Marathons have long been associated with major cities. The marathon exists because of the Greek messenger Pheidippides running a message to Athens. The distance of 42.195km was later defined by the 1908 London Olympics (the distance form Windsor Castle to White City). Today, every major marathon is connected to an iconic city – New York, Berlin, London, Boston, Chicago, Tokyo etc. All the major cities host marathons and people love watching the best in the world slog it out over 42.2km of roads that loop around the urban landscape. But marathon race day is not like any other day. The roads are sealed off and the route is marked for you.
If you’re a marathon runner actually living in a major city – how do you train? While the cities seem perfect for hosting marathons – iconic sites, miles of road to spread the course around, large crowds to come out and support you – it’s the opposite the rest of the time. The landmarks are swarming with tourists, the roads have cars on them (surprisingly), and dodging crowds while trying to run at 3-minute kilometers is a hazard for all involved.
I live in Sydney, and run up to 180km a week. I have a job so don’t have the luxury of driving to remote places to run. I have to just train from where I live or work. I have also lived in London, one of the most populous cities in the world and had identical restrictions. Here are my tips that I’ve learnt over time to help get the marathon training done as best possible in urban sprawls.
1. Take to city running like a duck to water. Almost literally. Wherever I have lived, or found myself on holiday, I’ve sought out sea, lakes, rivers and canals for my training routes. These frequently provide uninterrupted towpaths, esplanades or cycle lanes to run along and can often go for miles. I used to do 24 mile training runs out and back along the canals of London, and similarly in Sydney I head to the roads by the water as they don’t have junctions and traffic lights that would force me to stop. I don’t mean beach running – heavy sand isn’t optimal for marathon runners (though occasionally a nice change) – but paths and pavements along the water. You almost certainly will have the occasional interruption of a traffic light, a bridge or crowded section but these are at least less frequent and good enough for steady running and occasional bursts of faster stuff.
2. Parks. This one is obvious, but most major cities are blessed with big parks. I’m not talking about the outdoor gyms that weekend warriors like to try and turn the heads of young mothers at, but the grass trails and space to avoid pedestrians make parks great for all running, from easy jogs to long marathon pace sessions. The only downside is that you get bored of doing laps of parks. A 5km loop seems long when you walk it, but it becomes monotonous on a 40km run, especially when you do it every week. However, I think this is a small price to pay!
3. Chase bikes. I don’t mean this one literally (although it can be fun sometimes!). What I mean to say is that most major cities have set up cycle routes that avoid high traffic areas and also have handy maps and signs that mean you can follow them without getting lost. Sure, you get a few bikes getting annoyed with you running along their routes, but marathon runners are inherently selfish people anyway so this shouldn’t deter many! I’ve found cycle lanes & routes really useful both for avoiding the busy roads on the way home from work, or for long tempo sessions where a cycle lane may follow alongside a main road for miles on end. Maybe not the prettiest, but all I can think about on these runs is how long to go anyway, and pretty countryside rarely even registers!
4. Make your routes fit the training purpose. If you’re out for an easy jog, it’s not a problem if you have to stop a few times for crowds or traffic lights. Don’t stress about it, you won’t ruin the run – the benefit are just some aerobic fitness and recovery. On the flip side, if you have a key session that requires continuous effort, make it happen at a time when you can get to a park, or perhaps drive to some trails, so that you can get the best from it. I do my easy runs around the Botanic Gardens and Circular Quay, and sometimes have to slow down for crowds (or to see if the seal is resting at Bennelong!), but I would never do my hard runs around here. I make them happen at a time and place when I can ensure I can run fast without interruption or chance of smacking a camera out of a tourists hand!
5. Try to keep variety. I mean this in many ways. Try and vary your surfaces – it’s not ideal for marathon runners to run on road ALL of the time, so try and incorporate softer ground where possible. Use loops of parks in runs where possible. I also like varying my routes. This is one time where having loads of people in a city can be helpful. All cities have runners, and people have found the best spots to run wherever they live. I’ve used Strava and the web to find new routes to run instead of doing all the exploring myself – really helpful! Running clubs will also have set routes and you can chat to the people on these routes to find even more great places to run.
So while city running can be frustrating, I think there always ways to make it work. Another plus is that in winter there are streetlights to at least see where you are going! I’ve made the mistake of going for a run in the countryside just before dusk and been trapped in a forest in the pitch black trying to find my way home! Sure, nothing beats a beautiful trail in the countryside, but cities have a lot to offer with a little research and flexibility.