Aly Dixon is currently ranked 2nd in the UK over the marathon distance. She has competed for Great Britain at two World Championships and the European Cup, and was British 10,000m champion in 2013. She ran a storming 2:29:30 at the Berlin Marathon this September, within the 2:31 qualifying time for Rio.
We talk with Aly about her background, her motivation and how she approaches training and racing.
Hi Aly. Congratulations on your brilliant marathon PB in Berlin, and thanks for joining us…
Tell us about your marathon in Berlin. How did it feel? Did the race unfold as you expected?
Hi, thanks for having me on the site.
I have mixed emotions about my performance at Berlin. Initially I was disappointed in my race as I didn’t run as well as I wanted to. But after a few days of reflection, and some tough but wise words from a complete stranger, I finally realised what I had achieved and I came round to being quite pleased with my performance. (The wake-up call came from a finisher at the Kielder Half Marathon who said “I’ve just ran a half 20 minutes slower than you ran a marathon and I’m over the moon. Get over yourself and be happy with it!” Put like that it made me realise the run wasn’t actually too bad!)
I went into the race knowing that I was in good shape having run a 10k PB of 32.17 three weeks earlier, as well as comfortably running 72.08 at the Great North Run two weeks before. I knew what kind of time I wanted to run in Berlin but I didn’t really set myself any targets or limits. I settled into a group running a good pace, and went through halfway in around 73.30 feeling relaxed and strong. I held my own through to 33k when my stomach started to play up.
By 37k I was in agony with stomach cramps and the final 5k was a nightmare. Going through 40k I thought I was going to miss my main goal of sub-2.30 but as I went through the Brandenburg Gate at 26 miles I knew that I just had to keep strong to comfortably break 2.30. Like I say, I was initially disappointed with my run as I was still on for 2.27.30 at 35k but lost a lot of time over the last few miles.
But there were many positives to take from the race, and I will use those to help me run faster in my next marathon.
Have you always been a runner? How did you get into running?
I’ve pretty much always been a runner. As a child I ran a lot of fun runs which were attached to my dad’s races (he was a decent (2.21) marathon runner himself). I have always loved sport and love being outside running about. I joined my local club at 11, although I wasn’t actually a very good runner back then – I just loved the buzz of it.
You come from the North East, a very fertile area for running! Were you inspired by characters like Brendan Foster and Steve Cram?
The North East has a big history of distance running. Not only Brendan and Steve but guys like Charlie Spedding, Mick McLeod and Jill Hunter all won Olympic medals or set world records. I remember going to watch my dad race and seeing many of these guys running and being amazed at the speed of them.
Is the marathon your favourite distance? What do you find are the main challenges of the 26.2 distance for you personally?
Looking at my times I think the marathon probably isn’t my best distance just now in terms of performance, but it is certainly the distance I love most.
I love the challenges that it brings which you don’t get in the shorter distances. You can go into a marathon in the shape of your life but one small thing can go wrong and the race is ruined. With the shorter distances if you don’t achieve the time you are after, you can give it another go the week afterwards. But with the marathon you know that there is going to be a long wait until you get another chance at it.
Every marathon you run you learn something new about yourself.
What does a typical training week look like for you?
During marathon training I will cover up to 115 miles a week. I tend to run twice a day everyday bar Sunday when I will do a single long run of between 22-26 miles, and I’ll take rest or very easy day once every two weeks.
I normally do a track session on a Tuesday, usually around 10-12k of volume, a medium long run on Thursday, and a long (10-15 miles) tempo run on a Friday.
On top of this I do two gym-based strength and conditioning sessions. All of the remaining running is just easy or recovery pace to make sure that I am ready for my next hard day.
What top three tips would you give readers for marathon running?
Respect the distance. There is a huge difference between running a half marathon and a marathon. Don’t be scared of the extra distance, but do respect it. Expect it to be tough and be prepared for bad patches.
Pacing – work out your goal pace and stick to it. I always tell people that 10 seconds too fast in your first mile will result 10 minutes too slow on your finish time. Don’t get carried away with the crowds, know your pace and have the confidence to stick to it.
Practise everything in training – from race-day nutrition (breakfast, water, gels, energy drinks etc) to kit. Don’t leave anything to chance. Find out which energy drinks/gels will be available on the course and make sure you can stomach them in training. If not, carry your own. Make sure kit is a good fit. Not just your socks and shoes but shorts and vest too don’t rub. Try them out in all weathers!
You are self-coached. What are the key things about making that work?
The biggest thing is being honest with yourself. It’s very easy to kid yourself that you are doing enough when really you need more. Or, as in my case, the opposite – you worry that you’re not doing enough and should train even harder. My biggest downfall is that I tend to try to push beyond what is needed and sometimes run myself down.
I’m lucky now that over the last 11 months I have had a great mentor to talk to when I have any worries about training. I’m also getting better at noticing the signs of maybe pushing a little too much, and I’m not afraid to take an unscheduled rest day when needed without feeling like I am being a wimp.
The other key thing is to make sure that I don’t just do the sessions which I like doing. In my experience the sessions you hate are the ones you need to do, as they tend to be your weak areas and that’s why you hate them. Hills are my biggest weakness so I make sure that I do lots of them over the winter rather than avoid them.
How will you be preparing for Rio over the next 10 months? Will you mostly be training in the UK?
I’m still to be selected for Rio. We now know that the Virgin Money London Marathon will be the official trial so all my training and racing over the next 5 months will be focused on getting myself into the best possible shape for that race. A lot of this time will be spent at home but I plan at least one trip away to Kenya in January, and I may go to Flagstaff (USA) in February/March time.
You have also set up your own coaching business. How is that going, and how can we find out more?
I’ve been involved in coaching on a more casual basis for a lot of years now, but earlier this year I set up a small online coaching business. I’m currently at capacity with clients as I don’t want to take too many on because I don’t want to compromise the time and attention I give to each individual. I will look to possibly take more on after I know the outcome of the Olympic trials. If anyone wants further information they can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you so much for sharing this with us, and good luck with your preparations for next year!