I don’t recommend anyone jump straight from the couch to marathon training. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I believe it probably won’t be the most positive experience. When you do finish your first marathon, you want it to be an empowering feeling of triumph, not a merciless feeling of survival. However, if you live a fairly active lifestyle and are in decent shape going into it, as long as you have a good game plan, there is no reason why you can’t prepare yourself for the big race in four months time (17 weeks).
Tip 1 – Evaluate how much time you can realistically put into your training: I recommend at least four months of running a minimum of 3 to 4 days a week. If you can’t commit to this, seek smaller short-term goals, such as 5 and 10Ks. Down the road when you have more time to commit, it’ll be easier to step up to the longer distance.
Tip 2 – Get the proper shoes: Before you take your first step, you need to be fitted for the proper shoes. This doesn’t mean walk into the first shoe store you see in your local mall and buy the most expensive running shoes. That will likely get you injured within the first month. Go to a specialty shoe store (Use the Internet to find one in your area.) and have them check out the shape of your foot (not just size) and your foot strike. They will select a few shoe models that work especially for you. They will have you jog around in them before you settle on the one that you are most comfortable with. Keep track of the miles on your shoes and change them out after 300 -500 miles. Don’t wear your shoes outside of running, and when you buy new shoes, get the same model. If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it!
Tip 3 – Find a support system: I recommend not doing this marathon thing alone. You would be surprised to find out how helpful a training partner can be to keep you honest and motivated on the days you feel like slacking. There are many running groups out there that not only offer great training partners, but also experienced coaches that can provide the necessary guidance.
Tip 4 – Choose your marathon wisely: Research several marathons and decide what you want out of the experience. Are you looking for entertainment? If so, there is a Rock N’ Roll Marathon series with marathons all over the country that will keep you entertained with bands approximately every mile. Do you want to take part in a large or famous marathon? The big city marathons are great for this. They are like a 26.2 mile street party because there will be a pack of fellow runners with you at all times and fans line practically every inch of the course cheering like mad. Be aware, though, that these are the most expensive and also sometimes difficult to get into. For example, you need a somewhat competitive qualifying time for Boston, while New York has a lottery system for entry. Others want a scenic race? Check out Big Sur or Malibu, just to name a couple in California. Or maybe all you want is the path of least resistance a flat, fast course. There’s no shame in that. Try the California International Marathon in Sacramento, St. George Marathon (big elevation drop but also has a lottery) or the Surf City Marathon in Orange County.
Tip 5 – Build miles slowly– For the first nine weeks just focus on getting the miles in. Each mile you run is money in the bank. They add up and build a reserve called endurance. You may not realize it right away, but if you are consistent, after a month or so, things will start to click and you’ll say, “This running thing ain’t so bad.” Run shorter runs during the week; you can start with 3 miles during the week, and do a long weekend run of 6 miles. Don’t worry about pace at this point. Try not to walk, but if you have to, then regulate the amount you walk. For example, walk no more than one minute for each mile you run. Before long you will be able to phase out your walking altogether. Each week you want to build your mileage, but you want to do so thoughtfully. Don’t increase your weekly mileage by more than 20%. For example, if your first week you did runs of 3, 3, 3, and 6 (15 total miles), I’d recommend 3, 4, 3, 8 (18 total miles) for week two.
Tip 6 – The Importance of the long run – Increase your long run by one or two miles per week, while raising your weekly runs at a slower rate. If you start your long run at 6 miles, it should be up to 20 miles by week 10. After the 20 miler, cut the long run back down to15 miles the following week, while speeding up the pace 15 seconds per mile. Each week increase the distance by 2 miles until you are back up to 20 miles again by week 14 or 15. Your long run should be run on a degree of difficulty similar to the marathon you are running. For example, if the marathon has a lot of hills, make sure your run has hills too. Also, get your body used to taking in water while you run. To do this you either need some supportive friends or family to meet you at various spots on your run to give you water or you could map out a 4-5 mile loop that runs by your house where water will be set up for you to take each time you complete a lap. Long runs are also the perfect time to experiment with different electrolyte replacements. You’ll definitely run out of electrolytes long before the finish and will need to take something to replenish them. Many marathons hand out these types of products at a couple spots on the course. Visit the web site of the marathon you are running to find out if they will provide this service and what product they are using. Buy that product and try it out on your long runs. If the product doesn’t sit well with you, it’s better to find out now then on race day. By race day, have a plan as to what you’re going to take, how you are going to get it, and at what points in the race you are going to take it.
