What It’s Like to Train for a Marathon

(Originally published on Medium in Fit Yourself Club)

Intro

If you are reading this, then you either must be considering training for a marathon, want to compare your experience with mine, or you are just curious about what it’s like. No matter the reason, I hope you find this article interesting.

The Experience

I have been through 3 marathon training cycles, and all I can say is that the first one is the hardest. It does get easier. If you have ever trained for a half marathon, it is sort of like that, except on steroids. But each time I train, there are definitely the same undertones that come up repeatedly and you sort of get used to them. So the silver lining is, if you’re first marathon training isn’t great, your next ones will probably be better, if you decide to ever run a second one. Probably no one’s experience is exactly the same — we all have our own journey, and this one is mine.

The Duration

You should plan on training 16–18 weeks. If you have a fall race, then you will be running in the heat all summer. Unfortunately for me, this is all I have ever known since all of my marathons have been in October. This year, I can honestly say that the time flew by, but the first time I trained for a marathon, it did not fly by at all! Most training plans will be 16–18 weeks long. Find a good training plan and use it, as these are usually tried and true. If you need help finding a training program, contact me and I will make some recommendations.

What to Expect

I recall back to my first training for a marathon, and I remember looking at the schedule in disbelief that were two 20 mile runs and a 22 mile run on that schedule. Also, 15, 16, 18 milers, etc. Weekly mileage goes up to 48 miles a week — really? I was used to running 20–24 miles a week at best. And what is this Yasso 800 stuff?? Oh yeah, those are fun. The frequency of runs during the week was also more than I was used to.

The thing I had to learn was these schedules are just guides. Just because it says to run 5–6 days doesn’t mean you have to. Yes, you need to train and you should obtain similar numbers to your schedule. But it doesn’t need to be dead on accurate. You can and will need to make adjustments to your schedule. You could be sick, injured, or simply cannot get a run in for other circumstances — let it go and move on — you will still be okay. You want to miss too many runs though, if you can help it.

In the beginning, if you already have a good training base (and you should or else you are in for a rough time!), the first few weeks will seem pretty doable. For many that have run 13 miles before, this is the first time running beyond that. I remember feeling pretty awesome the first time I ran 14–15 miles, like “Wow, that is farther than a half marathon!”

As the miles begin to increase, you will notice more fatigue and pains, etc., as your body adjusts. You are demanding more and more from your body, so you need to be careful with a few things: 1) That you do not make drastic increases to your weekly mileage — stay close to your training schedule 2) Make sure you are stretching/foam rolling/etc. after your runs, even if you do not feel you need it. If you wait to do these things when you are hurting, then you are possibly already on your way to injury — stay on top of this. I did not in my first 2 training cycles and I battled injuries that I could run through (and some I couldn’t) the entire time. 3) Know when you need to back off or rest. Avoid burn out. You have 16–18 weeks and honestly, missing a couple weeks will not prevent you from running a marathon. It is hard to optimally train, if you are injured, so try to prevent it as much as possible.

You can expect both optimism and pessimism at different times. One day you will think “I got this!” and the next training run could be a bomb, and you will think, “If I can’t even run 12 miles, how in the world will I run 26??” I will go ahead and answer this one — if you were supposed to run 12 miles that day, did you run 12 miles? It doesn’t matter if you walked the last mile! Did you finish your run? If so, then you did what you needed to do that day. There honestly were days where I wanted to just defer the race until the next year. I would question my sanity! “Why am I doing this?? This is not natural! Didn’t the first guy that ran 26.2 miles die from it??” (Yes). But accept that all this negativity IS normal! Don’t ask “How could I run _____ miles if I can’t finish this one strong blah blah blah!” But you will experience this negativity because not every run will be like running on clouds. Just be glad you finished the run and enjoy the rest of the day.

You may have fights with your significant other, especially if they are not a runner! If they run too or with you, congratulations, this probably won’t apply to you. If you are not in that boat, then expect (maybe) your S.O. to grow tired of hearing about your training run — “and at mile 5, I felt a little nauseous, but at mile 8, I got a second wind and then I drank some Gatorade….” Also, when training for a marathon and you go on vacation, your training doesn’t stop. I guess it can, but if you are on vacation, you are probably eating more food, drinking more alcohol possibly, and running on vacation should happen. Which means again, possibly you and your S.O. or family needing to work around your runs…..or maybe you working your run around your family’s plan that day. This might mean a really early run for you and in an area that you might not know well. Just do what you have to do.

As you progress through the schedule, your confidence will also build. I remember looking at my training schedule and seeing 10 miles Friday, followed by 20 miles Sunday and thinking “No way!” but I got through it, many times, and it’s a huge confidence booster.

When you do that 20–22 miler for the first time, you will probably experience all sorts of thoughts! It is a long distance that you’re not used to doing, and after you finish, you will probably be regretting that you still have two more of these monster runs to do (depending on your training schedule). But these runs are important both for physical and mental reasons). As long as this run is, you will need to go 4–6 more miles in the real race. But that first time, it can be rough (at least it was for me) and then they get better.

You also might have challenges on long runs, such as hitting the wall, nausea, cramping, or feeling out of energy earlier than expected. You will want to figure out why this is happening now rather than at the race. If this happens, a good place to start troubleshooting is with hydration and fueling. Are you drinking enough liquids and taking in enough carbs through through energy gels, etc.? If so, then it could be due to not enough sleep or a diet thing. For me personally, I had to stay away from spicy foods and alcohol for a few days prior to a long run to have a decent run. Also, I had to get at least 6 hours a night the previous two days leading up to the run. It took me a while to figure out how to combat all of that.

The Taper

When I would make it to the taper, I would usually feel relieved! But this period can be all sorts of crazy! For one thing, you begin to run less, when your body is used to all of this running (and maybe higher endorphin level) and now you are backing off the runs. I am actually in the taper right now for my next race almost a week away, and this period is definitely cra cra. For example, I am constantly thinking about the race now, mostly every hour. I am obsessively checking Chicago weather and already concerned that it will be hotter than any of my training runs because that’s what the forecast shows. Plus, there is all this preparation for the trip, etc. I am worried about catching a cold or getting sick or injured because I train in karate. Questions like, “should I get a massage?”and “how long should my run be a week before the race?” drive me nuts….and a host of other concerns and questions. But it is important to relax during this period and not get too worked up about race things (but still hard to do).

Conclusion

Training for a marathon is not an easy task. That is why I get so annoyed at the people that bash runners for putting a 26.2 sticker on their car (but that’s a whole other article). And if it was easy, then maybe more people would do it and it wouldn’t be such a big deal. It is a huge accomplishment just to finish training for a marathon, so when you make it that far, know that you are pretty much ready and be proud that you finished that 16–18 weeks of training. My article is mostly about my own personal experience, although I think a lot of runners would concur. The last thing to know is that the running community is a VERY supportive group (and usually happy because we are all jacked on endorphins all the time!). Reach out to me or any runner that has been there before and they will be willing to help you any way possible. If you are going to begin training for a marathon, good luck and enjoy your journey!

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