Perhaps it’s the mere challenge, or its presence on many “bucket lists,” but whatever the reason, marathon running is now more popular than ever. The numbers are astounding. Not only are the most biggest races in the country-New York and Chicago-boosting fields topping 40,000 runners, but the next year’s Boston Marathon, the nation’s most prestigious 26.2 mile race due to its qualifying standards, closed entries just eight hours after opening in mid-October.
The aura of the marathon draws many to the event for a myriad of reasons, with most of those runners seeking first and foremost to finish. That’s particularly true for first-time marathoners whose naivete sometimes leads to injuries or less- than-memorable experiences in that initial race. To avoid some of these pitfalls, here some are fundamental tips to help novices train sensibly and reach the finish line successfully.
Start with a base
Anyone contemplating a marathon should give him or herself at least six months to establish a training base of 20-25 miles. This means running no fewer than 4-5 days a week, and on one of those days including a long run of 6-7 miles. Increase mileage from there, but not too fast.
Marathon training takes time and patience. Don’t try to cram mileage in the first few weeks. Build gradually, adding about one mile each week to the long run, and no more than ten-percent per week to the overall mileage. It’s okay to include some speed work, such as repeats from 800 meters to a mile at race pace. Another form of speed training is progressive runs where runners start about 1-2 minutes per mile slower than target pace, then increase speed, aiming to finish the second half of the run at marathon pace. Ideally, top mileage should reach 40-45 per week. More miles might result in a better time, but also increases the risk of injury.
Run to 20 (if not farther)
With the long run fundamental to marathon training, runners need to become accustomed to staying on their feet for three, four, or more hours. Even first-timers need to log at least one run of 20 miles or more. If possible, try to complete one or two more runs beyond that distance. It will make the end of the race a little more tolerable. The last long run should come about three weeks before the marathon to provide time for recovery. When tapering, runners should drop mileage by about 40%, two weeks prior to the marathon, and by 60% the week before.
Hydrate & Fuel
No matter the temperature, marathoners lose much fluid during a race, but drinking at the water stations will not prevent a meltdown. Hydration should begin 2-3 days in advance of the race. And be sure to drink more than water. Runners who drink excessive amounts of water run the risk of hyponatremia . To avoid that, dilute Gatorade or another sports drink. And when it comes to any eating and drinking prior to or during the race, don’t try anything not done in training.
The start of a marathon is exciting. The crowds and anticipation can amp up a runner into too rapid a start. That may not be an issue for those running big marathons who may find themselves waiting, up to 20 minutes in some instances, until they reach the starting line. Fortunately, computer chip timing provides an accurate recorded time for the 26.2 mile distance. It’s important not to panic if the splits are slower than usual. Remember, the goal is to finish.
Expect a Lull
In a marathon I recently ran, I heard another runner at about the 12-mile mark say, “The middle miles suck.” I couldn’t agree more. This is the point where the marathon becomes as much mental as physical. People often ask how I can run 26 miles and not think about it. I divide the race into portions: 10K, 10 miles, 13.1, 16, 20, and then each individual mile. Thinking about the rewards-massage, ice cream, a vacation day–afterward also helps.
Focus on Finishing
Experienced marathoners agree that the halfway point isn’t 13.1 miles, but 20. Faulty math notwithstanding, the last 10k often feels like 13 miles. Most well-trained runners can do 20 miles, but the final 6.2 is the real test. Each mile seems to drag on. The pace slows, the legs tighten, and the mind wanders. This is where the 20+ training runs are beneficial, both physically and mentally. In my first two marathons, I didn’t train over 18 miles and not surprising, hit the wall around 22 miles. In my third, I logged runs of 21, 22, 23 and 25 miles and recorded a PR by 37 minutes, clocking three hours flat. I knew what to expect and how I’d feel. Not to say it was easy. Still, with experience and more marathons under my shoes, so to speak, I trained and managed to complete the last segment fairly well, even zipping through a 40 minute last 10K my first year at Boston.
Rest and Recover
Why do we run marathons? The afterglow! There is no better feeling than completing a challenge like a marathon. Even those who struggle or don’t finish as fast as they would have liked, experience a measure of satisfaction. It also means a well-deserved rest. After the race, hydration is very important, as its energy replacement. Marathons will offer much to drink or eat. Even if you’re not in the mood for food, grab all you can. The appetite will return, though not as quickly as the soreness abates. Refueling will make it easier to bounce back. But be wary of getting back to a starting line too quickly. The rule of thumb is to take it easy one day for each mile run, so avoid the temptation to jump into any other hard running for about four weeks, and much longer for another marathon, though it’s natural to want to jump online and search for that next challenge. Just avoid being overzealous, and remember this simple rhyme:
Let the body heal and rest
Before another marathon quest.