First off, I am someone that did not always like running. In fact, during baseball and soccer practices in high school, I always dreaded the “run some laps” part and was always happy when we didn’t have to. So to think I would become a dedicated runner (for about 5 years now) and eventually run two marathons would be crazy. Never say never is all I can tell you. Having trained twice for marathons (and countless half marathons), I can tell you it can be hard at times. There will be days you do not feel like running. There will be times when you cannot see how you will run 26.2 miles when you are struggling on an 8 mile run. You might even regret signing up in the first place. In my opinion, all of this is completely normal. The mental challenges of training will actually help you on race day. But you have to do the training, and if you follow any popular training schedule (there are many of them), you should be well prepared on race day. And when you finish, you will be so proud of your accomplishment — welcome to the 26.2 club! Go ahead and get the 26.2 sticker for your car — ignore the haters. You’ve earned it.
How do you endure marathon training? Well, along the same lines as how you eat an elephant (one bite at a time). Except, it’s more like one mile at a time. Preparing for a marathon is a commitment of blocks of time. At the most, most runners might need 3.5 hours max for a really long training run. Other runs may take from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on pace. You will run a lot, but usually one day a week will take up the longest time — your long run. Most runners will do these on a Saturday or Sunday morning, but the day doesn’t matter as long as it is about every 7 days. So let’s get into this now.
Here are my tips/recommendations:
- Sign up for your race. Once you sign up for your race, you know you have to do it or lose the entry fee. So stop considering it and commit already! You will really feel “in” at that point too. You are really doing this! It’s up to you if you want to tell others.
- Get a training schedule. If this is your first marathon and you are used to running <6 miles at a time, then I would recommend you begin your training 16 weeks prior to race day. This will allow enough time for a gradual buildup of miles leading up to the race and minimize your chances of getting injured. It is good for a beginner to just gradually build up the weekly mileage so that your body is adjusting to all the pavement pounding and not giving in to a stress fracture that could end your training and marathon hopes for a while. You can find training schedules online or in marathon books or running magazines. Most will have you running 4–6 times a week and some may even be just 3 days/week. You can compare them and decide which schedule will be best for you.
- Get properly fitted for shoes. If you already have running shoes that work for you, you might want to stick with them. If you do not have a good pair of running shoes, then you should go to a running store for evaluation. Some of the specialty running stores will have a treadmill for you to run on and the staff will watch how you walk and run from the front and back. They will make some recommendations based on how you run. Try on several pairs and pick the shoes that feel the best. Do not pick based on colors or how the shoes look. You won’t care how flashy the shoes are if you have a cast on your leg from running in the wrong shoes! If you are able to find a pair that is comfortable and flashy, well, okay. But comfort should be the biggest priority in selecting shoes. You will probably need at least one new pair during marathon training.
- Clothes. You are going to want comfortable clothes, just like your running shoes. Technical shirts and shorts are recommended. These are material that wicks the sweat away from your body. Running in cotton clothing is not recommended. Some runners even use wicking socks, but I use regular socks and haven’t had any problems. If you get blisters or any sores on your feet, you could try socks made for running. Also, consider a hat or visor for hot weather running and sunglasses all year round.
- Other equipment. These things I will discuss are sort of optional, but most runners will tell you they are “must-haves.” 1) GPS watch — having GPS on a run is definitely a good thing. You could also use a smartphone app like “MapMyRun” or an alternative to track your runs, distance, pace, etc. 2) Foam roller — A foam roller will be your “frenemy” — you will love it and you will hate it. The foam roller is used to find and relieve tight muscles in your legs. You will want to use it often to keep your muscles loose. The only thing better than a foam roller for this is a massage (and you still want need that at some point as well). Calf sleeves have seemed to help me after some runs. There are of course other accessories like headphones (I like Bluetooth headphones) and mp3 players for music (or Pandora).
- Beginning the training. This is it, Week 1! For the next 12–16 weeks, you will be on your journey to race day — Congratulations! Week 1 should be pretty doable, but stay hydrated throughout your training. Be sure to not run too hard or fast during week 1. Follow your schedule’s directions for what to do each day.
