also manager of the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Division, and is national coach for both triathlon and distance running in South Africa.

But over and above his work with some of South Africa’s most talented elites, Parry’s real passion is the Comrades. His father Trevor has 23 medals to his name, including three golds, and Parry has spent most of his life involved in the annual Pietermaritzburg/Durban journey in some capacity.

“People change, fundamentally, when they run the Comrades,” Parry says. “The race is plain difficult – there’s no getting away from that. And there comes a point in the day, no matter who you are, when you ask yourself what the hell you’re doing there.

“That’s when you have to decide to carry on, despite the discomfort and pain, or not.”

Parry believes that a Comrades medal is the most valuable in the world of running.

“When you finish the Comrades, and have learnt that you can do something like that… it keeps people coming back. It’s that feeling of winning. People see Comrades runners after the race, and congratulate them for finishing; but nobody knows what it takes unless you’ve actually done it yourself.”

Since the middle of 2006, Parry’s goal has been to help runners achieve their Comrades goals. Here’s what he’s learnt over the years, and how it can help you run your best on race day.

I: Cramps Are Caused By Fatigue

“Without doubt, cramping is the most common subject I’m asked about,” Parry says. “For most people it’s not because of a lack of electrolytes, or a lack of training; it’s simply either a case of being susceptible, or it’s dietary.”
Parry believes that the 1997 research done by Dr Martin Schwellnus of the Cape Town Sports Science Institute – suggesting that cramping is mostly caused by fatigue – is correct, and states that there are a few ways to delay the onset of cramps, including following a run-walk strategy (see below) and avoiding stopping completely.
“When you cramp, it’s okay if you have to stop running; but the key is not to stop completely. If you stop, it will only make the involuntary muscle contraction worse – and it will bite.”

II: A Run-Walk Strategy Works

Parry is a great believer in regular walk breaks, and in the stats that support the notion. Regular walk breaks during a race the length of Comrades give your running muscles a chance to recover, while helping conserve energy. Parry has observed that runners who use a run-walk strategy from early on in the race often get close to an equal split across both halves.

“Every year I manage to convert a couple of runners and convince them to use a run-walk strategy,” Parry says. “And we see it in the results – they either run a negative split, or get close to even splits.”

On average, most Comrades runners finish the second half between 30 and 60 minutes slower than the first half, because of a too-fast pace in the first 45 kilometres.

Parry prescribes that everyone running over nine hours walk a minute for every 10 minutes of running, while faster runners can throw in one minute of walking for every 10km of running. He also suggests that runners use more walking breaks on the big climbs: Umlaas Road, Drummond, Inchanga and Cowies Hill.

“If you’re a person running 11 hours, run two minutes and walk one minute on the big hills; while the faster guys can throw in a 10- or 20-second walk every so often on the big climbs.”

Parry’s biggest challenge is convincing runners of the value of walk breaks right from the start of the race. Often, pride and the fear of losing too much time combine to make it difficult for runners to accept that walking early will help them.

“It’s important to settle on a number when it comes to walks, and give yourself walks as a reward.”

III: Women Listen, Men Don’t

When it comes to ultra-distance running, women are better than men. The stats reveal that women are better able to pace themselves over a long distance, and therefore finish stronger.

“If you take a man and a woman who have both run a 4:30 marathon, the woman is more likely to run a faster time at Comrades,” Parry says. “Women are far more conservative at the start, and save themselves for later in the race.”
The problem with men is that they battle to take advice from coaches and experts, while women are far less likely to question.

“Men will keep on asking the question until they get the answer they want to hear. But women tend to trust the advice and follow it.”

So if you don’t want to get ‘chicked’ out on the road, follow a woman with a yellow number. She’ll be aiming for her permanent green number, and will be almost certain to finish!

IV: The ‘Down’ Run Isn’t Easier Than The ‘Up’ Run

The ‘Up’ Run is a race that slowly saps your energy, while the ‘Down’ event is all about pain management, says Parry.
The pain of running the ‘Down’ means that many fast marathoners often fail to reach their Comrades potential because of the overwhelming shock of second-half discomfort.

“If you look at the number of sub-3-hour marathon runners in the field, there’re about 1500 to 2000; yet only 600 to 700 runners actually break silver. So even if you pace yourself well, sometimes the distress – from a pain point of view – comes as a surprise.

“The ‘Down’ is all about vasbyt. It’s about understanding that even if you’re sore, you can still run.”

Parry encourages extra gym work to strengthen quads and glutes, and lots of hill running to build up muscles to handle the jarring of the descents.

