Ask the experts: Dr. Mark Cucuzzella's 'hybrid' strategy for running a marathon

Air Force Reservist (Dr.) Mark Cucuzzella ran his first marathon at the 1988 Marine Corps Marathon. He ran a 2:34.

Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mark Cucuzzella ran his first marathon at the 1988 Marine Corps Marathon. He ran a 2:34.

For a few nail-biting weeks, uncertainty clouded the future of the 38th Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

But  it’s all systems GO! for 30,000 runners now that the government shutdown has ended. The world’s largest marathon without prize money will be run Sunday through the nation’s capital as scheduled.

“Runners and Marines, we are on!” director Rick Nealis said in an amusing video posted a few days ago.

I will be running Sunday. The Marine Corps Marathon is an event I look forward to each year; it was my first marathon in 1988, and I have finished the race 21 times with two overall top-five finishes and three Masters wins. More importantly, I have represented the Air Force at this military-friendly event for more than 20 years. At age 47, I am still learning new things and love to share lessons learned with others.

The day before the race, I will be presenting a talk on “Marine Corps Marathon Race Day Strategies” at the American Medical Athletic Association’s Symposium. Many national leaders in running medicine and exercise science will be presenting. You can view the agenda and register here; there is still space in the conference.

Here is the gist of my talk. The tips can apply to other races.

Run your best marathon

Running your best 10K is mostly about fitness; running your best marathon is part art, science, guts, faith in yourself and a little luck.

If you have trained your body properly with the right mix of slow, aerobic-level as well as up-tempo training in recent weeks, you will have built an efficient hybrid engine ready to race the marathon.

If you’ve driven a Prius, you’ve seen the subtle shifts between gas and electric power on the dashboard. You do not perceive these shifts; they’re too subtle. Like the Prius, your engine (muscles) runs on a mixture of gas (sugars) and electric (fats). Whether your engine taps gas or electric power depends on the effort. This is why slow aerobic training is critical for marathon success; it helps you build a massive electric (fat-burning) engine.

When you get to the race, you are starting with a full tank of gas — assuming you ate a nice meal the night before and then a light breakfast to top off. If you race in all-gas mode, your engine will run for about 90 minutes at a strong pace, then you’ll be out of gas. If your effort is mostly electric, you will be able to run for hours, just not as swiftly.

With the correct effort you will: 1) use the proper fuel mix and be efficient for the duration of your event; and 2) be able to do some topping off along the way. Going too hard early will sabotage the day by depleting your “gas” and sending blood flow to working muscles, thereby not allowing aid station top-offs to help.

The science

Running utilizes about 1 calorie per kilogram of weight per kilometer of distance. So as a lean marathoner of 80 kg — about 175 pounds — you will need about 3,000 calories (80kg x 42 km) to make it to the finish line. The gas is the glucose-utilizing pathway: Fully carbo loaded, you have stored liver glycogen (300-500 calories), muscle glycogen (1,000-1,500 calories) and blood glucose (less than 20 calories). Glucose is easy to access for quick energy but generally adds up to less than 2,000 calories. The fat-utilizing pathway is the electric. In marathons, you must be in hybrid mode to make it. Using electric and conserving gas early in the race is critical.

Many runners are in great 10K shape (an all-gas event) and run their marathon in the all-gas mode and crash into that wall. A glycogen-sparing strategy isn’t necessary in races of less than an hour as long as you’ve had a good pre-event meal to fill the tank. In marathons and ultras, however, top-end anaerobic fitness matters little and can only be applied very near the finish. You have a limited supply of glucose and a fairly unlimited supply of fat, therefore you must tap into the fat-burning tank.

Now you know how a bird can migrate 7,000 miles without an aid station.

It’s all about the pace.

Putting it together

So how do you know you are running in your best hybrid mode?

This is difficult because the body’s indicators at the aerobic threshold are not as profound as the burning muscles from the lactate threshold (or anaerobic threshold). A slight increase above your optimal pace will switch you from hybrid mode to all gas without you realizing it, only to feel the effects a few miles later. Charging and surging early will tap your gas quickly. If you want to speed up early, I have this recommendation: Don’t! Instead, relax and maintain a comfortable effort, not a specific speed. It should feel easy in the early stages; after all, it is a marathon.

You must rehearse this training. I focus on relaxation and belly breathing. Belly breathing allows the lower belly to blow up like a beach ball on inhalation as your powerful diaphragm contracts. You will fill the lower lung areas where oxygen exchange occurs. If I’m breathing one cycle to five steps, then I’m in hybrid mode. If  breathing faster, then I’m using mostly glucose — gas — as fuel. Notice the breathing efforts of those around you. Many will be breathing rapidly, and they will probably suffer somewhere after the halfway point. Also practice nasal breathing; it forces belly breathing and prevents you from running in too high a gear. Nasal breathing also allows CO2 to rise naturally to assist in offloading the oxygen to the tissues. Blowing off CO2 binds the oxygen to the hemoglobin, inhibiting offload to the tissues.