- Use the schedule as a guideline, not set in stone. This might seem like a contradiction to the previous point, but you need to use some common sense with training. For example, if you feel like you need a rest day when your schedule has you running 7 miles, you might want to skip. A reason to skip could be a pain in your leg that gets worse as you run (a definite sign that you need to take a break). Continuing to push through pain just to stay on schedule is a recipe for injury. Give it a couple days, skip those running days, and continue the next scheduled run. In my experience (disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and I am not giving medical advice), runs where you are sore in the beginning but it goes away during the run might be okay to run through. Pain that worsens on a run is something you should never run through. The point is that the schedule is just a guideline. You can follow it mostly, but sometimes you may need or want to alter the schedule, and that is fine.
- Don’t make lame excuses to miss runs. This can become so easy to do, and it is a bad habit you do not want to start. Your schedule really isn’t set in stone, but if you are scheduled to run and don’t have a valid excuse not to (e.g., you are injured), you really should run. When I don’t feel like going sometimes, I just tell myself, “too bad. I’m getting dressed and heading out anyway.” My attitude usually changes after a mile, and I am always glad I went at the end. It can be easy to justify a lame excuse. If you really are too busy to run one day and free the next day, you could run then, as long as you don’t already have another run scheduled. And what about your running schedule for the rest of the week? Will you still have enough breaks between runs and get all your weekly miles in? It is best to stick to your running schedule if possible. For what it’s worth, I generally find the best time to run is in the morning, because as they day goes on, I become more busy and more tired. And that’s when it is easy to just justify postponing a run.
- Experiment with gels, chew, sports drinks. Because a marathon is such a long race, you will eventually run out of stored energy reserves (glycogen) somewhere after mile 15 for most runners. The faster you run, the quicker you burn through your glycogen. Once that happens, your body must convert fat into a energy source that is usable to the body — this is not exactly a fast process, hence, around mile 20, we call this “hitting the wall” in a marathon race. To prevent this (or delay it), we must fuel our bodies early on and throughout the race. This helps the glycogen storage last longer. So it is good to experiment with the different choices of energy gels, etc. during training to make sure there will not be any upset stomach issues, etc.
- Considering running in new and different places. It can get pretty monotonous running the same route every day. Not only is it boring, but it is better to run different routes to avoid certain types of injuries, especially if the road you run on is not level. The miles go by faster in new areas that you’ve never run before (just mentally). I always run on vacations, so I might be running 16 miles at the beach and 9 miles at 4000′ in the Smokey Mountains. It definitely helps get through all of the training. I also have “home” routes and “work” routes. I sometimes drive to a nearby town and run there as well.
- Run a shorter race as part of training. Why not pick up a half marathon medal along the way to training for your marathon? It will break up the training for a little extra fun, and you can count it as both a training run and an event to enjoy. I have done this for both of the marathons I trained for. Just remember though, it is a training run still, so don’t go run at full force and get injured!
- Get a massage. Towards the end of the training cycle, maybe in between running 20 milers, you should think about getting a therapeutic or a sports massage. It should help loosen you up and help prevent an injury when you are so close to race day.
- Start the tapering 3 weeks before race day. Your schedule should begin to drop the miles back around 3 weeks prior to the race. Your training is pretty much complete at this point, and now a rest period is beneficial. You will still be running — just not 20 milers! This period is as important as the earlier training. You might get a little cranky not running as much as you were! 😉 Be careful about calorie intake, as you might not need as many as you did when you were running 30–40 weekly miles. (or more for some runners).
So I hope these things that I learned are helpful to you. I’m no expert, but I thought I would share my experiences. Marathon training is not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it is doable. It just requires discipline and consistency. Many people do not have that. It is about making it a priority too. If you are dedicated, you might need to get up at 4AM to prepare for a run at 6:30AM. Have you ever run early on a Sunday morning? It is so peaceful and a great feeling. You will see many sunrises. Just remember, if it was easy, more people would probably do it. Good luck on your training and your race. Let me know how it goes.