V: Four Days A Week is Enough

So how much mileage is enough to finish the Comrades? This is a question that Parry finds difficult to answer, since the ability and history of the individual runner dictates the sort of mileage they can handle.

“I’m a firm believer that it’s better to do too little than too much. The goal is to get to the start healthy and without injury. That’s your best chance of finishing.”

Parry believes that anything between 450 and 800 kilometres of running from 1 January, including race day, is enough. That’s an average of 40 to 60 kays a week.

“In the 80s, when Comrades exploded in numbers, a lot of the advice handed out was given by experienced Comrades runners who all ran silver medals. Back then a lot of people were finishing, because they were all good runners.”
But with the extension of the cut-off to 12 hours in 2000, work and family pressure, and the many hours spent sitting in a car and at a desk, the amount of training time is limited for the modern-day (and less experienced) Comrades hopeful.

Parry even advised his experienced father, who battled to run the Comrades in his 50s, to reduce his mileage – down to running four days a week.

“It worked so well that he was running better at age 62 than he was at 55,” Parry says. “It’s all about striking a balance between loading and recovering.”

Parry suggests that for the slower half of the field, weekday runs of 50 minutes to 1:20 are ideal, but with a focus on big weekend mileage: 1:30 to two hours on a Saturday, followed by another 2:30 run on the Sunday.

“The long runs back-to-back teach the body to run on tired legs; plus you can rest in the afternoons. Doing big mileage during the week doesn’t allow you to rest, and you don’t get the recovery benefits.”

The strategy is called ‘weekend loading’, and is an ideal way to train for Comrades if you’re busy during the week.

VI: It Takes Two Years To Run A Good Race

Yes, it’s possible to run a Comrades Marathon from zero to hero in a year, but Parry is adamant that beginners should give themselves at least two years before attempting the race.

“A lot of people start running because they want to run Comrades. So they go straight from sedentary to ultra-runner. That’s why I love the idea of the Parkruns (parkrun.co.za) – to encourage people to run, with a much simpler goal in mind.”

The first six to eight months should be aimed at training for a first marathon; the remaining 16 months is devoted to building up the mileage.

“It’s possible to run the Comrades in a year, as long as you start literally the day after this year’s race. But it’s also likely that you’ll battle with injuries in that short space of time.”

VII: Your Comrades Finishing Time is 2 1/2 Times Your Marathon Time

Even taking mileage into account, Parry believes this formula holds true for most of the field.

“It probably doesn’t work for guys running 2:50 marathons and faster, or those running just under five-hour marathons, because both those groups actually over-perform on race day.”

But Parry warns the slower marathon runners that not wasting time is vital to their success.

“The ‘H’ batch has about a 50% drop-out rate, because a lot of runners aren’t fast enough to finish. But the most common reason for not making it is because runners stop along the route too often to greet friends, have a massage, etc etc. If you’re in that group, you need to be moving forward all the time.”

Added pressure for the slower groups is the time needed to cross the start line, and finding a good early pace.
“When you add up all the delays, actually you only have about 11:20 running time.”

Both C and D groups have the highest percentage of finishers – over 99% – as most of these runners are fast enough to finish.

In 2013, Comrades suffered one of its worst failure-rates in memory, as hot berg-winds buffeted runners – particularly those at the back of the field.

“By the time a lot of runners made it over Polly Shortts, a fire had started, it was hot and windy, and it was a killer blow for them. A lot of people said it was like a scene from a war movie, with people lying all over the road. The conditions were at their worst for the people least equipped to deal with them.”

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6 Responses to The 7 Commandments Of Comrades Success

  1. James May 13, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    I don’t understand Lindsey’s formula in VII. Could someone please explain it to me?

    • Steve May 14, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

      James // take your marathon time and multiply it by 2.5 to get an indication of your Comrades finishing time.

    • John Neale May 14, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

      It’s a formatting error on the webpage, James. It’s not 21/2 (twenty one over two) times your marathon time, it’s 2½ (two-and-a-half) times your marathon time. So, a four-hour marathon is a ten-hour Comrades.

    • Luis May 14, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

      it’s 2 times and half your marathon time.
      example:
      Marathon time: 4H
      Comrades time: 4H + 4H + 2H =10 H

  2. Luis May 14, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    it’s 2 times and half your marathon time.
    example:
    Marathon time: 4H
    Comrades time: 4H + 4H + 2H =10 H

  3. Graham May 14, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    James, it looks a bit like 21/2 but it actually reads ‘two and a half” or 2.5 times.
    So if you are a 4 hour marathon runner then Lindsey estimates you can finish Comrades in about 10 hours.

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