Rehearse complete relaxation from the top down — eyes, jaw, shoulders. Allow your legs to relax and extend behind you. Your core is solid, and your legs are the springs. Find your own cue for this. If you use a heart rate monitor in training, strongly consider one during the event.

In a marathon, during the last 3 to 4 miles you will be using mostly gas to maintain the same speed as fatigue sets in and your heart rate rises. Your breathing may be on a three- to four-steps-per-breath cycle — that is OK. Stay relaxed and use the cues that you have rehearsed to keep your form.

Marine Corps Marathon

Have a course-specific plan for your race. For the Marine Corps Marathon, this is pretty simple as the course is mostly flat.

Relax and warm up on the first uphill in Arlington. Then find your rhythm on the scenic and mostly flat Rock Creek Park section from miles 4 to 8. Revel in the fact that you are not climbing out of Georgetown and around the Reservoir this year. Do not take the bait and get too excited by the Georgetown crowds at Mile 10. Relax and enjoy the tour through the Mall.

Keep a nice rhythm on the peaceful stretch around Hains Point, and make sure to get fuel and fluids as rehearsed. This is my favorite part of the race. There are no distractions. Relax head to toe, and make sure you are belly breathing.

Save your energy for the 14th Street Bridge; this is where things can get tough. It’s 2 miles of lonely cement and often into the wind. Enjoy the wonderful feeling of exiting the bridge and entering Crystal City. If you feel really good, then it’s time to take some chances and charge.


Now a few extra ways to get from start to finish quicker on the same gallon:

• Do not sabotage your event by having a large carbohydrate-heavy breakfast the morning of the race. This will raise your insulin levels and lock out the ability to burn fat. Fill your glycogen stores by resting and eating adequate amounts of healthy carbohydrates three days prior. Do not overload; you can only store a specific amount. A light breakfast of carb/fat/protein is a good thing as well as your morning coffee if you are a coffee drinker.

• If you can add a little gas along the way, then you can run more in gas mode. This helps a little at best. If you’re running too fast or if the temperature is high, then you will send blood to the skin to help you cool. This diverts blood from the gut so nothing digests. Plus, you are burning quickly through the glucose/gas. If you are in hybrid mode in the early going, then you can continually add some fuel. So the key is not only the correct fuel, but the right pace. A gel every 30 minutes is easy to digest and tops off the tank. Carry a few with you at the start. The weight is nothing compared with the benefit you will get. If you do the gels, then you can drink water instead of the energy drinks, which can be hit or miss on the course. The Marine Corps Marathon will have 12 water points and four food stations.

• The early downhill out of Arlington (Miles 2 to 3) is fun, but if you run too hard it can damage your quads; go smoothly and easy down the hill. Allow gravity to assist you. Do not overstride and heel strike on the downhills; remember to run over the ground, not into the ground.

• If it is windy, get behind a group. This can save lots of physical and mental energy.

• If you are having a bad patch, try to focus on relaxing, eat something (sometimes a blood glucose drop triggers the sense of doom) and have faith in your training and race plan. Another nice trick is when you hit Mile 21, think of it not as 5 miles to go, but four and change. Mile 22 is three and change. Just run to the next mile marker and count them down one by one. Smile and enjoy the crowds.

• Do not over-drink water. This can lead to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia. See the guidelines here.

• If it is going to be hot, read this article — published in the American Medical Athletic Association Journal — that I wrote after the steamy 2012 Boston Marathon.

• A final tip from four-time Olympic Trials qualifier Josh Cox, who spoke with me before the Air Force Marathon a few years ago: The night before the race, lay out  your gear to create “the invisible man.” Get everything you are going to wear/use the next day set up to put on in the morning. Scrambling to find your number, socks, favorite hat, gels or other items adds stress. Get the outfit laid out on the floor ready to wear, then get some sleep.

The fun of the marathon is that we are always learning and enjoying the adventure of it. I’ve done 100 marathons now with a couple under 2:25 in my younger years. We learn from experience, from taking chances and the occasional failures. My first marathon was the 1988 Marine Corps Marathon, and I’ve managed to break the 2:35 barrier in four different decades. and I’ve learned a few things over the years about how to train and race efficiently in the marathon, but still there are uncertainties every time you line up.

You, too, will learn something new every time. So relax, taper up and seize the day.

Finally, I’d like to especially thank all the Armed Forces members around the world who sacrifice daily in the service of their country and for all the volunteers who make the Marine Corps Marathon a celebration.

May the wind be at your back! See you at the start!



Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mark Cucuzzella is a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine. He is also designing programs to promote healthier and better running in the military with the USAF Efficient Running Project. He’s the race director of the Freedom’s Run race series and owner of Two Rivers Treads — A Center for Natural Running and Walking in his hometown of Shepherdstown, W.Va. Read his full credentials here.

Mark Cucuzzella

Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mark Cucuzzella is a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine. He is also designing programs to reduce running injuries in service members. He’s been a competitive runner for 30 years — with more than 100 marathon and ultramarathon finishes — and continues to compete as a national-level Masters runner. His marathon best is 2:24, and he’s won the Air Force Marathon twice, including in 2011 (2:38) a week shy of his 45th birthday.

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