Tip 7 – Concentrate on stretching and improving your flexibility – Flexibility is crucial because so often runners cramp up in the latter miles of a marathon. Though this can be attributed to a variety of things, having flexible muscles can help prevent this. Having flexible muscles will also allow runners to recover quicker and, therefore, feel better on their next run. The better you feel, the more quality your run will be. Many runners stretch before a run, and that’s good, but fewer understand the importance of stretching afterward. I recommend starting a run with a warm up of at least five minutes. Follow this up with about 10 minutes of stretching, and then do your run. When you’re finished, do the same 10-minute stretch routine. Once again, a partner can be a great asset. Partner stretching, when a partner helps the other hold the stretch, can go a long way to improving flexibility. Some runners choose to take a yoga class each week to serve this purpose. This too is an excellent idea.
Tip 8 – Incorporate racing – There is a fine line between racing and over racing. For a first timer, I would recommend one tune up 10K and one half marathon. The race should take the place of your long run for that week. These races will help keep training fresh, give you something to look forward to, and get you in a competitive mindset. I recommend running the 10K around the 9th week of your training. Be sure to take the next three to four days easier than usual to assure you recover fully. Notice I said easier, not shorter. I also recommend running a half marathon 2 – 4 weeks before your marathon. This will give you confidence as well as a gauge to how fast you should be able to run. For first timers, double your half marathon time and add about 30 minutes and that’s roughly what your full marathon time will be.
Tip 9 – Speed Workouts – Come on, how much speed do you need to run a marathon? Not much, but it certainly can’t hurt. If you improve your speed, the pace of your long run will seem a lot easier and suddenly you’ll be a faster runner. I recommend doing your speed training on the track because it is the easiest way to gauge your pace. Start your speed workouts around week 10 and do them during the middle of the week, so you’ll have time to recover for your long run. The speed workout should take the place of one of your weekday runs. I recommend two, three-week cycles for speed training:
Week 1: 3 x 10 minutes with 1-minute rest between each. Run at a pace about one minute faster than the mile pace of your long run. (Be sure to warm up, cool down, and stretch properly before and after every speed session.)
Week 2: 2 x 15 minutes with a 2 minute rest between each. Run at the same pace as the week before. This will be more difficult than the previous week, but it’ll be manageable because you’ll be in better shape.
Week 3: 30 minute tempo run (non stop) at the same pace as the previous two weeks. This will push you harder than ever, but by now you’ll have gained the fitness to be able to persevere.
Weeks 4 – 6: Repeat what you did for the first three weeks, but run 15 seconds per mile faster. By the end of the six weeks, you’ll clearly be able to see your speed increase and, therefore, so will your marathon pace.
Tip 10: Come to terms with setbacks – There is a high chance everything won’t go according to plan. Learn to be flexible and adjust when necessary. Any plan you map out is just that, a plan. It can always be altered. You are likely going to get sick, injured. Understand this is part of it. Nurse yourself back to health and work your way back into shape. Don’t jump back where you think you “need to be.” Also, don’t battle through injuries because then you’ll never heal. However, you need to know the difference between “sore” and “injured.” Soreness is part of the game. You’ll almost always have some soreness throughout this whole process. You can run through soreness because, though it might slow you down, the pain doesn’t increase or become debilitating. Often times soreness goes away a few miles into the run. With an injury the pain becomes progressively worse and goes from a dull to stabbing sensation; this is when you need to stop and take some time off.
Tip 11: Taper – Taper means to cut back on your mileage, so your body is fresh and injury free going into the marathon. I recommend a two-week taper. During this time, distance runs should be no longer than 12 miles and speed workouts should be cut out. Weekday runs should be cut back a little too. In addition, you must focus on eating properly, hydrating, and getting plenty of sleep, so you are in prime condition for your ultimate test. Don’t panic; you won’t lose fitness. Your hard work has already been done. Now is the time to rest your body, so it is best prepared to endure multiple hours on its feet without stopping.
Tip 12: Formulate a race strategy – The most efficient way to run a marathon is to run negative splits. This means the second half of the race is run faster than the first. This sounds ludicrous, I know, but I guarantee you it’s the way to go. Going out too hard will ensure that you will hit the wall somewhere around mile 20, making your last 6 miles slow and miserable. Even splits (running the same pace throughout) can work, but it leaves little room for error. What if that 10-minute mile pace you planned to run turns out to be too ambitious? You will soon burn out and hate life. A marathon is a LONG race. There is always time to catch up. Trust me!
Tip 13: Pre Race Meals – The night before you need to have a nice dinner with plenty of carbohydrates. This is known as a “carbo load.” Carbo loads usually consist of pasta, bread, and a salad.. Try to avoid cheese and meatballs. Some people mistake this to mean, “Stuff your face,” but the reality is overeating won’t help you. It will only cause your digestive system to work extra hard overnight causing you to become more lethargic the next morning. Find the right balance. Eat a full meal without feeling bloated. Also, you should begin to hydrate several days before the race. This means continuously drinking water in moderation throughout the day. If your urine is mostly clear with a slight tint of yellow, you are adequately hydrated. The morning of the race you want to eat something light that won’t upset your stomach. This should be a trial and error process that should be learned throughout your training, especially on your long runs days. Experiment with different foods such as oatmeal, bananas, toast, bagels, dry cereal, etc. Find out what works best for you and go with it on race day. Be sure to wash it down with some water.
Tip 14: The intangibles – Make sure you’ve done everything you can to prepare yourself for this journey ahead. For example familiarize yourself with the course. Know where the hills are going to be. Have your clothes for the next day laid out prior to going to bed, have your bag packed with everything you’ll need. Your race bib should already be pinned to the shirt you are wearing and your timing chip should be tied onto your shoe. Know exactly where you need to go in the morning and plan plenty of time to get there. The last thing you need is to be stressing out over logistics in the morning. Don’t panic if you didn’t get good sleep the night before. It’s likely you’ll be tossing and turning all night long in anticipation of the big day. You’ll get through the race just fine on adrenaline, and you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to nap if you want. The most important day of sleep is two days before the race.
Tip 15: Execute – You arrive at the starting line and you have a definite plan on how to succeed. Then the gun goes off, the crowd goes wild, people are stampeding all around you, your adrenaline kicks in, and the next thing you know, your plan goes out the window. Your ability to think rationally has given way to animal instinct, and you have become a predator among a pack of snarling beasts, rather than the meticulous, calculated, cerebral runner you had programmed yourself to be. Don’t allow the race day excitement to get the best of you. There will be runners all around you going out too fast and falling prey to the pandemonium. Take solace in the fact that you’ll see them 10 miles down the road, and you’ll still feel like a million bucks, while they are laboring heavily with over halfway to go. Stick to your plan! Run your negative splits. The fastest runner does not win the marathon. The winner is the one who has the best strategy and is able to implement it to perfection. Lastly, drink water every chance you get. Whether it is hot or cold, whether you are thirsty or not, it doesn’t matter. Drink! No matter how much you drink, you will be dehydrated in the end. In order for it not to become a debilitating condition, you must drink as often as you can.
By the end of these four months you will notice your life will be built around your runs. You will have put a lot of time and energy into your marathon endeavor, but in the end you’ll come away with an accomplishment you will always be proud of. And chances are you will be bit by the marathon bug and want to do it again.
As for time goals, they can range depending on one’s gender, age, fitness going into training, consistency during training, etc. I’d say most first time marathoners will run between 4 hours 30 minutes and 5 hours 30 minutes if they follow these tips.